Disability As “Inspiration:” Can Greater Exposure Overcome this Phenomenon?


Inspiration … a term often used when an able-bodied individual witnesses a disabled person competing, or participating in, a challenging activity despite a physical impairment.

“What’s your excuse?” is a phrase that often accompanies what is designed as motivational images depicting these scenarios. Very popular Facebook and other social media image posts with extraordinarily high share numbers often follow this theme; “If they can do it, so can you!”

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A few examples of what some disability experts refer to as “Inspiration Porn”
Cartoon by Rus Wooton

Many disability advocates have expressed disdain for being viewed as “inspirational” in popular media and reject the premise that this emotion adds any positive value to their status. This often used description associated with able-bodied individuals’ emotions in connection with accomplishments or just daily living of those with disabilities is seen by some in the community as separating, objectifying, condescending and regressive in terms of equality and inclusion.  A very good description of this point of view was reflected by late Aussie activist/comedian Stella Young: “I can’t help but wonder whether the source of this strange assumption that living our lives takes some particular kind of courage in the news media, an incredibly powerful tool in shaping the way we think about disability. Most journalists seem utterly incapable of writing or talking about a person with a disability without using phrases like ‘overcoming disability’, ‘brave’, ‘suffers from’, ‘defying the odds’, ‘wheelchair-bound’, or my personal favorite, ‘inspirational.'”

It would appear to be an uphill battle to overcome this type of sentiment, which Stella and other notable advocates like Lawrence Carter-Long and Scott Rains feel is derived from pity. Based on the sheer numbers of these types of comments, it would appear that the majority of public opinion feel the emotional response that accompanies the term “inspiration” intrinsically.

Normalizing disability via greater inclusion and repetition in advertising and media may be the answer to the desire of those who want to be seen as equal but different, accomplished and talented – not “inspirations.”  Can imagery depicting real-life scenarios play a role in getting the public to be more accepting and comfortable with those who they cannot personally relate to? Can this exposure help consumers to be less awestruck, fearful, or nervous with those who are seen as different? Can lifestyle images of successful, happy and healthy individuals with varying disabilities in the role of Mom, Dad, Lover, Boss, Co-worker, and Friend, help bridge this current divide of “us vs. them”?

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Images courtesy of PUSHLivingPhotos.com

While the market for disability images is still young, it is growing. There are few market leaders outside of the advocacy arena using images of people with a disability in a consistent manner.  Guinness had one of the most impactful storylines featuring a disabled basketball team in its Super Bowl commercial.


While much of the disability community applauded the effort and exuberantly shared the ad in large numbers on social media, some, like Lawrence Carter-Long felt the ad was more about “Tokenism” than Inclusion. He stated, “In the context of “dedication, loyalty, friendship” and ultimately “character,” wheelchair basketball in this ad is not positioned as fellowship or camaraderie but rather as something much more paternalistic. The non-disabled guys get to feel good about themselves, but once again, the actual wheelchair user is placed in a supporting role. That’s not an accommodation and isn’t friendship either — it’s tokenism.”

Scott Rains of The Rolling Rains Report stated in a recent phone interview
“One of the strongest criticisms that we level at this kind of superficial praise is to call it “inspiration porn”. Why? It titillates the viewer.  There is a place for inspiration, but as a disabled person, I am more interested in inspiring others with disabilities. We know how to recognize it in each other when we are challenging ourselves and are successful. It’s not hard to accept honest emotion for our resilience and our inventiveness in living our lives in the midst of undeniable social barriers. This emotion coming from those who are not our peers is very often not coming from a place that we can feel good about.

Ask yourself: Who do you overly praise and overly compliment? You do that to children. The implication is that our accomplishments are somehow heroic and need to be reinforced, that we are not naturally motivated from within, from an organic developmental impulse that we all share.

Excessive compliments, like patting us on the back and saying, “Look at how brave you are” or “How wonderful you are able to do this” are based on a negative feeling about us. The assumption is that we, in fact, carry a negative feeling about ourselves. It is their negative emotion, their aversion, being masked by the apparently positive sentiment.”

While it may be common for those without a disability to feel this way, it does not mean it is a natural response or emotion. One is socially conditioned to feel that way. Compassion, or empathy, is a natural response but we have radar when it goes over the top. We can see through it when it becomes patronizing. Then it’s a narcissistic parody of compassion. It’s really aversion.

By over-complimenting us, one may think they are helping our mental health when in fact they are harming it. It makes me feel infantilized, angry, and discounted, but stimulates my darker sense of humor as well. Sometimes veiled irony or biting humor is social strategies for subverting their assumed but incorrect assumptions about me.”


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The spoon symbol originates from: BYDLS-TheSpoonTheory

Motivated by the anti-inspiration porn movement, as summarized in this article:

One strategy to overcome this is desensitization.  By getting these images out there, we are desensitizing the non-disabled world to the normal lives of “the disabled”, making them a commonplace experience.

Many may find that their perception of people with disabilities is very different from what they imagined once they are exposed to real people, living real lives via images, as well and one on one experiences.  A woman who recently had a roommate who was a wheelchair user due to paralysis stated “I would say that I am inspired by a new consciousness, via the passing of knowledge, from this personal experience with my roommate. Before I thought people with disabilities lives revolved around their disability…when in actuality, it revolves around the same things that mine does…dating, working, and going out.  It revolves around living.”

Perhaps in closing, we should consider another notable opinion on the issue from Actress, Storyteller and Coach, Lyena Strelkoff, “If someone finds my life inspirational, good for them.  We all need to be inspired. But calling me ‘an inspiration’ while not seeing that in yourself, your own life experience, all that you have done and overcome, is neither seeing me nor yourself correctly.”

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Deborah Davis

Deborah is a Speaker, Disability Inclusion Consultant, Entrepreneur, Writer and Business Owner of Wheelchair Lifestyle Enterprise Push Living Inc.

She was a Former Dancer, Accident Survivor (C 6-7 Spinal Cord Injury resulting in incomplete Quadriplegia 1985), College grad (BBA Finance 1991 U of Miami), with a background in Sales and Marketing and Non Profit Development and Management.

She is now embarked on new path creating a market for Disability Inclusive Stock Images with the creation of PUSHlivingPhotos.com and publishing an online enterprise: PushLiving.com. The mission is to create Inclusion for people with disabilities through stock images for advertising, marketing and editorial uses, providing accessible properties for travel, swap or purchase, publishing an online magazine for improved health and well-being, providing information and opportunities for Accessible Travel, and operating an online store with products that improve lives.

She is most passionate about building a network of people with disabilities who are empowering, supporting and creating a more inclusive world. Personally, she is a mother of two beautiful, wise and exceptionally bright young women, and residing in South Florida.

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