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Opinion: 'Inspiration porn' trending on social media is objectification of disabled people

Stop sharing videos of disabled people attempting to walk up the aisle, or stand for their first dance – pretending to be able-bodied is far from inspirational, writes Eileen Daly.

Eileen Daly

WHAT’S SO SPECIAL about a bride and groom having their first dance on the evening of their wedding?

That is a normal part of every traditional wedding in the Western world. 

Recently, a video of one such couple went viral. This couple is ‘different’ simply because the groom is a wheelchair user.

Midway through the dance, the couple stop and the groom is assisted to stand by two guests. His bride approaches him and they complete their dance.

Some people found this action inspirational and the video went viral. It caused a bit of a storm on Twitter and one disabled woman’s comments demonstrated why pretending to be able-bodied is a bad idea.

She explained:

On my wedding day I medicated and with help and crutches, I walked down the aisle. It was a registry office so was only a few feet.
In the video you can see the pain and discomfort on my face during this memorable moment which became memorable for all the wrong reasons.

Inspiration porn

The first dance video that went viral is a classic example of ‘Inspiration Porn’. The term ‘Inspiration Porn’ was coined by the Australian disability activist, Stella Young

Inspiration porn is the objectification of one group of people to make another group feel better about themselves.

In this example, the bride and groom are simply objects for the benefit of non-disabled people. The couple is being used to motivate able-bodied people to reflect on how lucky they are.

But disabled people do not exist in order to inspire and motivate the able-bodied population.

As you watch the video, what are you thinking? Is your first thought, Gosh, the beautiful bride is a hero to marry someone like him?

Why are able-bodied people seen as heroes simply for treating disabled people as human beings? Disabled people date. We have sex, we fall in love, we get married. We have kids, some get divorced. Some of us are sporty, some of us are not.

These things aren’t happening in spite of our conditions; our conditions are part of us. Being disabled doesn’t make someone unworthy of love or adventure.

Conversely, not all disabled people are good or saintly. Having a disability does not make me a morally righteous person. We make mistakes, we fail sometimes, we are human.

I am not inspiring simply because I get out of bed and go to work every day. My life is not of a lesser or greater value than any other person’s.

My disability is not something to overcome. It is my lived experience. I am proud of who I am, my disability is part of my identity as a person, and as a woman.
Some days it isn’t bothersome, and some days it is challenging.

My body can be painful and uncooperative which is frustrating and upsetting. As a natural part of the ageing process, I should be exercising more to keep myself moving as much as possible – but so should every other human being.

Barriers

Videos like the one I described above can be viewed as barriers to equality, not only because they objectify disabled people, but also because they imply that disabled people should conform to able-bodied norms. 

The social model of disability argues that disability should be defined primarily by the inadequacies of social, environmental, political and economic factors in the wider society – which do not facilitate all people to achieve their full potential.

In other words, it is not the individual’s impairment which causes disability or which is the disability, but rather disability is predominantly caused by social arrangements that act as barriers to restrict the activities of people with impairments.

Inaccessible buildings, inaccessible information (for those people who are blind or live with an intellectual disability) and the absence of legislation which is underpinned by an ethos of human rights is far more challenging and exhausting than my impairment will ever be.

In her Ted Talk on ‘Inspiration Porn’ Stella Young reminds us that no amount of smiling will turn a flight of stairs into a ramp or no amount of staring at the TV screen will make captions appear to make the programmes accessible for deaf people.

Physical and social barriers result in the loss or limitation of opportunities for people to participate in their communities and in their workplaces as equals with their family, friends and colleagues.

So we must ask ourselves:

What can people individually and collectively do to change this? How can we build a society where disability is not a phenomenon to be feared and where people with disabilities are no longer seen as objects of pity or inspiration?

Solutions

The UN Convention of the Rights of Persons’ with Disabilities (UNCRPD) was ratified by the Irish government in March 2018. The legislation states that the government is legally required to ensure that the rights of persons with disabilities are protected and that persons with disabilities are respected as equal citizens in Irish society.

The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission recently announced the members of the Disability Advisory Committee to monitor and oversee the implementation of the Convention.

The committee comprises primarily people who have lived experience of disability. All members also have professional expertise in supporting and representing their peers in the wider disability community.

Similar models of collaboration and partnership need to become the norm.

Disabled people are experts in their own lives. We know what we want and what we don’t want, just as others do. Change does not occur in isolation, but in partnership with others.

I want to live in a world where it’s the norm for a disabled child to be encouraged and supported in fulfilling her dream of becoming a lawyer or a doctor if that’s what she wants.

She has a right to have the expectation and to have access to the supports she requires to make the dream a reality. She should never be seen as an inspiration for simply fulfilling her lifelong ambition.

Of course, her success should be acknowledged and she deserves recognition for her achievement – just as all people do.

Eileen Daly is a disability activist, career guidance counsellor and life coach who is passionate about equal access to education and employment for everyone. 

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Eileen Daly

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