As we grow, and tell more stories about disabled people in our society, there seems to be an unrelenting stereotype which we have yet to be able to go past. That is the ‘inspirational story.’ They are great stories about someone with a disability overcoming their physical limitations in order to achieve something great. It seems to be the fallback story that most storytellers go to when examining disability in any matter. It’s creating a nightmare for disabled people.
The term ‘inspiration porn’ came about a few years ago of a TEDx talk spoken by Stella Young. It’s the idea that disabled people are there to inspire you, to make you feel better about yourself and your situation.The idea that ‘if they can overcome, so can I.’ And it’s hard to tell a story about a disabled person without it being inspiring. Most people cannot imagine living with a physical impairment that affects their day to day life. They don’t want to see themselves getting out of the bed in the morning and not knowing where to place their feet, or how they’re going to get their shirt on over their heads. Anyone who can overcome that is by default, an inspiration.
But this fallback story is limiting the true and complex narratives of disabled people in the real world. There’s an expectation that you have to overcome, to the point of being unreasonable. If I’m having a bad day, I’m not living up to this expectation, and people don’t want to see a disabled person who isn’t ‘inspiring.’ Even if it means that they are simply existing. Having a bad day as a disabled person is like having the black death. You’re better off with social alienation on top of social on top of disability on top of bad luck.
How do storytellers begin to approach disability without making it inspirational? This is the biggest challenge that faces the media concerning disability today. The answer is to tell stories about people who happen to be disabled but are doing more than just having a disability. Tell stories about complex characters and complex things, not just stories about overcoming.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: The media often forgets that Steven Hawking is disabled. He’s got too many balls in the air, too many brilliant ideas, too much going on, to ever fit into a stereotype or symbol of inspiration. People have to be allowed to be complicated, and full, and flawed, and not just monolithic. As John Green said, ‘What a treacherous thing, to believe a person is more than a person. ‘ I would add to it- what a treacherous thing, to believe that a person is simply an inspiration.