Inspiration Porn: I’m No Centerfold

Stella Young

Stella Young was a comedian and disability activist with Osteogenesis Imperfecta from Australia, who died in December 2014 at the age of 32. I am ashamed that I had not been aware of her until her death, and deeply wish I had.

In this TEDtalk in Sydney, Stella touches on something that really bothers me: The idea that disabled people are “inspiring” simply for living life. Basically, in society’s view, people with disabilities should be commended for each day they go without committing suicide, because that obviously takes a lot of bravery.

“We have been sold the lie that disability is a Bad Thing. And to live with disability makes you exceptional.” ~ Stella Young

I distinctly recall an event from smack in the middle of my snarky adolescence. When I was younger, my dad often participated in 5ks and marathons; occasionally my mom, sister, and I would take a shot at the accompanying “fun run.”

For the record, “fun run” is an oxymoron.

After one such event, a couple came up to congratulate me on completing the 1k “fun run.” Perhaps before they had properly turned their backs, I rolled my eyes. So much can be said with an eloquent eye roll. My mom, of course, was appalled. “They were just being nice,” after all. And maybe what made me roll my eyes was the aforementioned snarky adolescence, or maybe I intrinsically understood what I could not put into words: I am not inspiring.

I hadn’t completed some remarkable achievement. I rolled a little over half a mile on flat, paved terrain. This couple was not going around congratulating everyone that had completed the 1k. They didn’t stop the parents with strollers to congratulate their steering abilities. They singled me out because they simply couldn’t imagine leaving the house in my condition, let alone participating in something like a “fun run.”

To this day, people tell me I have a “good attitude.” (Actually, my attitude is amazing. I wield it with aplomb.) What they mean is, “Wow, you are out in public, interacting with people, even given your ‘condition.'”

In truth, I don’t have a “good attitude” about having to use a wheelchair; I think it’s crap. But it’s my crap, dammit.

“We’re not real people. We’re there to inspire.” ~ Stella Young

The only disability in life is a bad attitude.

An example of inspiration porn. There are literally millions of these image types.

Let’s talk “inspiration porn.” In the TEDtalk, Stella says, that images featuring disabled people meant to be inspirational are porn because they “objectify one group of people for the benefit of another group of people.” Genius!

I have spent most of my life slightly offended by these types of images, without really being able to pinpoint why. But, thankfully, Stella was able to put words to my feelings: Non-disabled people are using me and other disabled people as evidence that “things could be worse.”

IE, my life must be sub-par because I’m sitting down. Therefore, instead of being treated as a real person, equal to (or possibly superior to, that’s not my call) anyone without a disability, I am put on a pedestal of pity. “You are so brave.” I’m not facing a lion, I’m leaving my house. Only an agoraphobic could reasonably consider me brave.

“No amount of smiling at a flight of stairs has made it turn into a ramp.” ~ Stella Young

Here’s something else I didn’t know until Stella verbalized it: I subscribe to the social model of disability! I didn’t even know there was such a thing! Essentially the social model of disability states that disabled people are disabled by their environs rather than their bodies.

In contrast, the medical model suggests that disability results in a body that functions outside a set of parameters considered “normal.”

Normal is relative. What is normal to you is not normal to me, and vice versa. I imagine there are only a handful of people who can actually function within the parameters of what is considered “normal.” If “normal” means right-handed, then my mom is disabled because she’s a lefty. If “normal” is being of a certain height, then Daniel Radcliffe is disabled because he tops out at 5’5″.

If the world were more accessible, then I would be less disabled. Yes, I use a wheelchair. That is simply my method of mobility. It wouldn’t seem so out of the ordinary if fewer obstacles were in place. My body is one of thousands of states of being. It is not fundamentally “wrong.” It is just different than other bodies’ states of being.

So, if you think I am inspiring without actually accomplishing anything, I have to know, why do you think so little of me?

“I want to live in a world where we don’t have such low expectations of disabled people that we are congratulated for getting out of bed and remembering our own names.” ~ Stella Young

I wish Stella could have gotten her wish.


About Laura

Artist, writer, designer and nerdy creative based in Charlotte, NC. Loves Harry Potter, Firefly, Doctor Who, country music, and Nathan Fillion. Wheelchair-user, due to osteogenesis imperfecta aka brittle bone disease.