Inspiration porn

Demystifying Disability

Ariel Hayat /Staff

Three days ago, we sat on the ugly residence-hall carpet, and I pushed my phone’s record button.

I wanted to dissect the concept of “inspiration porn” or “cripspiration” — photos of people with disabilities doing everyday activities. But I didn’t want to do it alone. So I cleared my throat and casually turned to my friend Munya.

The following is our conversation, with some questions and answers cut for space reasons.

Me: First of all, what is inspiration porn?

Munya: The inspiration porn I want to talk about is when people look at a person with disabilities as an object … People see me all the time — they come up to me, they tell me I’m their inspiration. And these are people who do not know me. And what infuriates me is the fact that these people don’t know my name — they don’t know anything about me. I understand if my friends or my family said I was their inspiration: I would understand that because I’ve done a few things that inspired them.

But a total stranger coming up to me and and telling me that I’m an inspiration … I had someone come up to me and was like, “Yo, dude! You’re black, and you’re disabled, and you’re kickin’ it at Cal. You’re killing it, man. You’re my inspiration.” And I was like, “OK. This is really interesting, but what if I were the biggest asshole?”

(I laugh.)

Munya: You don’t know me, and you just called me your inspiration. Would that make it good? Because I inspire you to be an asshole? And you don’t know me. It’s crazy. People don’t know how to deal with disabilities.

Me: And what if you have a terrible personality and are actually a horrible human?

Munya: Yeah, think about it. Think about the people who inspire you. Why do they inspire you? It’s because of certain things they have done.

Me: Right.

Munya: I do not know Steve Jobs. I do not know Warren Buffett or Bill Gates personally. But their life stories are what inspire me — the vast empires that they built from nothing. Their actions are what inspire me, not their physical appearance.

Yes, their physical appearance is important because it represents that empire. But without the empire, their physical appearance is nothing, right?

I am just a vessel — a physical appearance going through life. When someone comes up to me and says, “You inspire me,” it’s really weird. How can I inspire you? Doing the same thing that you are doing? Like, we are sitting side by side in a class. We’re learning the same material. We’re using the same books. And you say that I’m your inspiration?

How does that make me an inspiration? Going to class, even though I have a disability?

Me: That is a very good point.

Munya: It’s mind numbing. When I look at it, it’s a little bit disrespectful. It kind of patronizes me.

I mean, sometimes everyone likes to be an “inspiration.” Everyone likes to be pampered. But I don’t want to be patronized.

Me: Exactly.

Munya: Everyone likes to be treated a certain way, to get certain favors. And I remember back in high school — I come from a place where corporal punishment is encouraged, corporal punishment by teachers. And parents actually give them permission to beat the heck out of us. But I always skipped it — I never got any punishment because of my disability.

But other than that, I like to experience the same things that other people experience. I like to go on adventures, and here’s the thing: I actually realized how I count some of my best friends. My best friends are people who can talk about my disability without making it an inspiration. People who make fun of it in a light-hearted way — we are really good friends … because disability makes people uncomfortable. And I don’t want it to be like that.

Me: Right.

Munya: And inspiration porn! It’s all bad. It’s the thing that makes people complacent toward certain things.

Me: Tell me more about that complacency.

Munya: It doesn’t allow people to form relationships … because if you don’t understand that you are objectifying somebody, you can’t form a relationship. You can’t empathize with somebody and understand them.

This is the symbol of inspiration that we have. That one guy with one leg — that’s all you know about that one guy. What about his name?

Somebody posted on Yik Yak: “To that cute guy with one leg: you’re the biggest, baddest person. You’re my inspiration!”

It takes away a lot from a person. It makes him into an object.

Me: I think it’s this whole idea of that “normal” perception? As a person with physical disabilities, my “normal” is maybe different from yours … but it’s not extraordinary to me. So it shouldn’t be extraordinary to you.

Munya: Talk to me, get to know me. Don’t call me your “inspiration” if you don’t know me.

Me: So what you’re saying is that we need to foster an environment of communication and that people need to make an effort to get to know people before —

Munya: Before they call them “an inspiration.”

(End of recording)

Here are my thoughts:

Find inspiration in other minds, thoughts and aspirations — not in physical appearance. Our bodies are just warm hangers for our clothes. Inspiration porn is dehumanizing. It creates an otherness around ability status, both elevating and alienating folks, to the confines of a label.

Be inspired by personality, not ability status. Most of all, inspire yourself. And watch some other kind of porn.

Jasmine Leiser writes the Monday blog on ability and its intersection with the student experience. You can contact her at [email protected].

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