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Karen Wang
BY Karen Wang

Inspiration Is Not Inclusion

“You’ve just got to see this story about…!”

“Did you see that amazing video?”

“Have you heard about the child who…?”

“What about that athlete…?”

Chances are, you’ve seen some of the many inspirational videos, memes, and news stories about individuals with disabilities this year. And chances are, your friends and family shared them with you because they thought you’d be inspired, too.

Most people seem to view these images as harmless or even positive, because they can help increase awareness of the challenges faced by people with disabilities on a daily basis.  But at the same time, there is growing concern over certain types of inspirational media, such as pictures of adorable children doing everyday activities like walking, running, swimming, hugging, smiling, drawing a picture with a caption such as, “The only disability in life is a bad attitude,” “Your excuse is invalid,” and “Before you quit, try.”  Then there are the feel-good stories about athletic teams breaking the rules of the game to let a team member with a disability score the final point of the season.

So what’s the problem with that?

1. The purpose of these images and stories is to highlight differences between people with and without disabilities.  Journalist Stella Young calls it “inspiration porn,” because  “it’s there so that non-disabled people can look at us and think, ‘well, it could be worse… I could be that person.’  In this way, these modified images exceptionalise and objectify those of us they claim to represent.”

2. The profusion of these images and stories supports patronizing or condescending attitudes toward people with disabilities.  When a team throws a game for a teammate with a disability, they are consciously treating him as less of a person.

3. Pairing up these images with inspirational slogans minimizes the very real challenges that people with disabilities and their families cope with every day, writes blogger Katherine Coble.  Most of these challenges cannot be overcome by extra effort or quick solutions.  For example, many therapies and many types of medical equipment are not affordable and not covered by insurance.  Physical barriers in public places still exist for people with mobility impairments.

Some families cope with severe behavioral problems that lead to hospitalizations for the person with a disability and his or her caregiver.  Sometimes these challenges are beyond the understanding of friends and extended family, so the immediate family is left alone.

4. Inspiration without activism equals exclusion.  Many inspirational images and stories are shared via social media without any type of follow-up or real transformation, so it’s really a method to evade responsibility for inequity.  Writer S.E. Smith notes, “Using us as objects to be inspired by, or archetypes to beat people with, allows people to avoid any complicity they have in the way disabled people are treated in their society. As they talk about how ‘inspiring’ we are, few of them make moves for positive changes in our lives, or theirs, for that matter.”

5. It doesn’t even make sense to be inspired by someone who shops for groceries, uses a telephone or rides a bus.  A profoundly average life is not a source of inspiration, and yet many people with disabilities are constantly told that they are inspirational, seemingly for being alive at all.  Comedian Laurence Clark illustrates this point by congratulating random strangers on their “inspirational” activities.  Did his video make you uncomfortable?  That’s exactly the point!

So my answer to those questions is: no, I didn’t see that video, news clip, story or photo.  I was too busy living my life and taking care of my family.  My job is to find ways to include my children in every aspect of community life, and inspiration is not the path to inclusion.

Karen Wang

Written on December 24, 2013 by:

Karen Wang is a Friendship Circle parent. You may have seen her sneaking into the volunteer lounge for ice cream or being pushed into the cheese pit by laughing children. She is a contributing author to the anthology "My Baby Rides the Short Bus: The Unabashedly Human Experience of Raising Kids With Disabilities"
  • Sheryl Frishman

    Love love love this!!!!! Thanks for writing this.

  • Martha L.

    Couldn’t agree more. Thank you for writing this.

  • Shawn Hartwell

    You’ve really wrote a great article and made me think about things in a different light. I would never have thought ‘inspiration’ coming from special needs to be, well, a scapegoat of people without disabilities. Thanks for the great thoughts!

  • Dad

    I wrote a similar piece for a newsletter at work. The title of my article was:” Is it Better to Gain an Inch Than be Given a Foot?” I do think that there is something to the awareness aspect and the feeling that it gives, say the high school football team members. They, as a lot of kids in their teenage years do not do often enough, put someone else before themselves. In itself, that is a good thing. The problem, as this author points out, is the long lasting unintended consequences of these actions. Little “Billy” will be viewed as not being able to accomplish things in life unless extreme concessions are made for him. That is not at all how I want my son, who happens to have Down syndrome, to be viewed in life.

  • MIchael with Aspergers

    What I find is that those with this view are NOT the challenged because personally I, a challenged person, like to feel like I can do and be more. And that is what I hear from other challenged persons, especially those that are higher functioning that are tired of being told they don’t LOOK or ACT challenged…If only one of us finds hope in what you consider empty messages then in my mind good has been served. If those of you involved in the pity party of no one sees us and no one addresses our family’s real needs…then you need to find an alternative way to get your message across. Do not chop the legs off those of us who are challenged that need a feel good story to help our self esteem and to give us hope that we may be able to do more or be better. Maybe you guys who live in the non challenged world think the things portrayed are easy and common place but live in our shoes to see we need to know we can do them because our lives are NOT easy and we are the only ones that can change our thinking through positive messages. All persons do not see things the same so do not close doors on those that need it because you think that it doesn’t promote true understanding, because I think you are missing the true understanding of what your family members really need…this is NOT for you to feel good about yourself or even to point out your hard work each day working with someone challenged, or their unseen needs…this is about what it is…a feel good moment that maybe one person can use to feel good about themselves and maybe for the general public to realize that some of us who are challenged can do more, be more, accomplish more….I am sick and tired of people telling me I do not look challenged…if they do not see those challenged persons in feel good stories that are more…how will they know I, or anyone else who is challenged and is more, exist? Seems to be a lot of noise from non challenged persons thinking that they know what to do for us and how we should be represented and reported in media…Ask your family member if they like the stories, if it helps them, or maybe you don’t care since it is about the correct thing to do rather than how someone you supposedly love and care for feels.

    • Karen Wang

      Thank you, Michael, for your insightful points. Yes, I did ask my family member before posting this. Also, the four sources quoted in this article are adults with disabilities.

  • vesta44

    I really dislike the memes showing a disabled person doing something, anything, that an abled person does as a matter of course, like this is something extraordinary, and it says “Your excuse is invalid”. Excuse me? How do you know what anyone’s life is like, able or disabled? How do you know what challenges they’re facing? And just exactly how do you know their “excuse” is invalid? Are you psychic, that you know all there is to know about a person and what they can or cannot do, and why they can or can’t do it? Those kinds of things are not “inspirational”, they’re demeaning, demoralizing, and take away our humanity and agency.

  • TheJoyfulPalmer

    Karen, I have a daughter with cerebral palsy. I really appreciated this piece. I’ve read it over a number of times. I’ve enjoyed a handful of “those” videos and stories this year, and initially I resisted what you were saying. I finally got it.

    Every one of your points had passed my radar. I’m so grateful for the deeper education on special needs issues. My husband and I often feel like we’re just making it up as we go.
    We’ve never done this before–parent a special needs child, and we’re just trying to do the best we can. I’m grateful when my perspective and understanding is broadened. It’s helpful on so many fronts.

    Having been homeschooled, my daughter is getting ready to attend public school for the first time in her life. I’m really appreciating the help in understanding what inclusion is and what it isn’t. And, I’m especially grateful to you for the help in getting my head wrapped around how to advocate and become an inclusion activist.

    As I’ve taken these new ideas in, and continued to reread your post there is something that keeps coming to my mind that I’d like to add to the discussion. I’m comfortable if this idea is controversial in this forum, and I’d also be delighted if it’s found to have some merit.

    I’d like to submit there might be another side to the #5 “It doesn’t even make sense” coin. It’s true, celebrating regular people doing what everyone else does absolutely doesn’t make sense, unless there is possibly a bigger purpose behind our unique paths.

    I can’t help but continually be surprised at the influence my daughter has in the lives of others around her. Since the day she was born she’s been a change-agent for others’ hearts. She is who she is despite her disability, but the fact is her disability does play a big roll in her effect on others.

    I‘m firm in my belief that every single one of us has a mission on this earth—a unique, important, non-replaceable roll that we have in making this world more peaceful, beautiful, healthy, joyful, prosperous, educated, and accessible. If this is true, that we have unique ways in which we were meant to touch this earth and the people in it, then it follows that we
    will be given, in one way or another, what we need to be able to accomplish that task—unique to us.

    I don’t know if God gave my girl cerebral palsy, but I certainly know he’s not going to waste it.

    The truth is, it’s our very ordinary acts, our simple daily doings that make the biggest impact on this world. The effects of my ordinary acts are simply accomplished in a much more quiet, unobserved way than my daughter’s.

    It’s not that our ordinary acts are different really; it’s just that hers can’t help but be “heard” louder than mine.

    And, despite purposeful or ignorant patronizing, there’s nothing wrong with turning our head towards something beautiful that catches our ear.

    All in all, the recognition of the average and ordinary achievements of disabled people as something inspiring doesn’t have to be so far off the mark.

    Thank you for such a terrific forum for this discussion.



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  • :)

    Wow! Love this. When people find out people find out I’m a support person they are in awe. The compliment me and tell me that I’m such a good person and that they could NEVER do such a job. Oh, and because they feel so bad for “those people”. Sure, no one really means to come off as ignorant as they do, I know they have good intentions. I’m always trying to figure out the best way to tell someone that the people I support have good lives, they work hard(er) for all of their accomplishments and that they don’t need or want your pity.

  • Nick Rowley

    Fantastic, I really despise the messages barely below the surface of these memes:

    * Those with challenges are props to make those without challenges feel better.
    * Any problem can be solved by thinking positively.
    * People should feel bad when they are having a crappy day/week/year and it effects their mood

    I have a condition akin to MS, it’s really minor and I’m pretty positive most of the time, but no matter how sunny my disposition I will still have times where the issues with my nervous system cause me problems.

    And I simply have something that is, fundamentally, an annoyance, my god son has SMA. He’s a little ray of sunshine but that doesn’t mean he’ll a) never have genuine challenges and b) always have a “good” attitude, especially when he hits his teens (we’re all mopy as teenagers) it will be the hight of condescension to tell him and anyone else with physical or mental challenges that the only disability is a bad attitude.

    But of course these memes aren’t intended for the challenged, they’re written to make able bodied people feel better about themselves, to use those who have problems of one sort or another as self esteem props for those who will never have to be concerned about facing similar challenges.

    So thank you for writing this, I’m glad others find these memes as irksome and maddening as I do.

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