In June, CBS News showed a young paraplegic man walking—yes! walking! (with the aid of a walker and leg braces)—at his high school graduation.
In August, NBC News did a feature about a man who had allegedly overcome quadriplegia (!). To prove it, he swam from Alcatraz to the San Francisco shore.
These stories were not tabloid sensationalism. They were part of serious news broadcasts. Human interest items, to be sure. But to me, they’re offensive and do a serious disservice to the disability community.
An old stereotype
Such representations are increasingly common. Though the network producers clearly felt these events were newsworthy, you see similar depictions all the time. They make people feel good. Yet as a lifelong disabled person, I have to ask: Why do disabled folks have to do extraordinary things to be taken seriously? Why do we have to, in effect, imitate nondisabled people to gain respect?
Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against either of the gentlemen depicted in these stories. It’s not their fault the media lionize (read: exploit) them. I know that if you’re disabled and feeling downtrodden, if people treat you as less than because of your disability, it’s only natural to want to prove them wrong. You want to show that you can do anything anybody else can do, that you’re just as good.
But why make a spectacle of yourself?
A form of inspiration porn
In disability circles, we call these media portrayals “supercrip” stories. I was guilty of trying to be a supercrip myself at one time. I felt I had to work twice as hard as anyone else to be treated normally. I had to prove that I was exceptional to disprove ableist prejudices, many of which I had internalized.
Supercrip stories can act as a defense mechanism for the status quo,” says Shailee Koranne, a Toronto-based writer, in a blog post for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. They effectively say that if one “disabled person could beat the odds and live happily in our current society,” she continues, then all disabled people “should have it within themselves to do the same.”
Supercrip stories are a subset of “inspiration porn.” That term, coined by the late Australian comedian and journalist Stella Young, a wheelchair- user with dwarfism, refers to portrayals of disabled people that treat them as inspirations (rather than as individuals) in ways that effectively say disabled people only exist, or are only worth photographing and writing about, to inspire or motivate nondisabled people.
Sometimes it seems the only way to be accepted
For a lot of disabled people, there’s no choice. To be inspiring for others seems the only way we can be accepted.
The first group of disabled folks to gain widespread acceptance—other than breakout stars such as Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder—tended to be rugged, muscular, and white. Many were wheelchair basketball or wheelchair tennis players, their beefy arms propelling their stripped-down, aerodynamic sports chairs to great speeds and an almost brutal rigorousness. Very macho, they were considered strong, independent, autonomous, tough, sexy—and they helped put at ease anyone who might be a little uncomfortable around atypical bodies. (They were also almost uniformly cisgender men.) That is, their pursuits were more recognizable and legible to the nondisabled world. Remember the popular 2005 documentary Murderball, about quadriplegic jocks who play full-contact rugby? Remember Oscar Pistorius, the Olympic and Paralympic sprinter from South Africa whose prosthetic “racing blades” helped make him famous (and who was later convicted of murdering his girlfriend)?
Society’s preference for disabled people who are able to, in a sense, impersonate nondisabled people, or otherwise fit nondisabled expectations, has a long history.
The culture of exceptionalism
The problem is, the message of the brave, miraculous, heroic disabled person trickles down to those of us far from the spotlight.
I don’t know how many times I’ve been applauded for just going to the grocery store or the movies (pre-Covid, that is). “Good for you, fella!” a stranger might say. “It’s good you’re out today!”
This sort of backhanded compliment is right up there with the wannabe comedians who say, “You got a license for that chair?”
Most times, I try to smile and answer pleasantly. I figure they’re trying to be nice and mean no harm. They don’t know they’ve been conditioned by inspiration porn and supercrip stereotypes.
The harm can be significant
The harm these portrayals do, though, can be significant. They tell ordinary disabled people that they’re not good enough. Worse still, they give the impression that if you work hard, you might be able to overcome your disability. In other words, your disability is your own fault.
People really do say this. Strangers constantly tell me, “You should try…” Fill in the blank. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy. Vitamin E. Passive exercise. Prayer. Do whatever it is, they insist, and you will be cured. It’s a sort of ableist equivalent of mansplaining, in which a nondisabled person thinks she/he/they know better than you do. Call it “ablesplaining.”
I know better. There’s nothing wrong with me as I am. And if that’s not good enough for you, then you’re the one who needs to work harder.
A note from Ben Mattlin:
My new book, Disability Pride: Dispatches from a Post-ADA World , will be out November 15 but is available now for preorder wherever books are sold. It’s a frank, revealing exploration of the diverse disability community as it is today—and how attitudes, activism, and representation have evolved in the 32 years since passage of the ADA. “Passionate, deeply researched, and full of insight … brilliantly written and timely,” says Steve Silberman, author of NeuroTribes. And Emily Rapp Black, author of The Still Point of the Turning World, calls it, “Stunning…, comprehensively researched and compulsively readable.”
Ben Mattlin is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, author and frequent blogger for FacingDisability.com. He was born with spinal muscular atrophy, a congenital muscle weakness that causes paralysis and related health issues.
Ben is the author of MIRACLE BOY GROWS UP: How the Disability Rights Revolution Saved My Sanity, and IN SICKNESS AND IN HEALTH: Love, Disability, and a Quest to Understand the Perils and Pleasures of Interabled Romance . He is a frequent contributor to the Washington Post, New York Times and Financial Advisor magazine. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and USA Today, and has been broadcast on NPR’s Morning Edition.