From Team GB’s historic gold in wheelchair rugby, to Sarah Storey becoming the most successful and most decorated British Paralympian of all time some are saying the Tokyo Paralympics are the best ever. As a Games Maker at London 2012 I will always disagree with that!
Even more heartening is how Japan has embraced the Paralympics. Despite rising COVID-19 cases and no spectators, the Games still went ahead with the hosts’ athletes taking 51 medals including 13 golds and the International Paralympic Committee President calling for a more inclusive society outside of the Games. A positive step forward in a country whose track record when it comes to disabled people is questionable at best.
While it has been fantastic watching Team GB win so many medals and enjoying the offbeat commentary from The Last Leg team, headlines such as ‘Viewers are wowed by ‘inspiring’ athletes.. including a table tennis star who plays with the bat in his MOUTH…’ or ‘ Ibrahmin Hamadtou inspires with dogged determination’ have managed to put a damper on things.
Why? Because those headlines aren’t about celebrating achievements at the Games, but about celebrating people being disabled. In other words, inspiration porn at its worse.
What is inspiration porn?
The term ‘inspiration porn’ was first coined by Australian journalist, comedian and disability rights activist, Stella Young in an article for the Australian publication ‘Ramp Up’.
Her TED Talk in 2014 on the subject explained how she deliberately used the term ‘porn’ because it ‘objectifies one group of people for the benefit of another.” In this case, it’s about disabled people being used to inspire non-disabled people, not through anything they have achieved, but purely on the strength of their impairment.
Over the years, the meaning of the phrase has expanded and now includes anything which:
- is overly sentimental or full of pity
- delivers an uplifting moral message, primarily aimed at non-disabled viewers. This is a good example.
- focuses on making non-disabled people feel grateful that they aren’t disabled.
Ironically, despite the term ‘inspiration porn’ being fairly new, the issue has been around for centuries. Just look at how Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol inspired non-disabled people to do and be better.
Why is inspiration porn so unacceptable?
While it could be argued memes saying things like ‘The only disability in life is a bad attitude’ while showing a disabled person going about their everyday life are well-meaning, like any porn it’s about objectifying someone else for the benefit of others.
Not only does it suggest that disabled people are exceptional because of their impairment, it also hints at disabled people only existing to inspire and motivate other people.
But the more concerning issue is inspiration porn reinforces the negative stereotypes around disability and that it’s the worst thing that could ever happen to a person. After all,
how bad must a person’s life be if seeing them get up in the morning or having a cup of tea is something to applaud? What kind of awful life must a disabled person have if being invited to a school prom makes the news?
Every piece of inspiration porn stops disability from becoming normalised. As Stella Young put it so well, it makes disability out to be a ‘Bad Thing’ and that you must be exceptional if you can cope. But disability isn’t something to overcome. It’s barriers that make people disabled.
Does that mean Paralympians aren’t inspiring?
Taking part in the Olympics is an achievement. The problem doesn’t lie with the Paralympians but how Paralympic achievements are reported.
Take a look at just some of the headlines:
‘Paralympics a source of inspiration and hope’
‘Moments of sportsmanship, selflessness and inspiration to remember from the Tokyo Paralympics’
‘’Superhuman’ Sarah Storey an inspiration to all, says British Cycling chief’
Then contrast them with
‘Laura Kenny: Olympic legend’s journey from fighting for her life to becoming a cycling hero’ or ‘ Charlotte Dujardin becomes Britain’s most decorated female Olympian of all time’
Does that mean that Laura and Charlotte aren’t inspiring?
Whilst most of the reporting around the Paralympics was no doubt well-meaning, there is still a whiff of inspiration porn about it. The feeling that they only reason the athletes are inspiring is because of their health conditions. After all, who would have thought they could achieve anything?
It’s one of the reasons Channel 4’s Paralympic ad for Tokyo was a step in the right direction.
Previous campaigns received mixed reviews, with some calling the ‘Yes I Can’ commercial ‘ableist propaganda’. This year’s campaign focused more on the blood, sweat, tears and sacrifices Paralympians make; however, there is still something decidedly uncomfortable about the phrase ‘superhumans’. Aren’t non-disabled Olympic athletes also superhuman?
What’s the answer to avoiding inspiration porn?
Admittedly, there is a fine line between what is and isn’t considered inspiration porn and some of that will be down to personal opinion. The Channel 4 ad is a case in point.
In general, congratulating a disabled person for doing an everyday activity, such as getting up, going shopping or going to a party, because you’re amazed they can manage it, that’s inspiration porn. If you’re focusing on something they have achieved such as a gold medal, promotion or qualification, then it’s not.
Maybe a good start would be to stop using the words inspiring and inspiration altogether.