7/11/2012

Thoughts on Inspiration Porn, Disabilities and Teaching Acceptance

A recent blog on an Australian news site on inspiration porn has had me taking notice of the images that come across my facebook feed, had me looking at the content and the messages that different people take away from the photos of disabled persons smiling, running, laughing, being.

Stella Young, in her piece, takes away a clear message from what she has called (she's not the first to term it so) inspiration porn:
"Let me be clear about the intent of this inspiration porn; it's there so that non-disabled people can put their worries into perspective. So they can go, "Oh well if that kid who doesn't have any legs can smile while he's having an awesome time, I should never, EVER feel bad about my life". 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. It's no coincidence that these genuinely adorable disabled kids in these images are never named: it doesn't matter what their names are, they're just there as objects of inspiration." (emphasis mine)
There's no doubt that we, as a people, have a tendency to compare our lot with others and feel better about our lives when we remember we could have it worse, but I'm not so certain that the images of disabled individuals going about their lives, moving through their challenges and living fulfilling lives is doing that.

The image Young shows is of a little girl with prosthetic legs and a man with prosthetic legs both running and a quote from Scott Hamilton: "The only disability in life is a bad attitude."

Certainly, the way we view impairment, disability and handicaps is incredibly divergent. Disability rights activists across the internet, in journals, in books, and in the real world are working to create an atmosphere of acceptance--not just tolerance--but full inclusion and acceptance. Our corner of the disability community, the autism community, has as divergent of views as the wider world does. Disability is a loaded term, constantly morphing depending on who's using it and to what end, but so is autism--is it a disability, an impairment, a handicap? Or is it an alternate way of being--something to be embraced? Is it an inseparable part of the person or something that disguises the true person underneath the disability?

It all depends on who's doing the talking, doesn't it?

In my freshman composition courses this summer, I'm teaching MLA format, critical thinking skills, and the construction of sound arguments through the prism of disability. We're reading essays like Jim Sinclair's "Don't Mourn for Us" and Nancy Mairs' "On Being a Cripple" and stories like "The Yellow Wallpaper." We're considering the different models of disability, looking at how disabilities have impacted us in our personal lives, in our extended families, and what it means to be disabled. It's heady stuff, important stuff, and because of the various disabilities and diseases family members and I  struggle with, deal with, fight, get pissy about (take your pick on terminology--and all these terms deal more with my disabilities than my children's), it means something to me, as much as writing means to me.

Teaching my students things that matter is important to me and teaching writing (and reading and thinking) critically is something I value tremendously. Because I know that my students will also absolutely deal in some capacity with illness, disease, impairment, disability and all the feelings and experiences those things entail, teaching writing through disability texts provides me with meaningful content with which to work.

It also allows me the continued opportunity to reflect and learn, and that I think is one of the best things about being a teacher--that there's always the chance to grow and learn.

Inspiration porn as a term disparages both those who view the images and those who are being portrayed. It implies both exploitation of those who are portrayed and a willingness to be exploited. I'm not at all certain that this is what's going on--that 'normal' people use these images to feel better about their own lives--especially given that these pictures are almost always beautiful photos of individuals doing and being themselves--is it inspiring to see joy on a young child's face as she races down a track? Yes. Does it create joy in the viewer? I hope so, and more importantly, I hope it helps create greater acceptance of those who are different from us.

My children's autism is mostly an invisible impairment--people can misinterpret their behavior and reactions and not realize the behavior is a function of the way they view and react to the world--but I want for them what parents of children with visible impairments and individuals who have impairments want: acceptance, understanding, appreciation,  and an acknowledgment of our shared humanity.

We have to work to make these things a reality, and we don't do it by hiding them away, by protecting them from the wider world.


Aimee Mullins, in an empowering speech at TED, says:
"In our desire to protect those we care about by giving them the cold, hard truth about their medical prognosis, or, indeed, a prognosis on the expected quality of their life, we have to make sure that we don't put the first brick in a wall that will actually disable someone. Perhaps the existing model of only looking at what is broken in you and how do we fix it, serves to be more disabling to the individual than the pathology itself. By not treating the wholeness of a person, by not acknowledging their potency, we are creating another ill on top of whatever natural struggle they might have. We are effectively grading someone's worth to our community. So we need to see through the pathology and into the range of human capability. And, most importantly, there's a partnership between those perceived deficiencies and our greatest creative ability. So it's not about devaluing, or negating, these more trying times as something we want to avoid or sweep under the rug, but instead to find those opportunities wrapped in the adversity. So maybe the idea I want to put out there is not so much overcoming adversity as it is opening ourselves up to it, embracing it, grappling with it, to use a wrestling term, maybe even dancing with it. And, perhaps, if we see adversity as natural, consistent and useful, we're less burdened by the presence of it."
Mullins concludes her talk with a redefining of disability. Instead of the cruel list of synonyms that started her talk, she gives her definition:

"So, I think that the only true disability is a crushed spirit, a spirit that's been crushed doesn't have hope, it doesn't see beauty, it no longer has our natural, childlike curiosity and our innate ability to imagine. If instead, we can bolster a human spirit to keep hope, to see beauty in themselves and others, to be curious and imaginative, then we are truly using our power well. When a spirit has those qualities, we are able to create new realities and new ways of being."

It is my hope that by sharing disability texts and videos like Mullin's with my students that I will arm them with the tools to thoughtfully consider the world they wish to make, that it will be a world where acceptance, understanding and empathy are the rule, not the exception, that critical thinking will become a staple and that thoughtful deliberation before any action will become a way of being for them. It is my belief that by opening their eyes to different possibilities that they can and will choose for themselves their own considered opinions and beliefs and act on them to remake the world in the images they choose.

2 comments:

farmwifetwo said...

"In our desire to protect those we care about by giving them the cold, hard truth about their medical prognosis, or, indeed, a prognosis on the expected quality of their life, we have to make sure that we don't put the first brick in a wall that will actually disable someone"

IMO this is what the "passing for normal" HFA, Aspie crowd does to themselves when they hijack the autism dx and take it away from those that are truly disabled. This is why I have never told my eldest that he is "autistic" b/c yes, he has enough ticks through the boxes to meet the dx but he is not disabled and you can tell the difference right in the fact he never says "can't" compared to someone that believes their autism is a "way of being".

There are 10 kids in my youngest's classroom. 3 - including him - that are disabled. 1 - that has medical issues that has him years behind academically and 6 that "pass for normal" in it. Those 6, are being made disabled IMO.

I firmly believe in what I was told years ago "a diagnosis is ONLY to get services".

It's time those that aren't disabled stop making themselves disabled for whatever reason - sympathy, self-acceptance, need to join a club so they feel they belong somewhere - and learn to live with ourselves first and foremost and realize......

"Normal is only a setting on the dryer". Nobody is "normal", everyone has "things", labelling yourself b/c you need to belong is demeaning not empowering.

Anonymous said...

@FW2:
Hear, Hear!