Less Inspiration Porn, More Jean Little.

A video is making the rounds on social media featuring a young woman who, after being paralyzed from the waist down in a car crash, walks down the aisle on her wedding day. It’s a beautiful moment and an amazing testament to the power of determination and love in the face of adversity. While this young woman and her husband deserve congratulations for overcoming the odds, I am troubled by the frequency with which videos like this surface on social media. “Inspiration porn” – the deliberately provocative moniker applied to these types of videos by their critics – appears on social media daily and tends to follow a familiar formula. They briefly interrupt our day to offer warm, fuzzy feelings before we click away to something else. They often involve people with disabilities. They rarely inspire critical thinking. This is troublesome as our reactions to videos like these say much more about our societal perception of people with disabilities than it does about the people featured in them.

Consider this video, which is just one of many examples. The introduction describes the young woman’s determination to walk down the aisle on her wedding day. The voice-over describes that she “willed her body to move,” as if all you need to recover from a spinal cord injury is a good attitude. The video is shared over and over again often with hashtags like #heartwarming, #touching. These reactions reflect, in part, a genuine admiration for how hard this woman worked to regain her mobility. But I think another part of our reaction, one that we are less likely to concede, is relief that the bride once again looks “normal” or at least familiar. She is upright, not “confined” to a wheelchair, and tidily packaged as a woman who overcame a devastating diagnosis and will now live happily ever after. It makes us feel good to watch this 90 second video, but it doesn’t do much to advance our understanding of disability or de-fetishize the people living with them.

But don’t take it from me. While I’m interested in this subject, and have a bit of a background working with children with disabilities, I’m not an expert. Instead, I highly recommend you listen to what the late comedian and journalist Stella Young had to say about the problems with “inspiration porn.” In her hilarious and insightful TEDx Talk called “I’m Not Your Inspiration, Thank You Very Much” Young, who had osteogenesis imperfecta and used a wheelchair, recalls being nominated for a community achievement award as a teenager despite “not doing anything that could be considered an achievement if you took disability out of the equation.” She describes how people with disabilities are routinely seen as “inspirations” but not as teachers, doctors, manicurists etc. In short, they are not seen as real people.

Fortunately, there is a simple way to reduce the objectification of people with disabilities. Young suggests that instead of thinking of disability as exceptional we instead question what we think we know about disability. There are lots of ways to do this: spending time with people with disabilities, educating ourselves about the types of disability, or reading stories with characters that have disabilities. Unfortunately, this last suggestion can be difficult to implement given the dearth of books by and about people with disabilities. Which is why I am grateful to have been introduced to Jean Little by my 4th grade English teacher.

Jean Little is a Canadian author who writes primarily for children. She also previously taught children with physical disabilities and is legally blind. While teaching, she noticed that there were very few stories about children that looked like her students. The stories that did include children with physical disabilities usually concluded with them being miraculously cured (think Clara in Heidi and Colin in The Secret Garden). Little wanted her students to read books with children they could relate to and since she couldn’t find any, she wrote them. Her first book Mine For Keeps is about Sally who has cerebral palsy, loves dogs, and is adjusting to her new school after previously attending a rehabilitation school. Its sequel Spring Begins in March is about the challenges Sally’s younger sister experiences as a sibling of someone with a disability who is also struggling academically. From Anna features a young girl with visual impairment and chronicles her family’s escape from Nazi Germany and resettlement in Canada.

I loved Jean Little’s books when I was in elementary school. She wrote about disability in a way that helped me understand the particular challenges that children with disabilities face while also reinforcing the idea that they weren’t all that different from me. Her characters weren’t particularly heroic, in fact they were often flawed, and they were always interesting. Many of her stories were about disability but they were also about family and friendship, and above all they were exciting, engaging, and funny. Learning about disability through reading helped me, and my classmates, build empathy and understanding. I carried this knowledge with me when I began working with children with physical disabilities over a decade later. I remembered how Little’s characters wanted to feel independent and be taken seriously so I was careful to avoid acting in ways that could be perceived as patronizing. My education in disability is far from over, but I am grateful to Jean Little for providing such an excellent foundation.

When people with physical disabilities are the focal point of inspirational videos and images, they dominate our social media feeds because they make us feel good. But before we assign it a hashtag and further disseminate it across cyberspace, it’s worth taking a step back and critically examining how it may be contributing to the inadvertent dehumanization of people with disabilities. The message conveyed by Stella Young and Jean Little is so basic and yet so rarely present in the way society portrays and reacts to people with disabilities. There is no single way to overcome the well-meaning but misguided and ultimately cringe-worthy objectification of people with disabilities, but reading is a powerful tool to consider. While videos shared on social media necessarily leave us on the outside looking in, reading invites us into the world of its characters and asks us to empathize with them. So when it comes to cultural portrayals of people with disabilities, I propose the following rule-of-thumb: less inspiration porn, more Jean Little.

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