Reframing our Thinking on Inspiration and Disability

by Cath Soper, 13 April 2016

Cath Soper

One of our fantastic Be. Leadership Alumni spoke at the Stroke Foundation Conference last night, and has given us permission to reproduce her awesome speech here:

The theme of this conference is motivate, inspire, value, and connect. I want to motivate you to think about how you use the term "inspiration", specifically in relation to people with disabilities. People with disabilities can be inspirational, many of us do incredible things. However, sometimes we can become subjects of something that has been referred to as inspiration porn.

Inspiration porn is a term used to describe society's tendency to reduce people with disabilities to objects of inspiration. You’ve all seen the memes, "the only disability in life is a bad attitude". Or a picture of a small child running on prosthetic legs accompanied by the caption "what's your excuse"? These images make the people viewing them feel great, but often they take images of people with disabilities simply living their daily lives and making them extraordinary. But at what cost?

I've been the subject of inspiration porn. One of my earliest "inspiration porn" memories is from my primary school days. There was a prize giving at the end of each year. Without fail every year I would get an award for overcoming obstacles or perseverance. It was never explicitly stated what exactly I was overcoming, but I knew they were referring to my disability.

Everybody around me seemed thrilled. Everybody except me. While everybody around me was feeling inspired by the tenacious little disabled girl with a "can do" attitude, I wanted to run out of the building and hide. These awards emphasised my difference and all I wanted was to be the same. They seemed to benefit those giving the award more than me.

Don't get me wrong, the people that gave me these awards had the best intentions. It came from a place of kindness and love. The problem was those giving the award had been lied to. We all have. We’ve been told that disability is a bad sad thing. Therefore by proxy anybody with a disability is overcoming a cruel fate, and is inspirational simply for living daily life.

Having a disability has its challenges but it's not necessarily bad, and it's certainly not sad. Like the rest of society we are simply living. People with disabilities have done and will do inspiring things, and some of us won’t, and that’s ok. We’re just human after all.

There are a lot of people with disabilities who have done amazing things. One such obvious example is Stephen Hawking. He is probably one of the greatest living physicists in the world. He is an eminent figure in theoretical cosmology, and has come up with a lot of scientific theories that have revolutionised the way we understand our world and the universe. Yes, he has a disability, but he is not inspiring simply because he is disabled. He is inspiring because of his genius, and his determination to overcome less than ideal circumstances and realise that genius. He prefers to be regarded as "a scientist first, popular science writer second, and, in all the ways that matter, a normal human being with the same desires, drives, dreams, and ambitions as the next person."

Therefore, my challenge to you all is this. When you meet someone with a disability connect with them as a human. Give credit where it’s due, but don’t reduce them to an object of inspiration that is constantly overcoming simply by living their daily life. You might discover something quite extraordinary… that we are simply ordinary!