by David Morstad
“Football Team Lets Boy with Down Syndrome Score Touchdown”
“Student with Autism Scores ‘Winning’ Basket”
We have all read the stories and seen the videos. We love them because, frankly, they make us feel good. But at whose expense?
In a 2014 TED talk, the late disability advocate Stella Young popularized the term “Inspiration Porn” to describe a cultural view of people with disabilities as inspirational or heroic based solely on their disability; or, worse, when those without disabilities are portrayed as heroic or especially compassionate when they patronize others. Most of the time, what we see is not real, the person involved derives no real benefit, and we display and consume it for our own pleasure. Inspiration porn.
Within the past year, the concept of inspiration porn has been steadily gaining notice thanks to prominent self advocate voices and informed journalists. This week, though, the topic gained a decidedly new level of attention thanks to an article published in the Disability Stories pages of medium.com. Set in the context of a New Year’s Resolution, the article is worth a read.
As you might expect, there is some tension surrounding this topic. People with disabilities, family members, writers, publishers of positive stories (e.g., themighty.com), and the general public do not share a single point of view. As a non-disabled person who writes about disability issues, it is also an issue that demands my own diligence. Hopefully, I remain mindful of the About section of this site that makes it clear, “to a great extent, this is not my story to tell”. The conversation requires a more sophisticated level of self-examination and it has the potential to deepen our understanding of disability. Nowhere is this more true than among people of faith.
Within the Christian tradition, objectifying disability has, unfortunately, seemed like a pretty good fit with our understanding of the call to be merciful. Our intentions have been honorable, but our outcomes have not. We read of the healing miracles and we hear the “least of these” language and they resonate with our desire to make sense of disability in our world. We seem at times comfortable with the notion that “I can’t fix this thing that is wrong, but God will.” The salient question of course is: What if it’s not a thing to be fixed? What if the people whose disabilities were removed are more than merely objects for our amazement?
The popular notion that people, simply by virtue of their disabilities, have a greater measure of faith or a purer understanding of God than the typical non-disabled person can also be an important part of this issue – and not just because it’s bad theology. It is an objectifying point of view intended either to comfort and inspire the rest of us, or shame us into new ways of thinking and acting.
Perhaps resolutions such as those suggested invites us to a new understanding. “Rise and walk”(John 5:8), “Receive your sight” (Luke 18:42), and “Be healed” are words spoken to each of us, that we might come to know one another better, accept one another unconditionally, grow in community, and rejoice in mutual ministry.