‘Inspiration Porn’: Paralympians Know It When They See It

TOKYO — Darlene Hunter, a three-time Paralympian and a college professor, begins her classes on disability issues exploring what may be the most provocative phrase ever associated with an international sports event: “inspiration porn.”

Hunter knows that when she introduces the term, she can count on her students at the University of Texas at Arlington to perk up, sometimes in shock.

“Luckily, I have an administration that really supports all this,” said Hunter, an assistant professor of practice in social work. The American wheelchair basketball team she is a member of defeated Germany to win the bronze medal Saturday at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics, which will end on Sunday.

In less than a decade since “inspiration porn” first surfaced in Ramp Up, an Australian publication focused on disability, the phrase has gained increasing prominence and layers of meaning. It has motivated, or shamed, some news organizations into reconsidering the language and substance of their coverage of people with disabilities. It has gained particular resonance at the Paralympic Games, amplifying athletes’ interest in being role models without sending a misguided message that anything is possible for people with a will to succeed.

The phrase’s meaning has been shaped, to a large extent, through the eyes and ears of the beholders, who have propped up the wisdom of Potter Stewart, the Supreme Court justice who defined obscenity by writing, “I know it when I see it.”

Stella Young, an Australian journalist, comedian and activist, wrote the Ramp Up article in 2012, then delivered a TED Talk on the subject in 2014 that was both hilarious and lacerating.

Young, speaking from her wheelchair, described images online of amputees running on prosthetic legs along with the words: “The only disability is a bad attitude.”

Young chose the term “porn” very deliberately, she said, because such images “objectify one group of people for the benefit of another.”

“In this case,” Young added, “we’re objectifying disabled people for the benefit of nondisabled people. The purpose of these images is to inspire you, to motivate you, so that we can look at them and think, ‘Well, however bad my life is, it could be worse. I could be that person.’”

The public has been told the lie, she said, that disability is “a Bad Thing, capital B, capital T. It’s a bad thing, and to live with a disability makes you exceptional. It’s not a bad thing, and it doesn’t make you exceptional.”

Today, bold print on the home page for the international wheelchair rugby federation’s website declares: “We aren’t here to inspire. We’re here to win.”

Asya Miller and Eliana Mason, members of the U.S. women’s goalball team who live in Oregon, sent a similar message when they arranged a local TV interview ahead of the Paralympics this summer.

“The one stipulation we had is that, you know, you can’t make this like a fluff piece about these poor inspirational blind people,” Miller said. “We wanted him to get video of us working out, lifting weights and doing things like that.”

A recent draft of “The Purple Paper,” a research project backed by the International Paralympic Committee and named for the color associated with disability awareness, included a section titled “Mainstream Media and the ‘Inspiration Porn’ Trap.”

The draft called for “leaving behind the message that disability is a tragedy, something one should be grateful not to have.”

It also conceded that “there’s a huge paradox here because athletes in general do provide a service to society by being objects of inspiration. Lionel Messi inspires millions of kids around the world to try to become the best version of themselves by working hard on something. Nothing wrong with that.”

For Messi, the ability to inspire is grounded in his performance. For Paralympians, it is grounded less in their accomplishments and more in what has happened to them.

“If you’re asking about that at the same level you would for an Olympic athlete, that’s cool,” said Hunter, the professor and wheelchair basketball player. “But we tend to spend more time on our back stories of how we got injured or how we got here than on the actual feat of our athletic ability.”

David Brown, the 2016 Paralympic champion in a 100-meter race for blind men, used to accept inspiration compliments without hesitation, even when he sensed pity from the person offering them. A few years ago, he said, he started asking people why they saw him as inspiring. If they talk about his achievements, he stops questioning.

“But if they say something like, ‘Well, you know, you’re blind and I can’t see myself being blind and dealing with it,’ I’m like, ‘OK, hold up,’” Brown said.

Young’s definition of inspiration porn covers moments like that, when disabled people receive exaggerated respect for just “getting out of bed and remembering our own names in the morning.”

Channel 4, the British television network that broadcasts the Paralympics, has been widely praised for its coverage of the Games. Its promotional video for 2012, “Meet the Superhumans,” presented Paralympians as indomitable, with Public Enemy’s “Harder Than You Think” playing in the background. For many of the athletes in those Games, it was exhilarating to be portrayed in a light that LeBron James would find flattering.

But some disability rights advocates objected, pointing out elements of what would come to be known as inspiration porn, particularly the title. This year, the network’s video promoting the Tokyo Olympics touched on the real challenges facing people with disabilities, most effectively in a scene in which Kylie Grimes, a wheelchair rugby player, can’t enter a coffee shop because the curb doesn’t have cutouts.

At the end, a ball flies at the screen, shattering the word “Super” in “Superhumans,” and calling to mind Stella Young’s jab at the idea that attitude defeats all obstacles: “No amount of smiling at a flight of stairs ever made it turn into a ramp.”

Young died about eight months after she delivered the TED Talk, leaving other generations to flesh out the meaning of “inspiration porn.”

Darlene Hunter seems up to the task.

“If you’re going to be inspired by me, be inspired by the fact that I have four degrees, that I'm 39 and in the best shape of my life, and that I am advocating for women in sports,” she said.But I don’t want to be inspirational because, ‘Oh, look, she overcame getting run over by a road grader.’”

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