Inspiration porn

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Inspiration porn is a term invented by the late Stella YoungWikipedia to describe media that treats disabled people as inspirational just for succeeding or existing. It objectifies people with disabilities so that non-disabled people can feel proud of themselves.

Disabled people have talked about having non-disabled people rush over to help them. "I felt like I existed to make her feel good," recalls Dave Hingsburger after an incident in which a lady ran through the store to tell him where the wheelchair-accessible aisle was.[1] Non-disabled "helpers" get to congratulate themselves for the (real or perceived) good deed, while disabled people are treated like helpless objects of pity.[2]

Examples of inspiration porn[edit]

Inspiration porn is often disseminated via the internet, but can be found anywhere. The disabled person is usually not asked for consent before photos, videos, or stories about them are shared everywhere.[3]

News stories[edit]

The so-called "heartwarming" stories range from ordinary to just plain ridiculous.

  • A non-disabled student takes a disabled student to a school dance. Apparently, this makes the non-disabled student a "hero."[4]
  • A kid with physical limitations scores an uncontested touchdown in football or a field goal in basketball, sometimes with assistance from the opposing team and referees. The disabled child gets exploited through the media.
  • An employee helps a visually impaired customer shop, and a complete stranger decides to take a photo without asking for consent.[5]
  • A father and daughter attend a concert together. The father is hearing impaired, so the daughter communicates with him in sign language. A person films them doing that, because that's definitely not creepy. Then it becomes national news.[3]
  • A customer is polite to an autistic bakery employee who did her best to clumsily write a message on a cake. The customer laughs at the poor handwriting behind the employee's back. The other employees get excited, take photos of the cake, disclose the employee's autism to the customer, and then claim that the short polite interaction probably made the employee's day.[6][7]
  • A disabled woman cannot open the door to a fast-food restaurant, so somebody helps her. (Why is the door inaccessible?) Then she asks for help eating, and a fast-food worker feeds her. So a random stranger decides to take a video and share it on the internet, like that's not creepy at all.[8]
  • A woman with cerebral palsy told that salon refused to manicure her because she moves too much. A Walmart cashier buys nail polish and gives the woman a manicure herself. The media focuses on the cashier's kindness, while completely ignoring that the salon discriminated against someone (nor did the salon get consequences for discrimination).[9]


Phrases like "what's your excuse?" or "the only disability is a bad attitude" are used to guilt non-disabled people for not trying harder.[10] The message seems to be that if even a lowly disabled person could do it, non-disabled people should be able to do it too. (Because it's not like disabled people can have skills.)

Portrayal of disabled people[edit]

Inspiration porn treats actual human beings like one-dimensional caricatures who have no agency.

Poor suffering victims[edit]

Inspiration porn can portray disabled people as victims of their disabilities.

Yet not all disabled people feel like their disabilities are horrible things. Some view their disabilities as part of their identity.

Perfect angels who never complain[edit]

Reducing a human being – and a stranger, at that – to "inspiring" or "brave" or any of those labels is problematic, because you’re filling in qualities that may or may not be true in order to make yourself feel better. It’s using disabled people as tools for your own betterment.
—Cara Liebowitz[11]

Inspiration porn may treat the disabled as angelic simply for putting up with their horrible disabilities. This story may be imposed on people regardless of the truth. Who says that disabled people have to be suffering? Who says that disabled people never complain, swear, or make dirty jokes?

Helpless burdens on society[edit]

Why is it inspirational? Because she loved him even when he became disabled? Because he loved her even though he was disabled? Because a disabled person experienced love?
—Kate Mitchell[12]
If a news source had hinted that my date was engaged in some kind of bizarre community service, basically insinuating that I was the most undateable creature on the planet, I likely would have taken the (very mature) path of locking myself in my bedroom and crying until graduation.
—Kimmie Jones[13]

Inspiration porn can imply that disabled people are burdens. This can especially come into play when stories of someone showing human decency to a disabled person make the news. It's assumed that the person is somehow incapable of enjoying a normal life unless a non-disabled hero swoops in to the rescue.

The disabled person may also be portrayed as childlike, unable to understand the world around them, or even unable to understand that they are different. (Think back to the autistic cake decorator: which is more likely, that she aspired to have just one normal social interaction in which she got treated like a real adult, or that she was aware of her terrible handwriting and found it stressful to have to do it herself?)

Side effects and implications[edit]

"Happy" stories uncovering a horrible reality[edit]

People are sharing this like it's a heartwarming story. It's a terrifying story... It's an illustration of just how dire the situation is for autistic people and our families trying to access the human right of communication... It's a story about a kid who didn't get to have his communication honored until he was about 10, who had his attempts at communication treated as "challenging behaviors" instead of attempts at communicating sans speech.
—Alyssa Hillary[14]

Some "inspirational" stories illustrate just how abysmally the world treats disabled people. For example, one viral story is told by a speech and language specialist about an airplane ride in which she taught an autistic boy to point to pictures on a piece of paper in order to communicate.[14] It sounds heartwarming at first, but then you realize that this little boy had to go through life with no way to communicate in words until around age 10. He had no way to say "I'm scared," "I'm hungry," "yes," "no," or "I love you." When he was having a hard time, he couldn't tell anyone, and he probably had to deal with it alone. Countless doctors and therapists had failed that family by never bothering to try teaching the boy sign language, PECS, typing, or another way to communicate without speaking. Finding an effective way to communicate should take top priority when a child is nonspeaking, and yet nobody had thought to do this for the first decade of the boy's life.

Many "inspirational" stories never should have happened in the first place. The boy on the airplane should have been taught sign language or another form of communication while he was a toddler. A woman outside a restaurant should have been able to get in through an accessible entrance, instead of waiting outside in potentially bad weather until someone noticed her predicament and helped. People with disabilities should have the opportunity to communicate and navigate the world without relying on the kindness of strangers.

Side effects[edit]

The problem with this is twofold: It not only assumes that disability automatically equals hardship, a tragedy that must be overcome, but it also incorrectly assumes that disability can actually be overcome with a smile and a little bit of determination.
—Elizabeth Heideman[15]

Stories sensationalizing an act of kindness or a single disabled person's success can end up minimizing disability and the need for accessibility. Disability is largely caused by society's failure to accommodate differences in ability, and people with disabilities need society to be more accessible. When you pretend that people can overcome ableism with a positive attitude, you make excuses for failing to give disabled people equal opportunities.[16]

Similarly, people with illnesses like cancer may be given compliments like "you're so strong" or "you're an inspiration," without being asked questions like "How are you doing today?" or "How can I help you through this?"[17]

The lack of media that treats disabled people as ordinary can be frustrating to people with disabilities, who rarely get to see themselves represented in books or on screen.[18]

See also[edit]