21/12/2020

I Used To Make Inspiration Porn - It's Time We Killed It Off For Good

This piece is the first in a series of paid commissioned opinion pieces by Disabled writers. Disabled people are constantly asked to work for free, to give their opinion for free and to educate people for free and so I have created this space to not only give Disabled writers the opportunity to write and speak, but to gain income as well. You can expect to hear from a wide variety of Disabled, Deaf and hard of hearing, neurodivergent people and those living with mental and chronic illnesses. This is entirely fundraised for, so if you can spare anything at all to help fund this then I would be so grateful if you donated to the PayPal pool.

I Used To Make Inspiration Porn - It's Time We Killed It Off For Good

Creating inspiration porn never bothered me until I finally accepted my own disability, which exposed the devastating impact it has on the perception of disabled people. Australian comedian and actress Stella Young coined the term inspiration porn in 2012. It describes the way disabled people are frequently considered and represented as inspirational, solely or in part on the basis of their disability. 

Inspiration porn shows up everywhere, including film, TV and documentaries, but the news media are the main producers of it. Exploring this topic as a disabled journalist is intimidating. I am forced to confront my own role in perpetuating inspiration porn and I am also fearful of alienating people who might see themselves in this essay.

My experiences span nearly a decade of work experience, permanent contract roles and freelance work, and I have immense respect for every person I have ever worked with. I cherish the knowledge I gained working alongside them, however, this does not make them, or me, immune to criticism. 

Everyday countless stories and viral videos flood our social feeds depicting disabled people as 'overcoming their condition'.

This insinuates that a disabled person's worth is measured by what they can achieve 'against all odds' and by how closely they can replicate the typical life of a non-disabled person. Other examples includes memes of disabled people that ask non-disabled people 'what's your excuse?' and viral videos of disabled people being asked to prom by non-disabled classmates before their acceptance is filmed and distributed as feel good fodder.

It is easy to miss the insidious impact of these apparently heart-warming stories, however, they frequently objectify disabled people or prioritise spotlighting the burden they place on non-disabled carers. Instead of acknowledging the societal obstacles that disabled people face living in an undeniably ableist society built for non-disabled people, these stories dehumanise disabled people and insinuate that those who don't achieve against insurmountable odds are living a meaningless, lazy life. 

I began my career doing work experience in offices surrounded by non-disabled people, during a time where I was still reticent to acknowledge my own disability, and I had no idea what I was contributing to. Despite living with incurable chronic illnesses from the age of 14, I shunned the disabled label because I believed the image of disability that society often pushes - burdensome or an exceptional inspiration. Consequently, when I told disabled people's stories I bought into the inspirational narrative too. 

I sought out disabled people and put them on a global platform to inspire millions of non-disabled people, hoping that the stories might help improve society's perception of disabled people. In time, interacting with other disabled people encouraged me to embrace my own disability. So, it broke my heart when I recognised my role in producing inspiration porn that galvanised non-disabled people but left disabled people in the dust.

In any newsroom dark humour is typical, but hearing jokes about disabled people and their non-disabled partners, or musings about how they have sex, or whether a fetish was involved, broke me down over time. Even one of my earliest work experience placements was marred by a vile comment about how no one sane would have sex with a disabled person. 

At other times, there was pity for the 'unbearable existence' of disabled lives, harsh questions about the choices of disabled parents with hereditary conditions and comments such as 'I could never live like that', a statement that many in the disabled community have heard a variation of. 

Realising that some stories were only being commissioned based on the disabled person somehow overcoming their disability, so that non-disabled people could be inspired by their bravery, grit, or refusal to be a burden on society, I fell out of love with the career I had been dreaming of since childhood. Though my colleagues and I created lots of stories that raised awareness and told narratives authentically, inspiration porn was still leaking through the cracks. This was particularly difficult when working at press agencies where the stories would be retold and given sensationalised headlines by the publications that licensed them. 

I became wary of seeking out disabled stories and on one occasion, after a call with a potential case study who later became a friend, I actually advised them against working with me. The idea of potentially watching another fellow disabled person be sensationalised, objectified, or mocked by non-disabled people in the comments was nauseating. 

Ashamedly, outside of working on my own stories to remove language that facilitates inspiration porn, like overcoming or defeating disability, I did not speak up about what I, as a disabled person, had learned about the impact of inspiration porn. Unfortunately, it's rare for people to acknowledge ableism unless they either acquire a disability or meet someone who is disabled and I was intimidated by the prospect of my insights being disbelieved or ignored.

While many journalists have the best of intentions, I felt like I had to get out. I went freelance to avoid writing inspiration porn but I still see it everywhere. For the average journalist, the concept of creating inspiration porn does not cross their mind because they are simply looking for the most eye-catching visual to sell a story or they truly believe the story is simply raising awareness.

Unfortunately, good intentions are irrelevant when a company's profits are the priority. When monetising the reality of disabled lives, immense respect must be paid to the people taking that risk by sharing their stories. The disabled person must be properly informed on how their story will be constructed, distributed and platformed. 

In addition, non-disabled journalists must make strides to consult disabled people on avoiding the creation of inspiration porn.

Disabled people are not a monolith and one voice does not speak equally to all of us, which is why I'm sure some of the community will disagree with these words, but I believe our internalised ableism makes it difficult to see the damage that inspiration porn does to our community. Distributing inspiration porn to the global masses perpetuates the narrative that disabled people are only worthy if they can conquer their physical limitations by achieving the impossible in a society structured around the needs of non-disabled people. It also holds disabled people to impossible standards and feeds the internalised ableism our entire community battles daily.

I feel like a teacher being forced to tell off their favourite student but as a disabled journalist I feel I can say this: if more journalists undertook training to understand ableism and hired disabled advisors, then we could eradicate inspiration porn once and for all. The sooner we do, the sooner we can stop having this conversation.

Hannah Shewan Stevens is an NCTJ-accredited journalist and press officer based in Birmingham. Hannah's favourite subjects to write about are disability issues, physical and mental health, sex and relationships and comment writing. Most recently she has completed a course on delivering Relationships and Sex Education and is working on her first non-fiction book. In her spare time, she volunteers as a Champion for Changing Faces and as a writer for The Speak Up Space.

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3 comments:

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  2. This is such an amazing insightful read. As a disabled person it has been on my mind for a while, but I was never able to articulate it this well. Everyone needs to read this.

    https://rachylewis.com/

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  3. Couldn't agree more, Shona. Inspiration porn needs to go.

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