Beyond Inspiration: A New Narrative

Need a little inspiration to get going today? Here’s a story that’s sure to warm your heart!
Emily Ladau, a young wheelchair-bound woman suffering from Larsen syndrome, was stranded without food last night in New York City. A kind man asked her if she needed help, but before she could respond, he bought a slice of pizza and brought it to her on the street. Fueled by the meal and the man’s amazing act of kindness, brave young Emily overcame the odds and found her way home.

Does this sound familiar? I wrote it tongue-in-cheek, but you’ve undoubtedly seen stories that are similar. The real story, though, is anything but inspiring. After a long evening out in New York City, I was in the mood for a burrito. I looked up the nearest Mexican restaurant and rolled over, only to be greeted by a steep staircase. It became clear that none of the other nearby restaurants were accessible either, so I finally settled for pizza that my boyfriend bought for me to eat on the street.

Beyond Inspiration: A New Narrative

Illustration by Mark Weber

Frustrated, I headed to the train station, where I discovered the elevator I needed was under repair. After waiting for the next train, I didn’t make it home until after 1 a.m.

The next morning, I found myself lamenting the irony that I’ve made a career rooted in disability advocacy, but access to the most basic things, like restaurants or transportation, is often completely out of reach. I know an uneaten burrito and a missed train are hardly big problems in and of themselves, but I’d been there so many times before, shut out and turned away while simply trying to go about my day.

Unfortunately, mainstream media rarely tells stories like that, because it isn’t the narrative the general public cares to hear. Instead, my voice is drowned out by the endless noise of “inspiration porn.”

What is Inspiration Porn?

That term — inspiration porn — certainly turns heads, but it’s an accurate way to describe how disabled people are often objectified by the media in order to make nondisabled people feel good. Popularized by the late disability activist Stella Young, “inspiration porn” can be broken down into a few different types:

1. Media that frames people with disabilities as brave or inspirational when that same story wouldn’t be inspiring if the subject was not disabled

2. Media that frames actual accomplishments of disabled people in condescending ways

3. Media that frames nondisabled people as heroes just for being nice to disabled people.

You know the stories I’m talking about. If a wheelchair user stands to dance at their wedding or walks across the stage at graduation then it makes the nightly news. A disabled person wins an award and people marvel at how “bravely” they’ve “overcome” their disability. A nondisabled person films someone helping a person with a disability, posts it online, and the video goes viral. I can barely scroll through social media or turn on the television without encountering narratives like these. Honestly, I’m tired of it.

When I critique these stories, I’m frequently called heartless and bitter by disabled and nondisabled people alike. How rude am I to attack a good or happy moment! How dare I not be inspired by the same old story of someone “overcoming” disability!

People are quick to assume that I begrudge another person’s triumph because I’m obviously unhappy with who I am, that my disability must be making me miserable. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Here’s the real problem: People can read or watch inspirational stories, click the “share” button, and go on with their day. But what happens after the quick hit of warm, fuzzy feelings? They may be moved to grab tissues in that initial moment, but most likely sure won’t be motivated to take real action.

Conflicting Messages

In her powerful TED Talk on the subject of inspiration, Young points out: “No amount of smiling at a flight of stairs has ever made it turn into a ramp. Never.” I honestly think I should get this quote printed on flyers and tattooed on my forehead because people really need to wrap their minds around it. A positive attitude wouldn’t have changed the fact that something as simple as the pursuit of a burrito became yet another reminder of how unwelcome I am in the world we live in.

Illustration by Mark Weber

But a headline like “Wheelchair user can’t get into a restaurant nearly 30 years after the Americans with Disabilities Act passed” doesn’t inspire a feel-good sentiment.

The stories I tell don’t fit the narratives people are looking for. It’s true that I haven’t worked hard to stand or walk for a few minutes at a special occasion, though I respect that people who do this have deeply held reasons as to why it’s personally important. Instead, I’ve fought back against a world that expects me to stand or walk just to be a part of it.

When you’re bombarded with media depictions of people with disabilities deemed “inspiring” for “overcoming” their “suffering,” developing a healthy and realistic self-image can be a challenge. I’ve spent my life grappling with insecurities and trying to figure out who I am, rather than who society thinks I am or should be. On the one hand, there are stories about disabled people climbing mountains “in spite” of their disabilities, and suddenly I feel like I have to live up to some impossibly high standard to be viewed as valuable. On the other hand, there are people who gasp in amazement at the thought of disabled people having the will to live another day. There’s a constant tug-of-war between incredibly high and incredibly low expectations.

So who am I? Do I need to be a superhero to prove my worth, or do I just need to prove myself capable of buying a carton of milk? Honestly, some days I do feel like I can take on the world. And other days getting out of bed leaves me feeling like I’ve already climbed a mountain. But the narrative of inspiration never acknowledges this kind of nuance of the day-to-day disability experience.

And what message does the “inspirational” narrative send to people who sustain injuries later in life and need to use a mobility device? It paints unrealistic pictures of disability, which can be really harmful if internalized. Being disabled is a state of existence I’ve known since birth and yet I still sometimes find it difficult not to internalize stigma.

It’s taken so long to even begin reaching a point of feeling comfortable in my own skin and being proud of my identity as a disabled woman. There are so many complexities that have come from this endless process, but they’re torn away in an instant when someone tells me I’m inspiring without knowing anything of substance about me. I’m weary of my body and my story being open to public scrutiny and interpretation based on one-note, one-sided portrayals of the disability experience. I don’t want to be reduced to a caricature of myself.

Changing the Conversation

What if we shifted the narrative? What if, instead of sharing inspiration porn with abandon, we stopped to consider if the story we’re sharing truly empowers the disability community? What if, instead of expecting our community to accept how the world sees us, we expected the world to welcome disabled people as we are? What if, instead of perpetuating clichés and stereotypes, we celebrated the human body in all its forms and functions so that no one would ever feel like they’re not enough?

It’s time to move beyond the shallow definitions of inspiration that far too many people have long embraced. We can do better than viral clickbait tales of disabled people being asked to prom or named to the homecoming court. The stories we need to tell are the ones of people fighting for their rights in a society that has yet to fully realize those rights exist. The stories we need to share are the ones of people breaking down actual barriers to access and inclusion, speaking up against the status quo. And if you must be inspired, let it be by the ways we show the world our humanity is not less-than because of who we are.

Examples of Inspiration Porn

The late Stella Young railed against clichéd narratives like these.

The late Stella Young railed against clichéd narratives like these.

Are you still unsure what inspiration porn in the media looks like? Maybe these examples will help:

1. Media that frames people with disabilities as brave or inspirational, when that same story wouldn’t be inspiring if the subject was not disabled:

This Student With a Disability Got Asked to the Prom in the Sweetest Way:

2. Media that frames actual accomplishments of disabled people in condescending ways:

Colorado teen overcomes disability to walk across stage at graduation:

3. Media that frames nondisabled people as heroes just for being nice to disabled people:

Fast-food employee feeds man with disability in moving video:

** This post was originally published on

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