There was quite a lot of discussion last week among disability bloggers and Facebookers about a viral video showing a restaurant employee “feeding” a physically disabled customer.
While newspapers and TV stations all over North America reported it as an unambiguous “good news” story, most of the comments from disabled people ranged from head-shaking to outrage. On one level, it was a simple reaction to standard “Inspiration Porn.” Inspiration Porn is that thing where someone writes a news story or posts an “inspiring” photo or video involving a disabled person, something clearly meant to make us go, “Awwww,” and appreciate bravery, persistence, or kindness, preferably without asking awkward questions about context.
On another level, this particular video raised very specific questions about privacy and objectification. Who is this disabled woman? What is her name? Did she know she was being filmed? If she had known, would she have been okay with the video being publicly posted and then going viral? Was she happy with how the employee was helping her, or did she have some other solution in mind? And, who is the customer filming the scene? Did he or she think for a moment about how the disabled woman might feel? Did they introduce themselves to her and ask her permission to film her and present this bit of her life in order to “inspire” millions of strangers? Is it possible a severely disabled person might have mixed feelings about being looked at in this way?
Of course, these questions provoked their own perplexed, angry responses from people who apparently felt cranky disability activists were raining on a parade they had been enjoying immensely. Why do people have to put a sinister spin on a rare “good news” story? Why are disabled people so angry about stuff like this? Aren’t they always asking retail staff to help them? The world is such a nasty place, and this is a nice story. Lighten up!
I have been thinking for awhile that we need to come up with a way to allow some cultural space for people who really love and crave “inspiration”, while keeping it from becoming “Inspiration Porn” that insults disabled people and sends ableist messages about disability.
Maybe we should make a checklist for would-be filmers, meme-makers, and reporters thinking about using disabled people as their subjects:
- Is the disabled person a willing participant in the story, video, or photo?
- Does the disabled person have a voice in the finished product … something relevant to say, in their own words?
- Is the disabled person credited by name? Does the piece include include any contact and background information about the disabled person, if they want it included?
- Does the finished product include enough accurate information on the situation and disability to put the scene or incident in context?
- Who is the “hero” of the scene? Are they doing something truly remarkable, or interesting only compared to very low, possibly insulting expectations?
- If you were the disabled person in the finished product, how would you feel about it?
- Consider how the disabled person might actually feel, not how you think they should feel.
If you look at this list and think, “Who’s going to be comfortable with all that?”, then that should tell you something about Inspiration Porn. If what you’re doing can’t pass these simple tests, then maybe the world doesn’t need your inspiring creation right now.
On the other hand, I think this list might be reasonable enough to allow a few disability-related photo memes, videos, and news stories of the “inspirational” variety to satisfy peoples’ apparent craving for such things. I think it’s worth noting, too, that some disabled people feel good about inspiring others, and actually spend time and creativity doing so through videos, photo memes, blog posts, and the like.
The key difference is that those are messages from disabled people, in which disabled people are active participants with human voices and points of view, not nameless objects on which others project their feelings.