Blog Post

The Body, Disability, and Inspiration Porn

 

[First image: a young boy, around 6 years old, grinning on a an outdoor track. He wears a white shirt with a paper on the front reading "43 / Endeavor Games," and blue shorts. He wears prosthetic legs designed for athletics and appears to be walking or jogging toward the camera. Lime green text is superimposed on top of the image in the center, reading, "your excuse is invalid."]

[Second image: a woman with her back to the camera overlooking a beach with her arms outstretched to her sides. She has long brown hair, wears a short-sleeve white shirt, and is in a wheelchair. White text is superimposed on the top of the image, reading: "Never Ignore Somebody With a Disability, You Don't Realize How Much They Can Inspire You !!" Text on the right side of the screen, below the previous text, reads: "Share If You Agree."]

You might be familiar with these pictures. For many people, seeing people with disabilities accomplish feats that we assume can only be done by an “able-bodied” person is inspirational; it reminds us that if people with disabilities can overcome their challenges, why can’t we?

Images like these and the quotes accompanying them are known as inspiration porn. Think about it: why do you find that person inspirational? This sympathetic reaction, based on the perception that people with disabilities have to struggle more than you or "able-bodied" people to get through life, places that person in a lower status and instantly “others” them while you you sit comfortably from your easier life.

While these and similar images have become ubiquitous on platforms like Facebook, where the dissemination of ordinary photos does not often extend beyond your friends, Tumblr has created a space for both propagation of and dissent from this ideology. 

“If Facebook is the social network for online identification and authentication, and Twitter is for communication, Tumblr fulfills a different role: self-expression,” writes Leonard Bell. This platform makes the creation and sharing of new content, particularly visual content, possible in only a few clicks. The easy-to-understand site also gives users the opportunity to share content in text, quote, audio, video, chat, link. 

There has recently been a heightened awareness of the relation of our physical bodies to those in the online world. On Tumblr, where users have the opportunity to create an identity through their own blog, dashboard, and interactions with other bloggers, this relation to the body is more complex.

This series of blog posts will be dedicated to the construction of the “abled” and “disabled” body in interactive digital media platforms, specifically on Tumblr and in SecondLife. 

 

Before we get started, let’s brush up on disability theory. This is important in understanding the blog posts to come:

1. There are two models of disability: the medical model and the social model. The medical model views disability as inherently impairing. A woman born with one arm is worse off because of the lack of a limb, seen as a defect. The social model of disability views disability as the result of a built environment and ideology that exclude anyone who does not fit into the category of an “able body.” Imagine a world where all humans were born without legs. How would the world look different? Would there be “handicap” parking spots? Stairs? In this series, I accept the the social model of disability, which is becoming more widely accepted over the outdated medical model.

[Image: a cartoon depicting a woman using a wheelchair at the bottom of stairs, next to a sign that reads "WAY IN [arrow pointing up the stairs], Everyone Welcome!" Speech bubble on left reads: "Her impairment is the problem! They should cure her or give her prosthetics," coming from "The medical model of disability." Speech bubble on the right reads: "The stairs are the problem! They should build a ramp," coming from "the social model of disability."]

2. Terminology: Word choice is a delicate issue. Let’s break it down:

The word handicap(ed) has become derogatory. Plain and simple. The only time it is appropriate is when referring to non-human things like a “handicapped parking spot” or a “handicapped bathroom.”

As a general rule, I will use people-first language. Calling someone a “disabled” person literally and metaphorically puts the disability in front of the person, assuming that a disability is the most important part of one’s identity. It is not all that different from the recent discussion about gay marriage, that asks, ‘why can’t it just be called “marriage?”’ There are fantastic, strong counter-arguments to people-first language available here and here.

When talking about people with disabilities, what it ultimately comes down to is simple: “Nothing about us without us.” Ask someone what they prefer. While it may seem awkward at first, it’s much less awkward than being tongue-tied or insensitive, and they might even appreciate it.

I will use the word “disabled” when referring to the nonspecific “body,” rather than that of a particular human being. While these are undivorcable, it is a way of employing the discourse of digital disembodiment.

In the same way, I will use the term “abled body” when connoting or investigating the actions or beliefs that created (emphasis on past tense) meaning in the “able body.

In short, these terms are used to refer not to a particular person, but to the actions that established what it means to be able-bodied or to have a disability.

Now that the basics are out of the way, we can return to Tumblr and why it is such a timely and intriguing way to look at disability. The question of digital embodiment, or the identity attached your physical body IRL vs. the online identity, has become a commonly used starting point in other areas of the digital humanities. Tumblr has been at the crux of this discussion based on the user’s abilities built into the platform and the people who engage with its content. Some of the questions I will consider are how does Tumblr impact the normalization of bodies? Which bodies are considered normal and abnormal? Good and bad? How does Tumblr enable or restrain people with disabilities to/from expressing their sexuality? Does it influence the fetishization of disabilities? How does Tumblr create spaces for human connection among people with disabilities?

More generally, can Tumblr function as an extension of the human body, like a prosthetic that people with disabilities can “put on” to move closer to a “normal” body? If so, does it mean that person is no longer disabled? Or is Tumblr completely outside of the body in line with the discourse of digital dualism?

And finally, is disability being represented on Tumblr? Is the dominant form self-representation or representation by a third party? How does this compare to representation outside of social media platforms, including film, literature, and art? What can this tell us about the elasticity and fluidity of the “abled” and “disabled” body and opportunities within and outside of the emerging discourses on disability in Tumblr and beyond?

To answer these questions and others, I will continue to track specific blogs, tags, and communities. Thus far, I have identified four themes/points of interest that characterize the different sides of these questions. Some speak directly to bodies, others to ideology. They are as follows:

Inspiration Porn

The Perks of Being Disabled: Personal Experience and Connection

Lesbigasm and Disabled People are Sexy: Expressions of Sexuality and the Influence of Fetishization

Ramp Your Voice and Queerability: Preaching to the Choir?

In this and my next blog post, I will address each of these topics.

Now, let's begin with the first theme, referenced at the beginning of this post: Inspiration Porn.

A widely circulated definition of inspiration porn is as follows:

Via the Lame Dame

[Image shows a post on Tumblr by user "friendlyangryfeminist," which reads: "Inspiration porn is an image of a person with a disability, often a kid, doing something completely ordinary - like playing, or talking, or running, or drawing a picture, or hitting a tennis ball - carrying a caption like “your excuse is invalid” or “before you quit, try”. Let me be clear about the intent of this inspiration porn; it’s there so that non-disabled people can put their worries into perspective. So they can go, “Oh well if that kid who doesn’t have any legs can smile while he’s having an awesome time, I should never, EVER feel bad about my life”. It’s there so that non-disabled people can look at us and think “well, it could be worse… I could be that person”. In this way, these modified images exceptionalise and objectify those of us they claim to represent. It’s no coincidence that these genuinely adorable disabled kids in these images are never named: it doesn’t matter what their names are, they’re just there as objects of inspiration. Inspiration porn shames people with disabilities. It says that if we fail to be happy, to smile and to live lives that make those around us feel good, it’s because we’re not trying hard enough. Our attitude is just not positive enough. It’s our fault. Not to mention what it means for people whose disabilities are not visible, like people with chronic or mental illness, who often battle the assumption that it’s all about attitude. And we’re not allowed to be angry and upset, because then we’d be “bad” disabled people. We wouldn’t be doing our very best to “overcome” our disabilities. I suppose it doesn’t matter what inspiration porn says to us as people with disabilities. It’s not actually about us." ]

We can apply this definition of inspiration porn to the following post by Cracked.com on their Tumblr account:

[Image: The above image shows a screenshot of a photo posted on Tumblr and the text beneath it. The image in the tumblr post shows a man in a yellow jacket with no legs smiling at the camera. His arms are stretched high above his head, palms facing the sky. He appears to be standing on a mountain (later confirmed). Behind him, multicolored prayer flags hang from a large green sign, which reads, ""CONGRATULATIONS! / YOU ARE NOW AT UHURU PEAK / 5895 M A.M.S.L. / TANZANIA / AFRICA'S HIGHEST POINT / WORLD'S HIGHEST FREE STANDING MOUNTAIN / WORLD HERITAGE SITE." The text written below the photo reads: "Kanye was right: you can do anything. / [LINK:] 5 People Whose Major Disabilities Only Made Them Stronger / #5. Spencer West Climbs Mount Kilimanjaro with No Legs / About 35,000 people try to climb Mount Kilimanjaro each and every year, but only half have what it takes to make it to the summit. Of course, if you ask most people exactly what it does “take” to conquer the highest free-standing mountain in the world, “a pair of legs” will probably be at the top of their list. Spencer West would disagree. Because, you see, West has no legs and he climbed the damned mountain anyway. [LINK:] Read More." The bottom of the post in the screenshot reads: "Posted 4 months ago," and "429 notes."]
 

As you can see, the post has had 429 notes (likes and reblogs). When you scroll through the notes, you can see what users added when reblogging the post. Examples include: 

“Getting there on two legs was hard enough. Mad respect.”

“Shit”

“Ugh these disabled people going out and doing things and I’m just sitting here trying to pass my tests”

“my excuse is that climbing a mountain is a stupid way to use your time”

“My legs hurt"

“If you can do things without legs, that 99% of people with all four limbs can’t, I don’t think you’re “disabled”.”

“What am I doing with my life?”

“NOW make excuses…”

A handful were seemingly neutral in terms of his disability (“What an awesome feat. Done Mt. Kenya, Tanzania is next on the list”). Only one user expressed dissatisfaction (“Cracked, you utter wanks, stop making disabled people into your fucking motivational pinups you smarmy bastards”).

Posts like these (which have been floating around Tumblr for years) and the growth of the idea of inspiration porn motivated users to push back in greater numbers.

[Image: a screenshot of a photo posted on Tumblr above the accompanying text. The text below the photo (inlcluding image description) reads: "Please lets not get into inspiration porn. / [Image : A disabled person is shown. The text reads, “What’s your excuse?”] / The phrase, “what’s your excuse” is pretty damaging. It implies that people who don’t live up to that high standard of fitness are lazy because of the problematic “hey, even a disabled person can do it” mentality. Besides there is a huge variety of disabilities and people that look just fine can be severely disabled."]

[Image: a screenshot of photo posted on Tumblr above a long text post, that includes a quote, beneath it. The text below the photo (inlcluding image description) reads: "(TW: Ableism & Inspiration Porn) / {Image description: a young girl without arms or legs runs with a person without legs on prosthetics. A quote from Scott Hamilton reads, “The only disability in life is a bad attitude.”} / Not. Again. Okay, I know you probably didn’t mean it this way, but this is really really ableist because you’re invalidating our problems. We can’t do certain things, and it’s not because of our attitude. It’s because society and our disabilities suck. Okay? / Also, this is inspiration porn. From a very awesome person: "Certainly. My personal opinion is that this quote is an oppressive piece of garbage; even more so when it is coupled with a picture of some disabled person and neatly packaged as ‘inspiration porn’. It essentially dismisses the systematic oppression of people with disabilities and implies that anyone who has the audacity to voice their frustration on this matter should ‘shut the fuck up and stop complaining’. It shames people for being rightfully upset with the way they are treated. Disability and society’s negative connotations of it won’t simply disappear because of a good attitude." / http://fuckthedisabled.tumblr.com/post/18166520752/hey-can-you-give-an-o... / I WISH I COULD SUPER-GLUE THIS TO THE PICTURE."]

(Even more responses to inspiration porn can be found herehere, and here)

Some users decided to take a different approach.

In December of 2012, The Lame Dame posted the following image of herself in response to yet another display of inspiration porn:

[Image: A young woman wearing a sleeveless white shirt and white underwear sits on a couch. A lit cigarette hangs from her mouth. She leans forward, hand outsretched toward a white mug that stands next to five orange prescription bottles. White text superimposed over the top of the image reads: "Just can't finish that last season on netflix in your underwear?" The text continues on the bottom right of the image: "No Excuses."]

Other users reblogged her post, adding their own photos:

   

[Each of the four images show young women doing ordinary things. Text is superimposed over each of the images, reflecting what each of the women is doing. First image reads: "Who knew cripples could read? / So inspirational! Wheelchair user AND avid reader! / NO EXCUSES." Second image reads: "This girl has chronic pain. / She she's eating a bag of chips anyways. / Too laxy to go open that bag of chips? NO EXCUSES." Third image reads: "Disabled by chronic pain... / Still playing Scrabble against myself. / No Excuses!" Fourth image reads: Look at this cripple, still listening to music. How inspirational!"]

The post showing all of the response photographs was reblogged hundreds of times. Since the community of people who self-identify with a disability is relatively small and somewhat scattered, we know that these images reached people who may not have any other interest in the representation of people with disabilities.

How inspiration porn fits into the spectrum of digital dualism and the rhetoric of ableism is something I can only assess in depth after understanding some of the other topics mentioned above as they apply to Tumblr. Given that this post has been somewhat heavy on background and disability theory, I will save that analysis for my next post. For now, I will let these last images be food for thought.

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2 comments

Meg, your post has been really helpful to me in terms of asking specific questions about Tumblr communities as well as the nuance you presented of this issue. I had not previously come across disability porn on Tumblr and I am happy you introduced us both to the “inspirational” images as well as the push back against it. Your introduction encapsulated perfectly the inherently dialogical nature of Tumblr and the power that tags and reblogs with notes have to present points and counterpoints. There seem to be many uses of “prostheses” within this dialogue: both Tumblr as a prosthetic that people with disabilities can use to empower themselves (either through oppositional images, community building, or “removing disability) and the “inspirational” images, and representationally, disabled people as prostheses for abled bodies to prop themselves up on. Within these categories are fundamental questions of duality that you state: abled/disabled, virtual/real, Tumblr as enabler/restraint. I would like to add the question of how Tumblr can offer approaches to your questions that do not center on dichotomies. I tend to believe that methods of communication on Tumblr blur many lines of interrelationality and I am genuinely excited to see how you navigate these dualisms. 

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Hi Meg,
 
You have no idea how much I enjoyed reading your blog! I’m currently working on an article on cyberfeminism, natural birthing communities, and feminist disability studies; the ideas you put forth here (especially the notion of a medical versus social disability) have given me a lot to think about and will help me further develop my research.

If you ever want to swap ideas or share research, please let me know. You can reach me at loribethdehertogh.com or lori.dehertogh@email.wsu.edu.
 
Cheers,
 
Lori Beth
 
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