The Body, Disability, & Inspiration Porn

The 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.”

The 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, then 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 able-bodied people to get through life, places that person in a lower status and instantly “others” them while able-bodied people or people whose disabilities do not hinder them in their everyday lives sit comfortably in 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, and more.

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.

Let’s brush up on disability theory

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,” on other words, a systemic form of ableism. 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 post, I accept the the social model of disability, which is becoming more widely accepted over the outdated medical model.

In the image above, a cartoon depicts 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.

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. For those of you unfamiliar with Tumblr, there are a handful of ways that users can create identities on the platform. The first is through the “about” section in the header or sidebar of their blog (example here), or on an optional “about” page (example here). Descriptions in the header or sidebar must be succinct and deliberate; the limited space (and taboo quality of having too much text on an otherwise visual blog) combined with the visibility of the section gives it significance in how the user identifies. Users will sometimes use this space for a single meaningful line or quote (example here). An “about” page offers a similar space, but without the strict confines of space. The second is through the actual aesthetic of the blog, including content and theme. Themes exist to minimize or exaggerate, creating a critical atmosphere. In adding and reblogging posts, users create a unique identity that tells you about that person’s interests, style, and even pieces of their daily lives. Scrolling through a blog allows you to make sense of their identity and how it has been established and changed over time. Finally, when users follow blogs, they curate a dashboard visible only to them. In scrolling through one’s dashboard, users interact with a reflection of their own interests, and perhaps even a reflection of themselves. The more time one spends on Tumblr, whether on a computer, tablet, or phone, the more Tumblr influences our understanding of identities online.

Now, let’s return to the main subject: Inspiration Porn

A widely circulated definition of inspiration porn, via Tumblr, is as follows:

Via the Lame Dame

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

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.

(Even more responses to inspiration porn can be found here, here, 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 po

rn:

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. 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 after delving more in depth into the world of disability on Tumblr in the coming weeks. For now, I will let these last images be food for thought.

 

Images via tumblr.com and Google Images

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