The ‘inspiration porn’ phenomenon

David Kelly

The late Stella Young coined the term 'inspiration porn'.

Posting images of individuals with disabilities taking on activities which may be more difficult for them, has been used as a way to motivate able-bodied people in their daily lives, but its problematic nature must be explored.

Type inspiration porn into Google Images and you’ll find photos of people with disabilities doing something physically inspiring captioned with something like “what’s your excuse?”. This phenomenon is polarising, with some maintaining it is inspiring, while others claiming it’s objectifying.

The term  ‘inspiration porn’ was coined (or popularised) by the late comedian and disability activist Stella Young.

“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.”

Professor of Special Needs Education at the University of Oslo, Jane Grue amends this definition slightly to incorporate the changing examples of inspiration porn. “Inspiration porn is (a) an image of a person with visible signs of impairment who is (b) performing a physical activity, preferably displaying signs of physical prowess, and is (c) accompanied by a caption that directs the viewer to be inspired by the image in question.”

The primary critique of inspiration porn is that it objectifies people with disabilities to benefit able-bodied people. The major caveat comes from the accompanying caption; ‘what’s your excuse?’. Critics argue that the inclusion of the caption changes the photo from a celebration of accomplishment to an admonishment of guilt.

“However, when images of disabled people are accompanied by slogans such as, ‘what’s your excuse?’ or ‘your excuse is invalid,’ disabled people aren’t being lifted up or celebrated. We’re being used as a tool to guilt abled people into trying harder,” said Saidee Wynn, a writer with a disability, who writes on chronic illnesses.

Some argue that this is a cynical analysis of the phenomenon. While it cannot be said that inspiration porn solves the problems facing people with disabilities, some examples of inspiration porn, like an able-bodied person doing something kind for a person with a disability, are to some, just examples of kindness.

“I’m a sucker for human connection–and I really believe that is what people are responding to when they click and share these videos, not the objectification of the disabled,” said Amy S.F. Lutz of the EASI Foundation: Ending Aggression and Self-Injury in the Developmentally Disabled.

Sharon Synder and David Mitchell outline how inspiration porn may objectify disabled people. Within disabled studies, there is a term called ‘narrative prosthesis’. This refers to the narrative process whereby the disability of a person becomes their distinct and defining characteristic.

When Young coined the term ‘inspiration porn’ in 2012, she justified the usage of the latter word as the function of pornography is to objectify one group at the expense of another. However, Prof Grue points out that new usages of the word have emerged since then.

“We are aided by everyday usage, where ‘porn’ – when it does not refer to actual porn – has come to signify uncritical esthetic appreciation of something or other. On the Internet forum Reddit, there are sub-forums dedicated to ‘architecture porn,’ ‘food porn,’ and even ‘airport porn’”, explains Prof Grue.

Prof Grue argues that these are examples of ‘representational fantasy’. These types of ‘porn’ present a single, impressive aspect of disability, while leaving out the negative, sometimes painful parts of being disabled. This supports Wynn’s argument that inspiration porn ropes all disabilities together.

“Inspiration porn is the representation of disability as a desirable but undesired characteristic, usually by showing impairment as a visually or symbolically a distinct biophysical deficit in one person, a deficit that can and must be overcome through the display of physical prowess” concludes Prof Grue with an amended definition.

Whether inspirational porn is harmful or not is arguable. However, as it has incited a myriad of representational voices to weigh in and discuss important issues, that in itself is positive.

David Kelly

Image Credit: TEDx Sydney