Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Disability Should Not be Inspiration Porn For the Abled

Sorry, I tried embedding the amazing TED talk by Stella Young, an Australian comedian and journalist, into this post but couldn't get the code to work, so I hope you'll go over and watch the video so you'll understand what this post is about. (Or you can read the transcripts.)

Ms. Young talks about something that I'm sure we've all seen, motivational posters like these:

And she makes a very valid complaint about them.  And I quote (emphasis mine):

And these images, there are lots of them out there, they are what we call inspiration porn. (Laughter) And I use the term porn deliberately, because they objectify one group of people for the benefit of another group of people. So in this case, we're objectifying disabled people for the benefit of nondisabled people. The purpose of these images is to inspire you, to motivate you, so that we can look at them and think, "Well, however bad my life is, it could be worse. I could be that person."
And she's right.  Disability should not be inspiration porn for the nondisabled.  We shouldn't look at people who have achieved things despite differences and/or hardships and say "I should do better because look at what they did".  Being disabled doesn't mean being unskilled.  There are levels of disability just as there are levels of ability and yet it's easy to throw everyone under the same label and render them all 'less' as a result, despite that individual's individuality.  And when you start with a negative stereotype it's hard to see the real person under the labels and preconceived notions of their abilities.

This is one of the reasons I'm happy seeing more diverse characters showing up in SFF and why I think we need more.  Fiction is a great realm to explore difference and ability without the social awkwardness that accompanies rethinking your beliefs and expectations.  In other words, it's easier to learn new things and change your habits when you're exposed to something new in private rather than in a situation where you have to react to something you're perhaps not properly equipped to deal with in a respectful manner.

Ms. Young goes on to say:

And life as a disabled person is actually somewhat difficult. We do overcome some things. But the things that we're overcoming are not the things that you think they are. They are not things to do with our bodies. I use the term "disabled people" quite deliberately, because I subscribe to what's called the social model of disability, which tells us that we are more disabled by the society that we live in than by our bodies and our diagnoses.
I remember quite a few years back when I was working at a drug store, one of my managers came up to me and told me to help a customer who was visually impaired.  The customer was in the aisle I was restocking and I'd already noticed him, looking down the aisle to see if he needed help.  He didn't and so, despite my manager's prompting, I left him alone.  Sometimes people need help, and if they're adults they generally know when that is and can ask for it.  I helped numerous people at the bookstore, sometimes because of vision or hearing issues, most often because we didn't have an elevator and so often brought books downstairs for customers to browse.  But I tried not to assume that someone needed help simply because they were different.  And this video makes me think I did right by that.

I read a book about blindness as a kid that really stuck with me (Follow My Leader by James Garfield, if you're interested).  It stuck that being blind didn't mean a person was unable to live on their own like everyone else.  Yes, there are things they can't do, but not as much as sighted people tend to assume.

Books have the power to teach people how to deal with situations they've never faced.  They also have the power to teach people how to better deal with situations they did badly in.  I once worked with someone as seasonal staff who asked me to call them by a particular pronoun.  I'm ashamed to say that I can't remember what pronoun they requested as my mind blanked during the conversation as I tried to figure out what was going on.  I now understand it better - due to following particular inclusiveness conversations in SFF circles - but it's too late to change my response into a more appropriate and respectful one.  Sometimes we can only learn from our mistakes and resolve to do better in the future.

Again I quote the talk:

People, when they say, "You're an inspiration," they mean it as a compliment. And I know why it happens. It's because of the lie, it's because we've been sold this lie that disability makes you exceptional. And it honestly doesn't.
I really think that this lie that we've been sold about disability is the greatest injustice. It makes life hard for us. And that quote, "The only disability in life is a bad attitude," the reason that that's bullshit is because it's just not true, because of the social model of disability. No amount of smiling at a flight of stairs has ever made it turn into a ramp.
It's a really great talk and I hope you watch it/read it and take it to heart.

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