Now hold it. Hold it right there. I know, I know I put “porn” in a title, so who knows what searches are going to land people on this one. It isn’t what you think though. Honestly. No really, just bear with me and calm down Daryl, Matt, Martha and the rest of you…you know who you are. The term “inspiration porn” is one I came across a few months ago while reading this article on Audacity Magazine: http://www.audacitymagazine.com/inspiration-porn-debate/
The article mentioned a fantastic TED Talk from Stella Young (go look her up on the TED Talks, shorter than my linking it) that may have coined the term “inspirational porn”. It’s based on the use of people with disabilities in media as some sort of guiding light to the abled, showing them doing things that might not seem so remarkable if they weren’t disabled. This has happened to me several times…and I’m quite conflicted about it. In fact this issue has come more to the fore after this past weekends Super Bowl, which contained a host of commercials that used disabled people as “inspiration”. Let me illustrate.
October 4th, 2014. The sixth wedding anniversary with my lovely wife on a clear, if bloody cold night. We spent it wheeling around the streets of Toronto enjoying the yearly Nuit Blanche arts festival that just happened to coincide with our anniversary.. If you’ve never been, it’s quite the spectacle, with major streets around Toronto closed over night for an all night community arts display. Some of it really quite epic, some of it quite simple. At least…that’s what I heard from Shannon…as my view mostly consisted of judging the fitness of the various tushies in front of me given the crowds and my viewing angles. Even with that, it was a good night celebrating the love of my life and our adventures together. We made it a first and that night, we took the transit with the chair for the first time, wondering how Toronto’s subway would handle the chair/me (hard to separate us anymore). None of that is too relevant though, it just sets the scene. For on our return home, we had an encounter that stuck with me.
As we wheeled into the Spadina subway station, we hunted for the elevator down to track level in the nearly deserted entrance (and my god had I forgotten how long a trek Spadina Rd. is as it twists through the University of Toronto campus and China Town). As we passed some stairs up from the track below, we were making our normal joke about when I’m going to attempt going down a flight when a gentleman came bounding up them. I remember being struck by how easily he took them three at a time as I used to do not so long ago. He turned as he hit the top, and not paying attention, almost got bowled over by me as I screeched to a stop on slippery tile. He apologized and then turned to keep going…but then…stopped. He turned back and extended his hand from a stylish denim coat that was far too light for the weather, but perfect for club wear.
“I just wanted to say sir, you are inspiring, thank you.”
I stared at him blankly for what seemed minutes to me, his hand in mine. My only response was, “Forgive me but…why?”
He flashed me a smile, “I don’t know if I could do what you do, no clue where you strength comes from, but bless you for it.”
With that he turned and bounded off to a street car with a line of club goers, all barely dressed for the weather, boarding as quick as they could.
Shan was beside me as he said it and just about as dumbfounded by it as I was. I was immediately struck with the wish that I had been quicker on the uptake, that I had been able to get out the thought that it was nothing special, and everyone has the strength to handle any adversity if they just look for it…I wish…I wish I’d had something more pithy to say like, “Why is there something wrong with me?” I didn’t though. We continued on, found the tiny elevator to track level and started home, but we talked about it the whole way. Wondering why me, just living my life, was somehow “inspiring”.
You’ve all seen this “inspiration porn” and probably even enjoyed it. Images, memes, quick hit click bait news stories with tales of the disabled being so “remarkable”. Yahoo’s news page is guilty of it, as is MSN’s or Google’s. The Chive, a site I enjoy for many obvious reasons, is guilty of including such images in their galleries, even as they’ve done some amazing charity work. A guy in a wheelchair doing back flips, a girl with one leg swimming a lake, a man with no arms painting masterworks. Images and words that work to make us all think “hey if they can do that, why can’t I do better”. Now, marketing mavens have figured out how to take that imagery and apply it to the biggest TV event of the year…the Super Bowl. Now, it’s making money.
This is where my conflict comes from.
I’m as guilty as anyone of finding these images, words and deeds to be inspiring, to make me want to push harder, to do my exercises, to get creative, to get back to my writing and my riding. On top of all that I can’t deny that there is a little thrill one gets when you are told that what you are doing is “inspiring”. It can’t help but gives one’s ego a bit of a boost to think that maybe you could be one of those guys in the video. That maybe you are already that to some degree. That maybe you ARE inspiring others who see you wheeling along a snow-covered street. However, that’s about as far as it goes. First, I’ve got family and friends who are very good at popping ego balloons before they get too big. Second…that’s not why I live my life.
When that guy came bounding up the steps, I wasn’t do anything special. I wasn’t doing a handstand with my wheelchair attached to my legs, I wasn’t surfing down the stairs, I wasn’t giving a speech to kids about how not to see the chair, but see the person. I was out on the town, with my wife, enjoying life. I wasn’t doing anything different from that guy might have been about to do himself. Perhaps he was meeting his wife for a night out (just much later…like I used to do at that age). I am not trying to live my life to make him, or anyone push themselves harder, faster, stronger. I am just…living. I am living for my friends, my family, my wife…and perhaps most importantly…myself.
The slow loss of my legs has been a curse I wouldn’t wish on anyone. This could happen to anyone though, and every day it DOES. When it happens, whether it be paralysis, or cancer, or ALS, or…anything that changes your life forever…you have to make a choice. Are you going to keep living. Or do you let it beat you. If seeing someone make the choice to keep living inspires you…well then great. Just remember that when you see someone posting images of disabled people living their lives, those people aren’t TRYING to be an inspiration. They aren’t there for you to have an inspirational stroke (to complete the porn image) when you watch what they do. They are living their lives. Just like you.
Easy enough for me to preach, but I know full well the next time I see guys playing murderball/wheelchair rugby, it’s going to push me to try it. When I see someone riding hard on a hand bike, it will push me to get reach that goal of getting back on those wheels. Even it’s now three instead of two. I feel that inspiration too, even as I rage a bit at the commercialization of it. For while no one should look at a person with a disability living their life and say, “oh what an inspiration you are”, perhaps we should all just be proud that we are seeing these people with disabilities at all. Whether it’s in sport, commercial or on your street. Times are changing. I wear that disabled title as my own personal badge and you’re going to see a lot more of us out there living our lives. Perhaps then it won’t seem so remarkable. It will just…be.
Yes, without a doubt, you will meet some people with the strongest wills you might ever see at a place like Lyndhurst, or better yet Sick Kids Hospital (those kids put me to shame). Better yet…ignore the crass imagery…and look inside yourself. That’s what I wish I’d told that guy who bounded up those stairs. Everyone has the capacity for that strength. I just hope you never have to reach for it.
(quick note: as I published this I found an article published this evening on Salon about this topic as well, though taking a different take..great timing..ugh)