How the Media and Society Objectify Disabled People

Introduction: Inspiration Porn 

The most recent example of inspiration porn has crossed my Twitter feed. It is that a Florida State University college football player sat down and had lunch with an autistic boy in a cafeteria. The story got picked up by the New York Times. I don’t fault the college football player very much, if it all (but I hope he asked the autistic student if the company would be welcome). The football player probably just saw a person likely excluded by classmates. He wanted to make sure the student was not alone. At worst, there is the element of pity involved, but the act itself was not ill-intended.

I do fault the Internet and the news media. We, disabled people, see these types of things spread like wildfire, time and time again:

  • A disabled person does something that a non-disabled person does, which often plays into the “supercrip” media model of disability
  • A non-disabled person treats a disabled person with kindness.
  • A non-disabled person helps a disabled person (whether the disabled person asked for help or not).

Two examples are the way the Internet took hold of the autistic store employee decorating a cake, and the employee at a Kentucky Qdoba helping a physically disabled woman eat when she asked for assistance. In the age of easy access to recording devices and uploads to YouTube, Facebook, and other social media platforms, these stories attain a viral ferocity. Journalists pick up on the fact that the video or story is trending across social media. News articles about the story crop up, fueling its spread even further.

We Could Be Next: The Risk of Being Filmed

The effects of these viral stories are quite damaging, even when one does not go to the most extreme consequences. Any one of us could be the next story by asking for help, or getting help even if we don’t want it. Since the conductor announcements of what train is approaching are hard to hear, a  blind person asks a subway stationmaster to help them get on the right train. An autistic person has a shutdown. Their friend helps them retreat to a quiet location without fanfare at the scene. A wheelchair user faces a curb cut, and they decide to complain to the city after finding another route. But a stranger rushes over anyway and helps get them over the curb cut. Someone could film any one of these situations and unleash the tidal wave of feel-good comments, shares, and news stories.

We are all too aware of the risk of being filmed for someone’s feel-good story (or for someone to mock, but that could be another post). We already face enormous pressure to not ask for help – to be the “supercrip” and “overcome” our disabilities – and the risk of being a viral story is yet another reason we might avoid asking for help when we need it.

Inspiration Porn Hides Key Issues

Inspiration porn also hides key social and policy issues. In “Inspiration Porn Further Disables the Disabled,” David Perry writes of these kinds of stories, “[the stories] all feature people doing good things. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with the content of these stories, of course, but the way they’re told conceals the real issues faced by the disability community… Inspiration porn makes us feel that everything is going to be OK.” Perry also wonders: Why isn’t the state of Kentucky providing community-based supports to the wheelchair user at Qdoba, so she doesn’t have to rely on strangers to help?

In the case of the autistic boy eating alone at school that we started off this post with, why has the school failed to model social inclusion? What about the scenario of the blind person asking for help getting on the correct train – why aren’t conductor announcements for arriving trains distinct and clear? And for the wheelchair user facing the curb cut – why is there a curb cut to begin with?

The Destruction of Privacy

They also destroy our right to privacy. As one writer in the blog post “Deprivation of privacy and other thoughts” points out, “persistently violating someone’s privacy over time also just establishes a standard (to both that person and everyone around them) that it’s acceptable to persistently violate their privacy over time.” Even if we haven’t had our privacy eroded over time, often journalists publish our names, even if the original poster of the video or story did not. Everyone now knows us as “the person in that inspirational video,” and the person helping as our hero. The instantaneous destruction of privacy tells society that it is acceptable to sacrifice our privacy to make a feel-good news story, and to do it to any disabled person… over and over again.

How It’s Toxic for Us

Finally, we notice when we get objectified as inspiration porn. We feel objectified. It is toxic. Being objectified hurts our self-image and mental health. It erodes our ability to feel safe and like we can have even some privacy. It hampers our ability to set boundaries around privacy. It makes us feel like we have no control over our life and story. We notice, and it hurts in more ways than one.

Conclusion: The Vicious Cycle 

And of course, the way these viral stories get reported and commented on further a vicious cycle, encompassed in the following:

  1. We (disabled people) get seen as other – less than human, or a lower level of human.
  2. Because we are other, acts of kindness toward us seem newsworthy. We are not real people, after all. We are other. Kindness toward unpeople is as newsworthy as large-scale natural disasters and transportation accidents.
  3. The writers of these news stories objectify us. We are pity objects and have no agency. We exist to make people feel good about their deeds. We reach the bare minimum of humanity, if we are human at all. They make us seem other by teaching people that it’s a miracle anyone is nice to us at all.
  4. We get seen as other. Kindness toward us is newsworthy. We get objectified. People learn that being nice to us is miraculous. We get seen as other… 

But we are here and human. We can tell our own stories, if anyone bothers to ask. If no one asks, we tell them anyway. We can be our own advocates, and we can also be activists and writers and professionals. The Developmental Disabilities Act says “disability is a natural part of human experience,” and this is true. It is past time that non-disabled people get accustomed to seeing disabled people in their midst as normal rather than as a news story.

 

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4 thoughts on “How the Media and Society Objectify Disabled People

  1. Pingback: Kindness should be planned, not random – G Email News

  2. Pingback: Inspiration Porn, Growth Mindset, and Deficit Ideology – Ryan Boren

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