So the whole drawn-out thing is an exercise of Caputo (terrible prison administrator who is for probably horrible patriarchal, misogynistic reasons portrayed as the not-as-bad-guy, for the non-fans) trying to prove that he's a decent human being (spoiler alert: he's not). Maybe the producers/writers/whoever wanted him to seem human and relatable. The theme revolves around this line that keeps coming up, that he's always holding doors open and upset when no one thanks him. (Reminiscent of the MRA core belief that politeness and everyday decency toward women somehow create a right to sex with them.)
The opening flashback takes us to Caputo's high school years as a varsity wrestler. Stereotypical high school star athlete, captain of the team, that whole shebang. The coach has the team huddled together before the meet, and tells them that one of the wrestlers among them has taken one for the team and volunteered to do an exhibition match with this student from another high school. The coach tells them the other student has always dreamed of being a wrestler and now his dream will come true. The coach reveals that the volunteer is their team star, young Caputo, and calls Caputo a "real hero." Caputo, smiling, says, "I'm gonna make him feel like he's really doing it."
Here I am watching this, already cringing, about 99.99% sure I can already predict exactly what's about to come in the next shot.
BAM. Now Caputo steps to the ring, along with another high school student, also in wrestling gear. The announcer introduces them as "two very special wrestlers" before giving their names to the audience. The student from the other high school, predictably, has Down syndrome, a now easily recognized apparent disability.
Typically, the story ends with the non-disabled participant "heroically" letting the disabled person (usually a person with an intellectual or developmental disability) win. The underlying assumptions, of course, are that (a) disabled people are incapable of winning or even competing alongside everyone else because we are automatically not good at anything ever, and (b) disabled people lack awareness of reality so much that we can't tell when others are patronizing or condescending. In OITNB, the plot takes a different turn. Kendall Barnes (the student with Down syndrome) turns out to be so strong and physically powerful that he injures Caputo badly enough to prevent Caputo from ever competing again.
Sadly, as those of us in the disability world know well by now, these stories don't flit about only on the silver screen. They're also everywhere in our mass media and social networking. Sometimes they're posted with clickbait titles -- "You will cry after watching what this wrestling jock did for a special needs kid." "Tear-jerking video of girl with Down syndrome singing special song with local choir." "5 heart-warming stories about everyday good deeds from the kids in the autism classroom down the hall." "What this prom king did for special needs classmate will restore your faith in humanity."
(Ugh, now that I've typed these out, as in actually, legitimately, typed them out, I'm going to go vomit. Be right back.)
Stella Young, the late disabled activist as known for her wit and sharp analysis as for her snazzy outfits, called this phenomenon "inspiration porn." Many of us call it inspoporn for short. It refers to the omnipresent trope of stories that tend to fall into one of three categories:
(1) Disabled person does something extremely extraordinary (climbs Mt. Everest, is elected to a country's highest governing body, publishes New York Times bestseller, etc.), and it's presented as inspiring because the person is disabled, and not because 99% of the total population (disabled and non-disabled) could have never achieved it.
(2) Disabled person does something pretty mundane for most people (graduates middle school, plays in a basketball game, bakes cookies, etc.), and it's presented as inspiring because apparently disabled people are assumed to be incapable of doing ... anything. At all. With or without adaptive equipment. With or without practice and instruction geared to their learning style.
(3) Non-disabled person does something not overtly negative or generally shitty to disabled person (doesn't call them names, invites them to a birthday party or a prom, doesn't discriminate against them during a job interview, etc.), and it's presented as inspiring because LOOK AT THE MAGNANIMOUS, KIND-HEARTED (non-disabled) SAINT BEING NICE TO A PERSON SUFFERING FROM A DISABILITY. (*language intentional)
(Note there is often a racial component to these stories too: white disabled people and or white "helpers" present more easily accepted caricatures of saintly, angelic, heroic, courageous, inspirations.)
In other words, inspoporn is a collection of overcomer, supercrip, and saintly helper stories. The common undercurrent to all types of inspiration porn, however, is the disabled person's role in the story. Instead of being an individual character, fleshed out and made fully human and at least potentially relatable to the reader/viewer, the disabled person (or disabled people, if there's a group) exists as a prop for the non-disabled person in the story. The disabled person's existence serves as edification for the non-disabled people around them, or as a moral yardstick to measure whether the non-disabled people (the ones who are relatable as main characters to the presumed non-disabled only audience) are sufficiently good tolerant people who are minimally not shitty. This is not the same as being actively anti-ableist, by any stretch of the imagination.
Ari Ne'eman, Autistic Self Advocacy Network co-founder and president, describes the third category of inspoporn as Very Special Episode syndrome -- where a disabled character is newly introduced for one or a few episodes of a long-running series (in a book or film, this could easily be adjusted to a single chapter, single scene, or background plot) to teach the main characters (of course not disabled themselves) a very important lesson about tolerance before going back to the institution or special needs school where they "really belong."
So you can imagine my dismay when I came across this post in a law school's Disability Law Society social media page:
Photo: From a Facebook group for a Disability Law Society, a link to a news article. The original comment is, "This is what a true leader looks like :) [smile] " The article title is "Norton High School wrestler allows for dream win," and its description, "A high school wrestling champion is undefeated no more after answering the call to make another wrestler's wish come true." The photo shows two smiling young white people, one without an apparent disability (Deven Schuko) and the other a person with Down syndrome (Andy Howland), both in a gymnasium with wrestling championship banners. I commented below, "This is inspiration porn. This kind of patronizing story treats disabled people as objects of pity who don't understand if we're not "really" winning so we can make non-disabled people feel good about themselves. We don't need heroes or saviors."
This is not leadership. This is self-gratifying ableism. This is objectifying the young man with Down syndrome. This is infantilizing the young man with Down syndrome. This is placing this non-disabled wrestler on some kind of magical pedestal for participating in an inherently condescending activity that presumes incompetence on the part of the young man with Down syndrome and heroics on the part of the non-disabled wrestler. This is focusing the narrative on the person without a disability so the readers can laud him as a hero and a savior. This story is not about leadership. It's about pity, condescension, and cheapened do-gooding masquerading as heroism. It's about tokenism and commodification. It's a story about privilege and power, and the abuse of that privilege and power rather than the intentional use of it.
(Andy Howland lives in the twenty-first century. It's not hard to find out, if he didn't already suspect, that Deven Schuko intentionally lost. And how exactly do you think that's supposed to make Andy feel? Respected? Equal? Bullshit.)
Repeat after me:
Disabled people are not your feel-good back-pats.
Disabled people are not your cheap do-gooder points.
Disabled people are not your good tolerant person moral yardstick.
Disabled people are not your community service.
Disabled people are not your emotional commodity.
Got that? Good.
Spending a few hours a week around us, under the assumption that we cannot and do not understand the conversations you have about us, does nothing to challenge assumptions about disabled people. Cloistering us into special programs and exhibition matches does nothing to promote genuine, sustained, meaningful inclusion of disabled people into spaces that should be open to everyone but in reality are only open to a few. Volunteering to ask us on a pity date to the prom, pretending to compete while intentionally losing at a sport, including us once a month or year at your activity or program -- these things do nothing to challenge ableism but everything to perpetuate it. This type of faux inclusion and feigned friendship serve to isolate, stigmatize, and reinforce negative assumptions about disabled people -- assumptions that have incredibly harmful consequences beyond the exhibition match or special prom.
Do you want to support disabled people? Do you want to be more informed, more educated, less ignorant, and less foolish? Then start by paying attention to what we have to say. Start by learning the tools of practicing allyship. Start by assuming that your assumptions are wrong or at the very least, misinformed. Start by questioning narratives that seem to be much more about a non-disabled person's supposed heroics than about a disabled person's humanity and agency in controlling the narrative about them. Start by focusing less on some special one-time event or photo shoot, and more time on the systemic problems in your backyard -- the high rates of bullying impacting students with disabilities, the fact that the school to prison pipeline impacts disabled Black and Brown students more than any other demographic, the high rates of homelessness and unemployment, the overall lack of access to affordable and accessible healthcare especially for rural or queer or trans disabled folks, the consistent denial of access to adaptive equipment and communication devices, the high rates of sexual abuse and killings by family members, the daily torture rituals that many disabled people suffer from in the name of "treatment" and "therapy" and "cure." Ask why disabled people are routinely excluded in the first place such that would-be do-gooders assume our only option is the pity-based special event, and work to change that reality.
Start by treating us as partners instead of projects, and maybe, just maybe, we'll start to get somewhere.
- Being My Friend Does Not Make You A Hero by Karin Hitselberger
- Don't be a hero by Sea Change Ripples
- The helper personality scares me... by Kassiane Sibley
- I'm Not Your Fodder For A Feel Good Story: People With Disabilities & The Assumption That Friendship Is Charity by The Squeaky Wheelchair
- We're not here for your inspiration by Stella Young