11 February 2016

Disabled people are not your feel-good back-pats.

Anyone who watches Orange is the New Black remember the cringe-worthy Caputo episode? (S3, E11. "We Can Be Heroes." Yep, that's the title of it. And no real spoilers ahead in this post for people who didn't watch Season 3.)

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 charity projects.

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.

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  1. FUCK Inspiration PORN!

    The only good porn involves intimacy and raw emotion XD

  2. This is awesome. Thanks for everything! And for the references. ;)

  3. Someone asked Andy how he felt, and he said, "I love it."

    1. Did he say he loved it in full knowledge that his opponent *let* him win, and that he did not in fact win a fair contest?

    2. You would have to ask him. What if it didn't matter? Aren't you seeing this from your perspective, and not his? How would you know?

  4. Very interesting thoughts here. This isn't an easy area in terms of determining the right thing to do, the right way to treat or promote a specific individual's accomplishments. Issue (1): I'm not sure my son will ever do anything that 99% of the total population (disabled and non-disabled) could have never achieved. But he can do some things that are pretty impressive considering his various disabilities. He loves to be the center of attention; he loves to perform on stage or in front of an audience, so we love to provide him with those opportunities whenever we can. However, I'm not at all sure I can figure out how to get him to understand the difference between being in a video that I or a friend took that is showing on the computer, the iPad, or on a DVD and being in a video on YouTube that the world can see. He loves to have an audience, but I don't think he understands that he could have an audience online, so there is no real point in creating a video to make him feel like he has an audience or is famous or anything like that. (Of course, he will enjoy watching himself on video though.) Still, I'd like to make a video of my son showing what he can do. I guess part of my motivation is just the natural tendency for parents to brag about their kids, but I don't feel like that is a major motivation. Part of my motivation is that I'd like other people (especially people with similar disabilities) to see what he can do and be inspired by it to accomplish something for themselves. And I'd like to inspire parents to put their kids in capoeira classes because capoeira has provided incredibly good experiences for my son, and a lot of people don't even know it exists (which is a really huge shame). And part of it is that I'd like people who work with people with similar challenges to learn about what works to motivate my son so that they can see if these techniques work for some of the people they work with. (And, despite the fact that my son loves capoeira, it does still require the use of special techniques to inspire and enable him; I guess he is like most of the rest of us: it helps to have a fitness coach to keep us motivated and to provide us with goals.) I'm not a video producer, so creating anything will be challenging for me. But I'm also very conflicted about exactly what kind of "feel" to attempt to produce since I tend to be really turned off by "inspiration porn." Perhaps I can try to use this article as a guidepost to help me critique the direction my video is going in as it progresses. I've only gotten as far as taking a lot of video that I can use, no further than that. For now, I'm just looking to make a video about one of his areas of accomplishment--his capoeira. Am I getting into problems with issue (2)? I guess that I don't think that what he does with capoeira is all that mundane. And, since there is so much he cannot do (at least not yet), I think it will inspire parents and their kids who face similar challenges by showing what one can accomplish by following their strengths instead of focusing on their weaknesses. I hope it won't be too hard to avoid issue (3) by keeping the focus on his accomplishments rather than on the generosity of others. Comments? Suggestions?

    1. I pray for those who don't know they are neurodivergent...
      Our neck's in the noose, executioner's so close to pulling the lever...

    2. So, you're turned off by inspiration porn, but want to make a video of your son to inspire people.

      Makes sense.

    3. I think that there are parents of autistic kids that do have a respectful take on autism and their autistic kids, and do blog about it or post videos that reflect that view-point (it's not all, or even most, but they definitely are out there). But generally where the take is respectful, the focus isn't on inspiring others in any capacity.

      I'm autistic and have severe learning disabilities, so I use a lot of adaptive tools/strategies. I'm happy to show other people what I use, and how it works (it takes away fear of the unknown and it helps to normalize someone using adaptive tools). So I think showing strategies that really empower someone are ok (something you mention), as long as it's actually about empowering.

      When you say "I'd like other people (especially people with similar disabilities) to see what he can do and be inspired by it to accomplish something for themselves," it comes across as objectifying your son (even when, as I suspect is the case, it's not meant that way). How is that about empowering your son? Wanting others to see what your son can do is, but wanting others to see what your son can do so they get inspired by it isn't.

      When I meet/learn about someone older who's doing something I admire or aspire to do in the future I will look up to that person as a kind of role model and I try to learn from them. Could I be a tiny bit inspired by my role models … maybe … and when on top of that I know they have some of the same disabilities in common with me … definitely. Have I ever been inspired by Inspiration Porn … well I don't really aspire to be objectified … so no.

      Someone can be disabled and have personally fulfilling experiences (you don't have to overcome one to get to the other). Showing that is ok. Someone can be disabled and proud of achievement. Showing that is ok too. Someone who's disabled can have parents that are really proud of their kid. Showing that is definitely ok too.

  5. I have a second, unrelated comment. I tend to be bothered every time I see a story about how a person with a disability (usually it's Down syndrome) becomeing the prom queen or king at their high school. I've come up with a lot of ideas over time about why this seems insulting instead of nice, but I wont' go into that now (not after my last too long post). I did come up with some new thoughts on this earlier today though. It would be interesting to hear other people's ideas on this phenomenon.

    1. I happened to go through this experience you're talking about - Junior year of high school, I got prom princess and my former friend got prom king. Now here's the clincher - we're both Aspies and I honestly felt that it was out of pity since we were the "cute" couple. I wanted to give my tiara to a few of my other classmates who were nominated, but they said I "earned it." I think it was due to the fact my former friend doesn't have a tight circle of friends like I did at the time. Honestly now, I question those people if they made those nominations out of genuine spirit or for pity.

  6. Thank you for writing this. And may I add, parents of these kids aren't saints or special or anything else. I don't want to hear "I could never do what you do", or anything in that general tone. My kids are all awesome. I chose to parent because I love being a parent. Period.

  7. Another reason I'm glad I never bought a television!

  8. Mmmmm... I'm not sure about your OITNB read of the wrestling scene. I think he simply got his ass handed to him by a superior opponent, turning the condescension on its head.

  9. (Oh, sorry... I misread your read. Metamisread. Never mind.....)

  10. I worry that a significant portion of the autism spectrum population is being ignored here. It really feels like only those with Down Syndrome or with high functioning autism are being accounted for. I've spent significant time working with a boy who has severe autism. He has difficulty communicating most of his needs, will often act out in public, and it can be very challenging to work with him. I'm not trying to play hero here at all, but I want to just point out that he most certainly can't take care of himself, and his parents and aids have to be on the lookout nearly 100% of the time to make sure he doesn't do anything illegal or seriously inappropriate. It seems like this portion of the autistic spectrum population is being ignored by this article. I would like to think that it was incredibly good for him to be working with me and other boys his age, so that he could enhance his social skills. Is that perpetuating ableism? Perhaps I'm misreading this, and would love to hear someone's response.

    1. Nobody can take care of themselves. We all need support and connection to survive. And we all need that in different ways.

      Labels like "high functioning" and "low functioning" beg the question -- what is the function of a human being? This culture tends to define human function in terms of economic productivity. As someone with neural networks that proliferate rapidly in nonlinear ways -- ie an Autistic person -- I tend to have trouble complying with the cultural expectations that would render me "functional." But if we view the function of human beings as perception of beauty or connection with the living world, as many cultures do, the same capacities would make me highly "functional."

      "Functioning" labels are inherently ableist in that they measure our worth according to our ability to adhere to cultural and economic expectations. Inspiration porn serves to enforce this by measuring our value according to our ability to be cute or inspiring or compliant in ways that make a culture bent on our erradication more comfortable with our existence.

      "Teaching" us "social skills" -- which most often is done using reward and punishment techniques that are banned from use on non-Autistic people and which are also the basis of now outlawed techniques to force gender compliance in children -- is an attempt to make us assimilate to a culture that wishes we didn't exist. The real work is in changing the culture to one that recognizes our fundamental human rights and makes room for us.

    2. I am autistic and I can't take care of myself either. It seems to me that your comment has nothing to do with the article's topic of inspiration porn. A lot of "teaching autistic people social skills" stuff is pretty icky and involves forcing them under duress to act neurotypical. Also, this autistic person you work with is his own person and does not exist in order for you to look like a paragon of moral virtue for helping him. I'm not sure what you mean by "this portion of the autistic spectrum population is being ignored by this article". We (autistic people) don't exist in clusters along a continuum from "high functioning" to "low functioning", or from "almost neurotypical" to "totally okay to dehumanize". Would it really seem reasonable to you to force every article mentioning anything about autism to be forced to include a disclaimer of "oh yeah, some autistic people are unable to communicate their needs, we aren't talking about them"? Because we are talking about all autistic people here. Just because an autistic person has a hard time communicating his needs, doesn't make it okay to use him as a prop, as a feel-good back-pat, as a way to make you look like a saint. Disabled people are human and have human rights.


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