Do inspirational posts do more harm than good? Why you should think twice before 'liking' a viral story

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'Inspiration porn' raises red flags for the disabled community.
'Inspiration porn' raises red flags for the disabled community.

I ended a friendship over a feel-good Facebook post. This certainly wasn’t the first time I’ve ended a friendship over a social media post – but the circumstances were unusual.

What was the subject of this offending post? A teacher who drove hours each day to teach her kids out of the back of her truck at the beginning of the pandemic. My friend shared this post to spread some happiness in the world – something we could always use. What I saw was a teacher being placed in a position of sacrificing her own needs in order to meet the needs of her students. This is not feel-good. This is a failure to provide for both teachers and students.

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When I laid this out for my friend, he told me he was “choosing to see the good.” In fairness to my friend, as a disabled person, I have more experience seeing how so-called “inspirational” posts can actually cause harm. When my friend dismissed the experiences of the disabled community with these types of posts in favour of “spreading joy”, as a disabled person, I no longer felt safe and respected in our friendship.

"Inspiration porn" can perpetuate hurtful tropes about disabled bodies. (Image via Getty Images)
"Inspiration porn" can perpetuate hurtful tropes about disabled bodies. (Image via Getty Images)

Not long ago, I would have shared that post, and countless others - gleefully. I probably would have been moved to tears by most of them. Then, four years ago, I became disabled. To help navigate this new and frightening world, I joined disability communities on social media. It was there I began to see the real meaning behind so many of these posts.

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Within the disabled community, these posts are labelled “inspiration porn.” There’s nothing sexual about them, but rather the term references the tendency of these videos to make abled people feel good for a moment and move on, while disabled people continue to struggle for basic needs.

These posts often fall into familiar tropes. There’s the one where a community, or celebrity, or group of people get together to raise money for a disabled person’s medical device. There’s the abled-saviour trope in which an abled person takes a disabled person to the prom, or includes a disabled person in an activity. There’s the “super cool new gadget” trope, meant to help disabled people more closely mirror abled people. And of course, there’s the popular trope in which a disabled person overcomes their disability in some way.

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People love these tropes. They frequently go viral, shared primarily by abled people for abled people. On the surface, they do seem lovely – but let’s examine these tropes through the lens of the disabled community.

The fundraising trope

What abled people see: A community working together and generosity being shared.

What disabled people see: A lack of access to the resources disabled people need to function.

The reason we see so many of these fundraising posts is because it’s unacceptably difficult for many disabled people to access the equipment, services, and accessibility tools that they need. Disabled people don’t need uplifting gestures from individuals - they need systemic changes to meet the needs of all disabled people.

"What does it say to disabled people when abled people are elevated to hero-status simply for spending time with them?" (Image via Getty Images)

The abled-saviour trope

What abled people see: An act of kindness and inclusion.

What disabled people see: A disabled person unintentionally being used as a prop.

It isn’t heartwarming to disabled people seeing posts commending “regular” people for including someone who is “different” in normal situations. It isn’t remarkable that abled people attend the prom – it isn’t remarkable that disabled people do either. What does it say to disabled people when abled people are elevated to hero-status simply for spending time with them? These stories are almost always focused on the “kind” gesture of the abled person, further dehumanizing the disabled person in the situation.

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The 'super cool new gadget' trope

What abled people see: New technology that will make the lives of disabled people easier. Also, really neat robot stuff.

What disabled people see: High tech devices that don’t actually meet their needs, and would not be cost-accessible to anyone but disabled rich people.

Admittedly, some of these devices look amazing. There is the wheelchair that climbs stairs. There are the robot legs that allow people without the use of their legs to “walk." There are countless wheelchair options that boast this feature or that. What are they all missing? Input from actual disabled people. We discuss these gadgets at length, and almost all of them are useless to disabled people.

Disabled people don’t need wheelchairs that climb stairs. Wheelchair users universally respond to this device by shouting one word – ramps! Disabled people need more ramps, making places accessible for all mobility device users, not chair-climbing wheelchairs (that have their own issues) for a handful of disabled people. They don’t need or want robotic legs to “walk” – they want access to wheelchairs, and a wheelchair-accessible environment. And the newly-designed wheelchairs? Many of them would be impossible or impractical for wheelchair users to actually use. The bottom line – less new, expensive technology, and more listening to disabled people. Even better, hire them!

Access for disabled bodies shouldn't be innovation - it should be expected.
Less new, expensive technology, and more listening to disabled people. (Image via Getty Images)

The overcoming disability trope

What abled people see: With hard work and dedication, you can overcome anything.

What disabled people see: Disabled people are valued more if they do everything they can to be “less disabled.”

A person with a limb difference runs a marathon. A bride who uses a wheelchair does intensive therapy to walk down the aisle. These types of posts are the most popular form of “inspiration porn.” Essentially, a disabled person works very hard and does something most people with their disability would not be able to do, and it is “so inspirational.” We should admire anyone who works hard towards a goal, abled or disabled – but that’s not why these posts are so popular.

“There's a common misconception that disability is synonymous with negativity and across the media landscape we don't have many comprehensive examples to counter that,” says Heather Watkins, disability rights activist and author at Slow Walkers See More. “These kinds of posts tend to capitalize off of that by swinging the pendulum from pity to pedestal and the disabled person(s) become the barometer by which personal growth is measured. The messaging being akin to ‘if the disabled can do it what's your excuse?’”

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Disabled people often have to fight the assumption that their disability will “get better” with time, with treatment, or with some “have you tried…” miracle cure gleaned from a website. While sometimes disabilities do change or go away, for many of us in the disabled community, this is how we are and how we always will be. Inspiration porn adds to the misconception that disability is something that can be overcome. It opens disabled people up to everything from assumptions that laziness is holding them back, to being seen as less human or less valuable if they can’t manage to assimilate seamlessly into abled society.

(Image via Getty Images)
(Image via Getty Images)

Does all of this mean we should never share posts about disabled people? Absolutely not! Like anyone else, representation is important for the disabled community, particularly BIPOC disabled people.

“Disabled persons of colour don't get the same level of profile and visibility as white disabled counterparts so these posts can raise awareness about that particular person and their disability,” says Watkins. “We then learn a little bit about the person and can use the opportunity to reach out and even introduce them, if they're open, to connect with peers in the community. I've done this a few times with some success.”

Even “inspirational” posts can be positive for the disabled community under the right circumstances.

“There are definitely inspirational posts where disabled folks are telling the story and in charge of the framing,” says Watkins. “The lens and awareness shaped by lived experience and disability isn't downplayed to appease the comfort level of non-disabled gaze.”

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What makes the difference between which posts are beneficial and which are harmful? Who is telling the story. When disabled people are given the opportunity and the freedom to tell their own stories in their own way, positive representation and substantial education happens. When disabled people become the creator rather than the object, they are depicted as the whole people that they are, rather than who they are in relation to abled people.

Disabled people are frequently spoken for and talked over. By listening to them, and most importantly, hiring them on media teams, in management, and in product development, we can replace superficial inspiration porn with vibrant stories, meaningful change, and the chance to make a real difference. Wouldn’t that feel good?

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