Credit: Facebook

AHCA

Photo by Credit: Facebook

Can We Do Away With “Inspiration Porn”?


The media’s obsession with stories like the mom who graduated with her disabled son portray us as needy, undermining our fight against a devastating health-care bill that threatens our lives.



Two weeks ago, a feel-good story spread like wildfire through social media about a mother of a quadriplegic man pursuing an MBA who was awarded an honorary degree because she attended classes with her son. Because it was a heartwarming story about a mother’s love for her child, it was picked up by national and even international media outlets.

But as someone who has a significant disability, I see a few glaring issues here. 

For like this young man, I also attended college and graduate school. I even went to law school. But I did so without my mother by my side. Instead, I received accommodations required under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), which included providing me with note-takers, extended time for tests, and on-campus modifications to ensure I could gain access to every place I needed to be. These accommodations were not granted to me out of kindness. They’re required by law.

In reporting this family’s story, the media failed to ask why this man wasn’t provided with similar accommodations. Did he request them and was denied? Did he want to attend classes with his mother? Or did he do so out of necessity?

The media also focused on his mother, lavishing her with praise—why not fully acknowledge the son’s accomplishment? Wasn’t it his graduation day? Didn’t he just earn a master’s degree?

Of course, this is not the first time this type of story has gained attention. Stories such as this, first coined “inspiration porn” by disability-rights activist Stella Young in 2012, are shared every day. As explained by Young, these stories “objectify one group of people for the benefit of another group of people.” In other words, people with disabilities are objectified to make nondisabled people feel good.

Consider how many stories, memes, or videos you have seen in the past month about a nondisabled teenager asking his or her disabled classmate to the prom. For many people without disabilities, these stories make them feel warm and fuzzy. In difficult times, such as now, we are all yearning for something that gives us faith in humanity.

With the GOP-led Senate trying to ram through the sight-unseen AHCA, which will devastate so many Americans, not least of all people with disabilities, our stories not only deserve to be told—it is an absolute necessity. Did you know, for example, that recently, 83 protesters with disabilities were arrested at the White House? They were calling on the president to support community-based living supports and services. Where was the mainstream media attention on this protest?

As our terror over the GOP health-care bill intensifies, so does public awareness of the potential devastating consequences. Mainstream media has rightly shed light on the implications for people with preexisting conditions, which include people with disabilities. However, far less attention has been given to what it actually means for people with disabilities: those massive cuts to Medicaid put more than 15 million people with disabilities at risk because it could lead to less in-home supports and more institutionalization of people with disabilities. Indeed, passage of the AHCA and cuts to necessary services for people with disabilities—particularly those of us with significant disabilities like the quadriplegic MBA and me—could be a matter of life and death. Not only would increased institutionalization be devastating, it would violate the ADA. And this civil-rights issue needs a lot more attention, which is why representation in the media is so crucial.

Each day, people like me encounter numerous ADA violations as well as pervasive stigma and discrimination. Although the media cannot solve these problems alone, it can help raise awareness. It can also shift public perceptions of people with disabilities.

Media can play an important role in shedding light on injustices and promoting equality—it helped raise awareness during the Civil Rights movement. Similarly, the Black Lives Matter movement has leveraged various types of media, especially social media, to galvanize its supporters and heighten consciousness about the pervasive racism in our country—of course the media still has a long way to go until it adequately and accurately portrays the experiences of people of color, but has the great potential to effect change.

Unfortunately, media coverage of people with disabilities and the disability rights movement writ large has been both misrepresented and grossly underrepresented in the news, television, and film. People with disabilities must be perceived as a community deserving of civil rights and not simply a group who should be pitied. People who do not have personal experience with disability generally do not understand that disability rights are civil rights. Rather, we are seen as a community that is dependent on the charity of others. And that’s because of pseudo-inspirational stories of disabled kids going to the prom with the nondisabled, or the quadriplegic MBA candidate whose mother attended school with him. It doesn’t have to be this way.

For better or worse, society relies on the media to understand things. And so we’re portrayed as needy, as charity cases, and not as autonomous human beings.

That’s not to say that the mom who graduated with her son isn’t wholly devoted to him, or that her love should be questioned—my concern with the story has nothing to do with them personally. I am simply taking issue with the portrayal, and the very real possibility that this man was denied his rights, especially at this crucial juncture, when in a matter of days we may see ours taken out from under us, in part because Americans, and especially our lawmakers don’t understand us, and for good reason. A reason that is easily fixed.

 

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