Portrayal of Disability: Disability as Inspiration

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  • Introduce and define the term inspiration porn
  • Examine how inspiration porn impacts disabled people
  • Consider ways to counter this dominant narrative

Estimated Time

  • Introduction – 5 minutes
  • Video – 10 minutes
  • Video Debrief – 10 minutes
  • Types of Inspiration Porn – 5 minutes
  • Discussion 10 minutes
  • Optional Extension – 15 to 30 minutes

Materials Needed


slide iconBring up title slide.Slide 1 - Portrayal of Disability: Disability as Inspiration


microphone iconPeople with disabilities are often portrayed in ways that are unidimensional and promote stereotypes. One of the typical portrayals of people with disabilities could be described as “disability is inspirational.” This way of viewing disability is so common that Stella Young coined a term for it: inspiration porn.


slide iconAdvance to slide 2Slide 2 - Ad for TV show Speechless

microphone iconIs anyone familiar with the television series, Speechless? For those who are not familiar with it, Speechless is a television series on ABC about a family with 3 kids–JJ, Dylan, and Ray. JJ has cerebral palsy and uses a laser pointer and communication board to communicate. A real win for disabled actors is that JJ is played by an actor who does indeed have cerebral palsy. His name is Micah Fowler. As an aside, this has often not been the case. In most cases, disabled characters are played by nondisabled actors. One of many examples of this is the actor hired to play Artie in the television series, Glee.)

In one episode of Speechless, they address this idea of inspiration porn. A classmate that JJ barely knows writes a speech about how JJ inspires him. He uses the theme to tug at the heartstrings of his instructors and classmates in hopes of winning the contest. In a conversation about what this classmate is doing, the younger brother of JJ, Ray DiMeo defines inspiration porn this way:

slide iconAdvance to slide 3.Slide 3 - Ray's definition of inspiration porn and image of JJ and Ray

microphone icon“It’s a portrayal of people with disabilities as one-dimensional saints who only exist to warm the hearts and open the minds of able-bodied people.”
slide iconAdvance to slide 4.Slide 4 - Screenshot of Stella Young TedTalk with title I'm not your inspiration, thank you very much

microphone iconSo that we can get a better understanding of how this way of viewing disability is problematic, I’d like to share this brief 10-minute TedTalk by Stella Young.

Stella Young was an Australian comedian, journalist, teacher and disability activist who was passionate about women’s issues and and issues that impact youth with disabilities. She passed away at the age of 32 in 2014, not long after recording this talk. Her TedTalk is one of my favorites and is highly popular among disability activists.

As we watch this video, pay attention to the themes related to how people see her and other people with disabilities.
video iconView Stella Young TedTalk

Pose questions for discussion. Choose questions appropriate for your audience.

  • What were some of the ways that Stella said that she and other people with disabilities were portrayed?
  • What specific examples of people seeing her as inspirational do you recall?
  • What are some examples that you have seen in the media of people with disabilities being portrayed as inspirational? In the community? Here on our campus?
  • Can you think of viral videos that might be categorized as “inspiration porn”?
  • Do you think Stella’s TedTalk challenges dominant thinking about disability? If so, how?
  • Are there situations where people with disabilities really are inspiring?
  • If “People with disabilities are inspiring” is the dominant narrative in society, what are some counter-narratives?
  • After hearing Stella’s video, you think inspirational memes and viral videos are helpful or hurtful to people with disabilities? In what ways?
  • Can you think of ways to counter these portrayals of disability?
  • What are some responses you might give someone who shares one of these memes with you and thinks it is great?

We’ve discussed the tendency of people to think it is inspiring for people with disabilities just to do the things everyone else takes for granted. Here are a few other ways this tendency to see disability as something to inspire us plays out.

slide iconAdvance to slide 5.Slide 5 - Examples of other types of inspiration porn with image of professional woman wearing a cap and mask

The amazing parent: A parent is represented as a hero because they are being a parent to a child that has a disability.

The heroic professional: A professional is honored for “working tirelessly” for and with people with disabilities. This kind of language is very common when honoring someone who works in the profession of disability services. In fact, often when I share with others what I do, the response is one that indicates the person finds the work inspiring–simply because it involves people with disabilities.

The benevolent classmates: The story of classmates being kind to a student with a disability goes viral simply because they were kind and included that student. For example, they allow the student to shoot the winning score in a game. Or they elect the student prom king.

microphone icon Pose discussion questions appropriate for your audience.

  • What message does portraying these nondisabled people as heroic send about people with disabilities?
  • When people are well-intentioned but do things that are not helpful in terms of how disability is portrayed, is it wrong to challenge what they are doing or saying?
  • What are ways we can challenge those ideas with respect and so that we will be heard?

In the same episode of Speechless, Ray ends up giving a speech that was intended to top the one given by the classmate, Donald. He begins with all of the sappy, inspirational stuff he can muster. But then he just can’t continue with it. He says, “My brother isn’t a hero. I know him better than anyone. And in all honesty, he can be a real jerk. He teases me and tortures me…runs me over with his wheelchair…He isn’t brave either. He’s just living his life. And there’s nothing brave about that.” He was met with unenthusiastic, scattered applause and a comment from a teacher, “That did not make me feel good.” No one liked it…except JJ.

So we’re left with the same challenge Ray faced. Do we go with what is popular despite the fact that it is not helpful to people with disabilities? Or do we challenge the stereotype, challenge the dominant narrative and risk doing the unpopular thing.

Maybe we can look back to Stella’s video for her guidance.

slide iconAdvanced to slide 6Slide 6 - Image of Stella Young with quote about being exceptional

microphone icon“Disability doesn’t make you exceptional but questioning what you think you know about it does.”

Thank you for joining me in questioning how we typically portray disability today. Feel free to contact me if you’d like to learn or question more.

slide iconAdvanced to slide 7Slide 7 - Contact info slide with credit information

I’d like to thank the Southwest ADA Center Arkansas Affiliate for developing the content for this presentation.

Optional Extension Activity

When time permits and in groups where this would be appropriate, consider the following activity.

Use the structure 1-2-4-All to guide students through the process of this activity. The prompt is: Imagine that you are asked to lead a campaign to counter inspiration porn. You can contribute to the campaign by developing a slogan, a meme, a video or use other means to counter this narrative. Think about what you might do. Pair up with another and share your ideas. Join another pair and look for themes of the various ideas and develop a pitch for the group. Pitch your ideas to the whole group in a brief 2-minute talk.

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