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How 'Pity Porn' in Advertising Harms the Disability Community

On Facebook, I make no apologies for my disability rights activism, brandishing it as a badge of honor in my profile. As a result, I receive advertisements for all-terrain wheelchairs and studies about schizophrenia. While the aforementioned ads aren’t that concerning, a more disturbing trend has presented itself recently — pity porn.

In disability discussions, we often deride inspiration porn, but there is less written about its pernicious cousin, pity porn. For those unfamiliar with it, pity porn will present disabled people in our most wretched state, often to garner donations for causes. These advertisements are “pornographic” because they make the viewer conjure us solely as objects of suffering. The problem with these portrayals is that they hardly humanize our community. I am disconcerted that these comprise the majority of depictions of disabled people I am shown on Facebook.

One of the more troubling advertisements I’ve been presented over the past two months is “Fulfilling Elazar’s Only Dream.” In it, a young boy named Elazar who has been intubated implores the viewer to grant him both a new wheelchair and a house large enough to accommodate his mobility needs. Elazar describes himself as “locked,” unable to eat, drink, move around or do anything more than express himself through blinking. In short, instead of emphasizing his ability to communicate through assistive technology, the ad makes his situation into an unspeakable tragedy.

While I don’t doubt the severity of Elazar’s condition, 10 emojis are presented in the advertisement, most of which serve to suggest sadness or heartbreak. In other words, Elazar becomes a passive object precisely to implore the reader to pray or help the young boy. When one clicks the link to donate, one is taken to a Drove.com fundraiser, where more than six figures has been raised for his new wheelchair and home.

While I do not deny that helping Elazar is worthwhile, the use of pity porn sends the worst message about disabled people — that our existence is something to lament, and that we are merely objects of charity. It fails to acknowledge systemic issues society as a collective should be facing, and puts our care into the hands of private, charitable donors. Affordable access to mobility devices is not something we should have to crowdfund, least of all by using pity. The same is the case with housing that actually allows us the ability to freely move around in our domiciles. That disabled people should have to employ pity porn — or contract with those who do — to be given what ought to be basic human rights underscores just how flawed our society is.

Another disturbing advertisement I have been bombarded with is “Save my mother Miri,” also promulgated by Drove.com. Six emojis are employed in very truncated text to convey that Miri has an unspeakable case of cancer. While the point of the fundraiser is for Miri to receive treatment, it uses an extreme form of pity porn. “I see you, Mommy. I watch you lying there, weak and helpless after another excruciating treatment. My heart wrenches inside of me and goes out to you.” Miri is described as “weak” and “helpless.” In a display of the worst of pity porn, the viewer is implored to empty their wallet so that Miri may have access to life-saving treatments.

When one clicks the link to help, one is taken to another Drove.com fundraiser, where there is a quite exorbitant six-figure cash goal. In short, instead of being described as a strong woman who will beat cancer, Miri is portrayed in the most abject terms, all in the name of raising funds. Furthermore, her cancer treatment is “excruciating,” bulwarking the narrative that Miri is a passive object of a painful existence.

Similar to that of Elazar, the advertisement for Miri further serves to obscure society’s role in providing innovative and affordable treatments for cancer and other chronic conditions. Pity porn should not have to be employed to guarantee that someone does not lose her mother to a treatable disease. Universal, affordable and accessible healthcare, while it wouldn’t guarantee Miri’s recovery, would prolong the lives of many in her situation.

While reading the advertisement for Miri’s fundraiser, I could not help but think of the tens of thousands of people in the United States who either go bankrupt or die because they cannot afford their cancer treatment. I had a friend who passed away because she didn’t have insurance and found a lump in her breast. By the time she was covered under the Affordable Care Act, it had become Stage IV cancer, and she died a painful and protracted death. In short, crowdfunding cancer treatments is no substitute for actually having social, community and government supports available, which would save far more lives than fundraising for one individual using pity porn.

While I don’t deny that pity porn is an effective means of securing donations to various causes, I do wonder about its long-term effect on the way disabled people are seen in society. If disabled and chronically ill individuals serve the sole purposes of being objects of pity and inspiration, what does that say about the way the larger society will conceptualize our existence? If we are never regarded as human beings like everyone else — with aspirations, hopes and even routine disappointments — how will we construct a narrative that our lives are worth living? If we are merely objects of pity or inspiration, then we have no agency of our own, and we are objectified to be used as the larger culture wishes.

The implications of pity porn on Facebook advertisements are worse than may first meet the eye. The more it is employed, the more comfortable people will become “othering” disabled and chronically ill individuals, and simply averting their eyes at another fundraiser. Moreover, government influencers will perceive our quotidian struggles as less than those of Elazar or Miri, and use their narratives to deny essential benefits and supports to some members of our community simply because we are not perceived as “disabled enough.”

While these effects are unintentional, using pity porn to encourage private charity detracts from the focus our community has rightly placed on having affordable, accessible services available to all, free of cost. In sum, while it may provide small-scale cash results for disabled and chronically ill people, pity porn has a deleterious impact on society writ large.

Image Credits: Unomat / Getty Images

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