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This Netflix Show Reminds Us Disabled People Aren't Inspirational For Simply Existing

I see you at the gym, and I just wanted to say ‘hey.’  It’s super inspiring to see you give it your all despite your limitations.

It’s a scene that plays out everywhere. Person with a disability strolls through town, hits the gym or shops for groceries. Person without disabilities raves about how inspiring it is to see someone with a visible medical condition living life.  But season two of the Netflix Original series “Special” brings this all-too-common scenario to the small screen — and makes a powerful statement about “inspiration porn.”

“Special’s” protagonist, Ryan Hayes (played by Ryan O’Connell), has mild cerebral palsy and is in the process of coming to terms with how the world sees his disability — and how he sees himself.  But when he encounters an eager fellow gym-goer who suddenly introduces himself and proceeds to gush about how “inspiring” Ryan’s decision to work out is, Ryan feels confused and put off by the encounter.  Ryan believes that he’s not doing anything noteworthy enough to inspire others and wants to live his life without complete strangers commenting on how his disability inspires them.  When he eventually joins a support group for people with disabilities, Ryan processes why being called “inspiring” after his workout made him uncomfortable and learns that this particular experience has a name — inspiration porn.

“Inspiration porn” refers to using the disabled experience to uplift, encourage or inspire able-bodied people to live their lives to the fullest.  Inspiration porn is typically in full force in news segments about able-bodied students taking disabled classmates to school dances, on motivational posters proclaiming that “the only disability in life is a bad attitude” and anywhere people with disabilities are viewed as heroic for living their lives with a medical condition.  On the surface, inspiration porn may seem like a pleasant alternative to mocking, ignoring or scapegoating people with disabilities, but it’s rooted in a mindset that relies on painfully low expectations for people with medical conditions.  With inspiration porn, the (misinformed) message is clear: people with disabilities struggle so much that anything they can do must be held up on a pedestal — especially when able-bodied people need motivation to do the same mundane tasks.

But Ryan Hayes isn’t alone in his experiences with, and discomfort by, inspiration porn.  As someone who has mild cerebral palsy herself, I’ve heard more than my fair share of comments praising me for doing tasks that I don’t personally see as out of the ordinary.  I’ve encountered people who’ve been overly impressed that I seem “smart” and have cerebral palsy, as if intelligence and physical disability can’t coexist.  I’ve been undeservingly touted as “heroic” for doing mediocre push-ups — even though any of my able-bodied high school PE classmates would have received low grades for such dubious form.  And in the years since I revealed that I have cerebral palsy after hiding it for nearly a decade, people often come out of the woodwork to tell me how “inspiring” I am, a sentiment I never heard from them when they thought I was able-bodied.

Before I knew what “inspiration porn” was, I appreciated that people were praising me, but in the years since, I’ve felt extremely uncomfortable knowing how little society expects of me and of the disabled community as a whole.  I empathize with Ryan’s confusion and frustration by being touted as “inspiring” in “Special” because I know just how difficult it is to be singled out for simply existing with a disability when so many others get to live their lives without hearing public commentary about their abilities.  Like Ryan Hayes’ gradual understanding of inspiration porn, my evolving views on being called “heroic” or “inspiring” showed me just how dangerous an “inspiration porn” mindset is for people with disabilities.

Season 2 of “Special” portrays Ryan Hayes as someone who’s not bound to the constraining boxes “inspiration porn” tries to impose on people with disabilities, and as a disabled woman with a full but ordinary life, the series makes me feel seen.  Like everyone who lives with a disability, Ryan isn’t inspiring for working out, walking through town and living his life, and neither am I.

 

Lead image via Netflix’s YouTube account.

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