Disability as Inspiration Porn

I had several topics in mind for this blog. When I couldn’t decide, I shared my list with a friend and asked him to pick one. Instantly he said “Inspiration porn.”

I have mentioned the term “inspiration porn” to several people. Most of my friends understand what this means –it is an odd but inevitable awareness acquired when you or someone you know has a disability- but many people have never heard the term at all.

I myself may not know the meaning of this phrase if I didn’t live in its shadow. Inspiration porn as it pertains to disability is anything –various forms of media or a prevailing tone of public consciousness- that sensationalizes disabilities and by extension the people who live with them.

Here’s an example: while dancing at a friend’s wedding a few years ago, my date – an attractive, able-bodied man – picked me up out of my wheelchair (at my request). I’m light and petite and my cerebral palsy does not cause fragility; I am lucky to be able to have this (extremely fun) option. As long as people are comfortable with lifting me and are able to do so without being unsteady, carry me to your heart’s content! My date and I had been good friends since high school, so awkwardness was dispensed with years prior to our dance floor debut. When my friend walked onto that dance floor holding me in his arms, the crowd parted like the Red Sea. Everyone was awed to see me out of my chair and instantly formed a circle around us. Truthfully, it was a little strange, but we didn’t really care. My friend moved easily to the beat of the music, twirling around in circles and dipping me dramatically.

It wasn’t long before the groom joined the fun. I was passed effortlessly between them. The bride looked on with joy as her new husband stood me on my shaky feet and held me securely as he moved, dipping me within inches of the floor.

It was exhilarating to be free of my wheelchair, being spun, dipped and twirled.

When I was once again in my chair, my date went to get us some water. As soon as his back was turned, a small group of women descended upon me.

“That was absolutely amazing,” one woman said to me.

“What was?” I asked breathlessly.

“Well, that he would just… pick you up like that!” She said, pointing at my friend.

“He has a name,” I said, bracing myself. Sadly, no one was interested in his name.

“It’s just so wonderful to see,” said another, “for him just get right in there and help you! He just scooped you right up like it was nothing at all! It is wonderful that you’re so okay, to allow him to do that.”

“I’ve known him for a long time, so it’s not a big deal. And yes, he picked me up like it was nothing. He’s no weakling and I’m a hundred pounds soaking wet. Picking me up and carrying me for a little while is not a huge imposition for him. I’m not made of glass,” I paused, hoping some of this would sink in. “Do you really think he’s never lifted me, carried me, or helped me with anything?”

I waited for a response, but there was only silence. “I appreciate that you think so highly of him. But we were just dancing. He wasn’t ‘helping’ me, he was dancing with me. The groom was dancing with me too, incase you missed it; doesn’t he deserve some praise? Also, give his bride credit for being so happy to see her husband sweep another woman off her feet.”

The women noticed my friend heading back towards me. I just smiled, wordlessly daring them to stay and tell him just how amazingly wonderful they thought he was. Predictably, he drew closer and they fled.

Sitting down, he gave me a glass of water and laughed. “Damn, I missed it!”

“Missed what?”

“Them,” he nodded towards the disappearing women. “I am the most fantastic person ever, right? They cannot believe how amazing I am, because I danced with you! Not only that, I lifted you up. I carried you and I didn’t drop you. Am I close?”

Sure it may have been a bit surprising, but there is nothing particularly extraordinary about witnessing men and women dancing together at a wedding reception. Isn’t that what’s supposed to happen?

The majority of my friends are able-bodied. I encourage you to flex your imaginations; things like this happen all the time. Sometimes, when I’m out with my girlfriends, there is an automatic assumption that she is my attendant. It is both comical and sad how often assumptions need to be corrected.

Am I not allowed to have friends? Are all of them supposed to be disabled? That is just as ridiculous as assuming that people who wear glasses are only ever friends with other people who wear glasses.

When I’m out by myself, almost every time I’m on the subway someone will tell me, “Wow, you’re so beautiful,” as they give me the once-over with sad puppy eyes. What they’re really saying is, “Poor thing! But look at her out and about!” Sometimes, that’s actually what they say to me. Call me crazy, but if I’m on the subway wearing a flattering outfit and funky shoes and someone tells me I’m beautiful, I want them to mean it.

Men with disabilities please tell me, is there an equivalent to the “You’re so beautiful,” line? What do people tell you?

I have no problem with people finding me inspiring. I’ve accomplished a lot and I have worked hard for my achievements. I’m very intelligent so do me a favour and talk to me as though I have a brain. Please don’t be stunned into silence when you hear that I went to university, that I have actual career aspirations or that I have a thriving social life filled with able-bodied people (yes, I have mastered basic human interaction; no, dealing with people who do not have spastic limbs does not throw me for a loop). If you’re going to be inspired by me, all I ask is that you focus on qualities and traits worthy of inspiration.

I have a disability; I’m not a shut-in, there is a difference. I have friends – lots of them. I don’t hate my life. It shouldn’t be shocking.

-Layla Guse Salah, Disability Today Network

Layla Guse Salah Disability Blog