Inspiration Messages: Heart Warming, or a Guilt Trip?

By Kim-Vi Sweetman
Staff Columnist

“The only disability in life is a bad attitude.” –Scott Hamilton.

Well, sure. If all you have to deal with is a cold, maybe.

We’ve probably all seen this quote, or ones like it, plastered across a picture of a person. Usually these are pictures of someone with a disability – physical or mental – and in the form of a demotivational poster. These images of disabled people doing “normal” tasks make up something called “inspiration porn.” It’s not a good thing.

For a portion of Americans – and people all over the world – there is much more to deal with than just “a bad attitude.” According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), approximately 26.6 percent of the American population will have to deal with a diagnosable mental disorder in any given year. Around six percent will be dealing with a serious mental disorder. Try telling any one in that group they just “have a bad attitude.” There are even more Americans living with various physical disabilities, with the Center for Disease Control reporting around 15.6 percent having a “physical functional disability.” In both cases, society plays a huge role in how well a person can adapt to their environment, and thus how disabled they might be. Telling someone in a wheelchair, like writer Stella Young of ABC’s “Ramp Up,” that the reason she can’t go up stairs is because of “a bad attitude” is called victim blaming.

Victim blaming is putting the responsibility of the disability on the disabled person. It turns someone from a person who lives with a disability into someone who lives with a disability that they chose. Can you see the problem there? Now back to the inspiration porn.

The “inspiring” images used in demotivationals and with catchy slogans like, “Before you quit, try,” take the humanity away from those displayed. Have you ever noticed that the names of those involved are usually not given? Would it matter if they were? These images also assume something about the people in them: that it is somehow so much harder to live your life if you are disabled. Frankly, that’s rather rude. It puts the disabled person down to a level below a “normal” person who isn’t disabled, and that’s exactly why inspiration porn is a problem.

In an effort to uplift a few, such images degrade an entire population of American citizens. Sure, it might seem harmless to share that image of the little girl running on prosthetic legs next to Oscar Pistorius, Para Olympic athlete, but what are you really saying? That, because someone clearly has it so much harder than you, you should never complain about your life? For reference, according to Disabled World, prosthetic legs can cost anywhere from $5,000 to $50,000. Not everyone is wearing them.

Pistorius has a quote about disability on his website. It reads, “You’re not disabled by the disabilities you have, you are able by the abilities you have.” It’s the same kind of idea that Stella Young gets at in her articles about disability: Every person learns to live with what they’ve got. Assuming that someone is an “inspiration” just because their body works a little differently than yours is rather rude. As Young says in one of her articles, “Disability is complex. You can’t sum it up in a cute picture with a heart-warming quote.”

One thought on “Inspiration Messages: Heart Warming, or a Guilt Trip?

  1. Hi Kim-Vi

    Thanks for the article.

    I thought I’d share another perspective of disability that changes the meaning of your opening quote, “The only disability in life is a bad attitude.”

    The “social model” of disability, primarily subscribed to in the UK and NZ, makes a distinction between “impairment” – a functional loss or restriction – and “disability” – the social structures and barriers that disadvantage and restrict the participation of people with impairments. The social model says people are “disabled” by these societal barriers, which stem from the attitudes of the mainstream, who fail to consider the diversity of access, communication and other needs of the entire population.

    From this viewpoint, Hamilton’s observation, “The only disability in life is a bad attitude,” actually bears some truth. The “disability” of social exclusion is, in fact, borne of a collective “bad attitude.”

    Enjoyed your reference to “inspiration porn” – spot on!

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