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What is Paralympics ‘inspiration porn’ and why does it make some disabled people uneasy?

John Dickinson-Lilley talks about how he cringes when Paralympic athletes in particular are pointed to as ‘inspirations.’

2020 Tokyo Paralympics - Day 1
Centering the lives and stories in coverage of the Tokyo Summer Paralympics is so important in avoiding turning these disabled athletes into “inspiration porn” for able-bodied people.
Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

If you’ve been watching the early coverage of the Paralympics, and seen messages on social media reacting to the efforts of Paralympians in Tokyo, you’ve likely seen lots of the same words.

“Inspirational.” “Inspiring.” “Inspirational stuff.” “Such an inspiration.”

We should all be inspired by disabled athletes in the Paralympics — the messaging goes — because look at what they can do... in a wheelchair... with one leg... blind....

“I can barely get out of my La-Z-Boy,” we think. “What they do has to be superhuman.”

And that’s another term you’ll see people associate with the Paralympics a lot: superhuman.

Yet as I’ve been doing a bunch of listening and reading on how to best cover the athletes at the Paralympics, I’ve come to realize how framing these athletes and these Games in that way actually demonstrates a kind of low expectations we as a society may have for these athletes, or disabled people in general.

We’re blown away by them because we expect so little.nd frankly, because we expect so little of ourselves.

“There is a really tough narrative for disabled people when the Paralympics come around, because all of a sudden there’s this conversation about being super human,” blind skier John Dickinson-Lilley told me on the latest episode of the Five Rings To Rule Them All podcast. “It’s where disabled people are objectified, and we’re pointed to. As though [able-bodied people say to themselves], ‘well it doesn’t matter what your daily struggle is, because look at that disabled person, they’re still managing to do that despite their disability.’”

“Despite” their disability.

I’m going to try to do some justice to this conversation, but if you want to fully understand this concept, this TEDx Talk by a woman named Stella Young absolutely nails it, laughs included.

Young may have, in fact, publicly coined the term “inspiration porn,” which is brilliant.

“I’m not here to inspire you,” Young told the TEDx crowd. “I’m here to tell you that we’ve been lied to about disability. We’ve been sold the lie that disability is a bad thing. ... And to live with disability makes you exceptional. It’s not a bad thing. And it doesn’t make you exceptional.”

Young died at age 32 only months after giving that speech. Yet her insight rings so true all these years later.

“They objectify one group of people for the benefit of another group of people,” Young said of the musings of so many people in the media and on social media. “The purpose of these images [of disabled athletes] is to inspire you, to motivate you, so that we can look at them and think, ‘Well however bad my life is, it could be worse. I could be that person.’

“But what if you are that person?”

What if you are that person?

I learned years ago that if I’m going to write about the lives of Black people or women or trans people... I better get to know, and better understand, Black people, women and trans people. I’d better listen to them and let their lives guide how I cover them and other people like them.

That’s also been true of my coverage of disabled athletes, thanks to people like Stephanie Wheeler, Abby Dunkin, Ness Murby and John Dickinson-Lilley.

At Outsports, we set a policy before the Paralympics began that we would not reduce Paralympic athletes to being “inspirational” or “brave.”

Instead, we would tell their stories. Where they come from. Their history with their sport. Their journey to Tokyo. Their family, their love, and yes, their disability itself. And their successes and failures at the Paralympics.

We need to make sure we don’t turn these hard-working athletes into “inspiration porn” for those of us who are able-bodied. They’re there to compete, and that will be our focus here at Outsports.

If you’re inspired by the Paralympics, and the athletes who are in Tokyo competing for medals, that’s a great thing.

Yet Paralympic athletes aren’t inspirational because they do what they do in a wheelchair... with one leg... blind....

They’re inspirational because they do what they do — aim for international gold at the highest level of their sport — period.

To be sure, people who talk about disabled people as “inspirations” have the most positive intent.

At the same time, we at Outsports will continue to center the athlete, their life and their journey, and listen to disabled people about how we cover their stories. Telling their story, without telling the reader how “inspirational” they are, will do the talking.

You can listen to the conversation with John Dickinson-Lilley on the Five Rings To Rule Them All podcast on Megaphone, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Apple podcasts and many more platforms. Just search for Outsports wherever you get your podcast.

And be sure to follow Five Rings To Rule Them All on Twitter.

You can follow John Dickinson-Lilley on Twitter and on Instagram.