Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Inspiration Porn isn't Progress: A Response to Josephine Fairley

Imagine, if you can, a world where people with brown eyes are inherently superior to those with blue eyes (blue eyes encompassing all those with non-brown eye colors).  People with brown eyes are stronger, faster, smarter.  People with blue eyes are weaker, slower.  They don't learn as well, or as fast.  It's not their fault, of course.  That's just the way it is.

In years past, we segregated people with blue eyes.  We institutionalized them, because they were a menace.  We didn't have the resources to care for them.  They were a burden on us.  Blue-eyed people couldn't go into public buildings or ride public transportation.  We called them "blue-eyed".

Now we know better.  We are enlightened.  We have compassion for those less fortunate than us.  Our children mix with children with blue eyes in our classrooms.  People with blue eyes are our neighbors, our family, maybe even our friends.  We pass them in the streets every day.  And the linguistic change of people first language emphasizes that people with blue eyes are people, because we apparently didn't know that before.

I'm a graduate student and there are a few students with blue eyes in my class.  I'm continually amazed at how well they do.  It's so hard for them to get anything done and still they soldier on with a smile on their faces.  You know, there are government benefits for those people.  They could sit at home and collect a check all day.  But they're out and about, learning and working and getting coffee like the rest of us.  Some of them have done so well, you forget they have blue eyes.  I find it really, really brave, what they do.  It must be so difficult for them to get up in the morning.  Those poor dears.  God bless them.  They don't let their conditions get them down.  They inspire me every day.  After all, if they can go about life without complaining, then what's my excuse?  My eyes are, fortunately, fully brown. 

This is an adaptation on Jane Elliot's famous "Brown Eyes, Blue Eyes" experiment.  The above scenario is based on things I have heard all my life, not as a blue-eyed person (though in reality, my eyes are actually hazel, putting me in the blue-eyed category), but as a disabled person.  While Elliot originally intended the experiment to highlight the realities of racism, I'm using it to highlight the realities of ableism in our society.  I'm also using it to make a point about inspiration porn, a phenomenon that British newspaper writer Josephine Fairley seems to think is "progress".  

Fairley, someone who, by her own admission, is nondisabled, says "...considering the prejudices and other challenges that most disabled people have had to encounter in their lifetime – appalling access to many buildings, being referred to in the third person, or, and I have this direct from a disabled friend, ‘being farted at’ right, left and centre (the wheelchair-bound being positioned at the exact height the rest of the population break wind), I don’t see how this can be anything but a positive thing."*

The thing is, it's all part of the same animal.  All prejudice depends on casting another group as "Other" and inferior - something referred to in research circles as epistemological violence.  Talking about me in the third person while I'm right in front of you (or calling me a "wheelchair", as my best friend experienced recently), denying me access to a building, and calling me an "inspiration" because I dare to show my face on the street and look like I'm enjoying life all stem from the same fundamental idea:  that being disabled means that a) I'm not entitled to the same respect that other human beings enjoy and b) that my life must be so horrible that to go out in public and do normal, everyday activities without moaning about my terrible, horrible, no good, very bad life is a sign that I am some sort of saint.

The thing is, my life is good.  And the very fact that I even have to say that shows that disability is still viewed as something inherently negative.  I'm not any better or any worse off than the rest of the population.  I have my privilege and my non-privilege, just like the rest of the population.  Strangely enough, no one ever calls me an inspiration for getting around in a society that actively dehumanizes me.  (Even that would be problematic.  I shouldn't be inspiring for living my life in spite of what society says about people like me.  You should be appalled that we all live in a world that does horrible things to people who are different from an arbitrary societally defined norm.)  People just see my disability (the visible parts, anyway) and automatically I become an "inspiration" to them.

What do I inspire people to do?  Well, Fairley says I inspire people to stop complaining about their own lives.  "[I]f putting the physically and mentally challenged in the spotlight serves to make any single non-disabled/non-terminally ill person think twice about complaining about their ‘First World Problems’ or go on a whingeathon about their lot in life, I’d welcome that."

Personally, I find that hilarious.  Miss Fairley, do you really think I don't complain about my "First World Problems"?  Am I automatically an always-smiling, never-complaining, happy-go-lucky Pollyanna saint just because my body operates different than yours?  Well, let me assure you, I whine plenty when there's "no food in the house", despite the five different microwaveable meals in the freezer.  I get edgy when the TV or the Internet isn't working.  And if there's no chocolate around when I have a craving, I am one unhappy camper.  In short, in those ways, I am a "normal" 22 year old, and frankly, a "normal" human being.

Moreover, I am not obligated to be your inspiration.  I do not exist to teach you a lesson.  I don't go out in public to show you how good you've got it (which, again, rests on the assumption that my life is inherently bad, or at least worse than yours). I'm sure Amy Purdy and other disabled people who are in the spotlight recently don't do what they do in order to remind nondisabled people that some people have "real problems".  (Once again, disability is not a problem, until other people make it a problem.  This is the basic social model of disability.  The problem is not with our bodies and minds, it is with society.)  If an interaction with me results in the person thinking "Wow, my life is pretty good after all.", that logically implies that they compared themselves to me and decided that my life is worse than theirs, when it's not.  It's just different.

So no, Miss Fairley, inspiration porn is not "progress", and I find it deeply offensive that you would presume to make such a grand statement when you have not experienced the day to day realities of ableism.  Inspiration porn is simply another form of ableism, cloaked in a syrupy kind of compassion.

(But I still think blue-eyed people are so inspiring.  *wink*)

*P.S:  Dear Miss Fairley, I am not "wheelchair bound".  I am not tied and bound to my wheelchair, unless you really wanna get kinky.  I am a wheelchair user.  My wheelchair frees me.  Perhaps you are "walking bound"?