When Daniel and I visited Yosemite National Park to celebrate our first wedding anniversary, we undertook a hike up to one of the park’s waterfalls. The hike was easy enough that the trail was crowded, but it was still an uphill slog requiring strength and stamina. As a young man and his companion blew by us, he turned to me and said, “Good for you for doing this. I really admire you.” Those words didn’t make me feel warm and fuzzy, nor did they give me a burst of newfound energy. Rather, they made me angry. With those words, that young man treated me as an object, a “disabled person” instead of just a “person”—worthy of admiration although he knew nothing about me apart from the fact that I walk with a limp and was working harder than others to get up that hill.
All my life, I have been admired, called brave and inspirational, because I live with a disability. And all my life, I have found that admiration and those labels ridiculous. Admire me for what I do—for writing well or raising decent kids or having a lovely garden. But don’t admire me just for existing, just because I live a mostly unremarkable life with scars and a limp and a history of dozens of broken bones. Admiration of this sort is really just pity in disguise. The implication? “If I had a body like yours, I would hide myself at home all day. You must have huge reserves of courage, to bring this body out into public every day.”
Australian journalist and comedian Stella Young, who has the same genetic bone disorder I do, calls the misplaced admiration of disabled people because of our disabilities “inspiration porn.” In this TEDx talk (just under 10 minutes long), she does a terrific job of explaining how “inspiration porn,” like other kinds of porn, objectifies people. I don’t agree completely with Young’s contentions that disability is solely a social construct, that nothing about a disability is intrinsically a “Bad Thing,” and that social and cultural barriers are the only obstacles people with disabilities face. I think that dozens of broken bones, chronic pain, and many other aspects of OI are intrinsic Bad Things—which is not to say that I deserve pity or that my life is miserable.
But I agree with Young that naming and eradicating the social and cultural barriers that objectify people with disabilities is indeed a matter of justice. She makes a convincing argument, with a good dose of humor.