Extended Interview: Inspiration Porn Resolution & #CrippingTheMighty

A compilation of interview responses that did not make The Washington Post’s article on #CrippingTheMighty

On January 5, 2016, Caitlin Gibson of The Washington Post wrote an article about #CrippingTheMighty, a hashtag conversation critiquing the media’s portrayal of people with disabilities. The initial impetus for the hashtag centered around a specific incident with a media company called The Mighty, it became a broader call for improved practices by journalists and the media when covering people with disabilities. Below are extended responses that did not make it in the original article by Liz Jackson, R. Larkin Taylor-Parker, and Alice Wong, authors of The Inspiration Porn Resolution, a set of guidelines for better reporting and writing about the disability community.

Q1: Even if The Mighty specifically doesn’t change its practices, do you still feel that there is value in the awareness about the portrayal of disabled people raised by #CrippingTheMighty hashtag campaign and the Inspiration Porn Resolution? And do you feel that the message is actually getting through to The Mighty/the media at large?

Liz: As I am someone who writes about products for people with disabilities, I believe that even though The Mighty didn’t start a conversation that they wanted, they started a conversation that people with disabilities deserve. As David Perry stated (in all caps)

“WOULDN’T THIS HAVE BEEN A GOOD QUESTION TO ASK BEFORE LAUNCHING YOUR WEBSITE COVERING DISABILITY ISSUES?

Liz (cont’d): My advocacy is centered around design and fashion in disability and I believe that products that are designed sensitively around an impairment will always find a greater way to benefit society at large. The Mighty is not designing their site sensitively around disability, they simply hopped on the inspiration porn train. What is inspirational about a site that could possibly publish a piece called ‘Meltdown Bingo’? Autism is not a game. What is inspirational about a runway model with a disability? It only demonstrates the lack of products made for and marketed to that model’s need. When you really look, these small instances of inspiration porn will always show how society has overlooked the disabled person and disabled body in a much more devastating and destructive way.

Inspiration Porn Theme 1: Participation Trophies

Larkin: I worry that the inspiration porn approach actually makes the disabled experience worse. People are aware that disability exists. There is, however, a big awareness problem about the number of people with disabilities whose impairments are not their biggest problems, people who either live ordinary lives or could if they got the supports they needed. When we treat normal, everyday activities as inspiring, people start to think of those things as unusual. That can distort perceptions of disability, leading people to think disabled lives are much worse than they are, and make it harder for people with and without disabilities to imagine how removing societal barriers might make typical life experiences more common in the disability community.

Inspiration porn that treats everyday life as exceptional on the basis of disability is a fluffy distraction from both the problems disabled people face and our actual achievements. It is not useful either as news or for advocacy, and it feels condescending to people with disabilities.

The value of the hashtag, if nothing else, is in the conversations it started. Years of social media work have led me to conclude that social media is often most effective as the behind-the-scenes slow burn of growing connections. People are talking to each other, sharing ideas and contemplating starting projects together, who may not have known each other before. Practically anything could come of that, and something worthwhile probably will in time.

Alice: It almost doesn’t matter what The Mighty does after #CrippingTheMighty. The issues raised from people with disabilities went beyond this single media company’s practices. Whatever direction they take in the future is up to them and at the very least they received a clear wake-up call by disabled people on their problematic representation of disability and power differentials between stories by people with disabilities versus stories about disability by non-disabled people.

Inspiration Porn Theme 2: Able-Bodied Heroes

Alice (cont’d): Everyone is objectified by the media to some extent — marginalized groups like people with disabilities are impacted more by this objectification because there’s less ‘room to move’ because of the pervasive stereotypes that dominate the narratives on disability.

There is value to a powerful hashtag — on Twitter each person has their own unfiltered platform. The collective commentary from #CrippingTheMighty impressed me greatly and it shows the untapped talent and power of the disability community. There have been many bloggers and activists critiquing inspiration porn for years. I’d love to stop talking about it because it’s not the most salient issue in my life, but this experience indicates there’s still a need for the media to check their own privilege related to ableism and think about diversity beyond race and gender and how that impacts their reporting.

Even if The Mighty doesn’t change, #CrippingTheMighty has value because it amplified the voices of people with disabilities in their own words, displaying depth and diversity of our community. I don’t know if concrete change will occur as a result of #CrippingTheMighty, but it’s just a small part of an ongoing dialogue and struggle for authenticity, fairness, and equity.

Inspiration Porn Theme 3: People as Props

Q2: What was your initial reaction as you were following the “Meltdown Bingo” controversy unfold, and what prompted you to create the #CrippingTheMighty hashtag in response?

Larkin: I was frustrated with some of The Mighty’s editorial decisions. I was dismayed that no one on the editorial staff thought the article might come off pejorative. I was especially surprised because its author was apparently very new to disability blogging. One would think a first contribution to a major website would be looked over carefully enough to catch something like that.

Inspiration Porn Theme 4: Gawking without Talking

Alice: I moderate the Facebook group for the Disability Visibility Project and there are ocassional discussions of inspiration porn and other issues related to journalism. When I read the apology post from The Mighty, I had to laugh when the Editor-In-Chief asked “Which websites and writers are covering this space the right way” because I could list over 50 great websites and writers immediately. Disabled people have always been a part of the media landscape — speaking out, creating, writing, and protesting. I created #CrippingTheMighty as a way to respond directly to The Mighty while trying to reach a larger audience. The hashtag invited people to share their expertise in this open conversation and served as a means to push-back, sound-off, and raise higher level concerns.

Who cares to listen to actual disabled people on their lived experiences? I’m still looking for an answer to that question.

Q3: What are the most important next steps that you’d like to see from The Mighty?

Larkin: I would like to see nontraditional media outlets think through the responsibilities that come with having a large audience. I would like all publications covering disability to think hard about the impact of their portrayals on disabled people’s lives. Inspiration porn is great clickbait, but it is not what we need. It might be possible to be just as successful with a better approach. It would be interesting to see a site like The Mighty try to succeed that way.

Inspiration Porn Theme 5: SuperParent

Alice: There are many important steps The Mighty can take such as revising their editorial guidelines and paying all of their contributors. It doesn’t really matter what I think they should do — hopefully this case will provide an opportunity for all publishers and editors to think about their practices and for writers to question how they frame the disability experience.

Final Thoughts on Terminology and Ideas to Consider:

On language and the usage and meaning of ‘crip’

Alice: This word can be both a noun and a verb. Commonly known as a slur to describe people with disabilities, some people (not all) in the disability community reclaim this word in reference to their pride and cultural identity. Writer/activist Caitlin Woods described her identification with the term:

…when I hear the word crip, to me, it’s such a signifier of identity and culture, and it is a bad word in a lot of ways, and it has an edge to it. But it’s also a really cool word, I would say, in that when someone I meet who’s disabled refers to themself as a crip, I kind of know that they’re down. It’s like a way of, to me, I just assume that we’re probably gonna be on the same wavelength in terms of politics and identity and disability culture.

There’s even crip theory and krip-hop, a movement founded by Leroy F. Moore, Jr. In an interview, Moore said:

Before people with disabilities had civil rights, a movement and arts, many had placed labels on us like “crazy”, “lame”, “cripple” and “retarded”, etc. Of course, now with our civil rights and disability studies and culture, we have named ourselves and have used the negative terms to our own benefit to not only shock people but to respect that these words are our history and we must reclaim them…I wanted to again reclaim the term Crip to advocate and educate with a proud framework of the music and struggles of Hip-Hop artists with disabilities.

When groups or individuals ‘queer’ or ‘crip’ a space, the space’s default norms (e.g., heteronormativity, able-bodiedness) are challenged when exposed to disability culture or queer culture. Allison Hitt wrote about ‘cripping’ in a 2012 book review:

Cripping insists that the system of compulsory able-bodiedness is not and should not be the norm; cripping also imagines bodies and desires that fit beyond that system.

This is the the thinking behind #CrippingTheMighty hashtag, to reconfigure and re-imagine the media landscape.

On ableism, abled-bodied privilege and writing

Alice: There are have been some commentary that the discussion from #CrippingTheMighty and the Inspiration Porn Resolution aims to censor and silence non-disabled writers who write about disability (e.g., parents who blog about their child with a disability). Sharing a perspective that may radically diverge from your sensibilities and asking for consideration is not silencing or censoring. Writer and neurodiversity rights advocate Michelle Sutton wrote about the role of privilege in representing people with disabilities in a January 7, 2016 blog post:

What do I mean by privilege? As a non disabled parent writing about your life and your child’s life, you have been doing that for some time with the only feedback you received being affirmation. You have been told how valuable your story is to other parents. You have been told how much others can relate to you. You have probably been sympathized with if you have said you are having a hard time. I know this, because I was a parent blogger. I had that privilege…Well, disabled writers don’t have that privilege. When they write their words are questioned, their motives are questioned, their intelligence is questioned, their value is questioned, and often all that questioning is followed by a line like ‘parents find their kids so hard’ or something along those lines. And that is wrong. I know it is not your “fault”. But it is wrong. Because when we talk about disability it should be the voices of the disabled that are front and centre, just as when we talk about women, it is women’s voices who should be front and centre.

Here are a few other great articles and blog posts about #CrippingTheMighty and the larger issues raised about inspiration porn by both non-disabled and disabled people:

Thank You.

Alice Wong is the Founder of the Disability Visibility Project, a community partnership with StoryCorps collecting oral histories of from the disability community. Alice works at the Community Living Policy Center at UC San Francisco as a Staff Research Associate and is a sometime Research Consultant/Freelance Journalist. Her recent work focused on accessible makeathons and STEM careers for people with disabilities. She’s also a proud disabled Nerd of Color.

Liz Jackson advocates for a concept she calls ‘Inclusive Retail’. After a chronic neuromuscular diagnosis in 2012, Liz began to wonder why her eyeglasses were fashionable when her cane and all other assistive products were stigmatizing. Inclusive Retail aims to inspire designers and retailers to make and market products for all needs. Liz believes thoughtful design can improve and save millions of lives while fueling an emerging market the size of China. You can read more of Liz’s work on her blog The Girl with the Purple Cane.

R. Larkin Taylor-Parker is the author of Traveling Show, which is the oldest thing standing in Autistic Tumblr. Taylor-Parker wonders about how young professionals be conventionally successful enough to serve their minority community without losing them and how social media, with its unruliness and guerrilla tendencies, will grow up. She is a second year student at the University of Georgia School of Law interested in disability rights, autism blogger, and avid recreational tuba player.