How “Inspiration Porn” Reporting Objectifies People With Disabilities

In Chicagoland, the St. Patrick’s Day parades are a pretty big deal. Downtown, the city dyes the river green. Hundreds of thousands of people from the city and surrounding suburbs pour into the streets, spend an hour or two watching the parade, then pack the pubs. As a veteran Irish rock musician and father of a child with Down syndrome, I was thrilled to hear that a local young woman with Down syndrome from just one school district over had “fulfilled her lifelong dream” to lead the Countryside, Illinois St. Patrick’s Day parade. I eagerly clicked over to the coverage, ready to learn about this wish come true for Victoria “Tori” Reyes.

Instead, I heard about Tori’s “best buddy” Kate, who had nominated her. “I just said how contagious her happiness was. Everybody seems to be happy around her and I’m so proud to call her my friend,” Kate said, according to the New York Daily News. A local news video led with an announcer saying, “At times, it’s hard to understand Victoria” over Victoria speaking for herself. Later in the video, Victoria gets to answer her mother’s question about whether she’s going to wear a crown by saying, “yes,” and then shows how she’s going to wave. Clearly, she can communicate, but we never really get to find out anything about this “lifelong dream.” It’s all about how she makes other people feel good.

I want to be clear: Tori’s story is great. Kate sounds like a nice girl. Tori’s family and community are clearly supportive. I hope the parade is fun.

The coverage, though, takes what could be an important story about inclusion and turns it into a superficial, saccharine story that objectifies Tori in order to make the reader feel good. It’s just another example of what disability activists and media critics call “inspiration porn.”

Inspiration porn is a widespread problem in how the media reports on disability. There are many different versions, but teenagers with Down syndrome just living their lives often make for particularly compelling subjects for journalists looking to create viral stories using their stereotypical cuteness, sweetness, or angelic nature. Although frequently well-intentioned, the stories often objectify instead of building awareness around real issues or experiences.

Prom, graduation, and now St. Patrick’s Day parade stories are among the most common types. In these examples, a person with Down syndrome is given some award or nice treatment by their peers, and the coverage fixates on how that makes those peers feel great. Tori’s story is definitely one such example. It’s nearly as bad as the high school quarterback who asked his friend with Down syndrome to the prom, fulfilling a fourth-grade promise. The dozens of stories that follow showed smashing photos of Ben Moser and Mary Lapkowicz; I’m sure they had a great time. All we learn about, though, is how great Moser was for keeping a promise to his old friend. The articles use the word “friendship,” even though there’s no indication that the two have an ongoing reciprocally rewarding relationship. Has he seen her since the fourth grade? Do they hang out together? What does Mary think?

A second type fixates on sports, usually an athlete with Down syndrome who is “allowed” to do something. For example, a recent video of an undefeated high-school wrestler who “let” his classmate with Down syndrome win has almost a million views and was reported widely. The stories all focus on Deven Schuko and his heroism for surrendering his 27–0 record to a disabled classmate. We, the readers, are supposed to feel inspired by Schuko. Andy Howland, the young man with Down syndrome, becomes the object which generates the inspiration. Headlines for stories reporting on the wrestling match include “Undefeated Norton High Wrestler Makes Opponent’s Dream Come True” and “Norton High School Wrestler Allows For Dream Win.” Deven is a “class act” who “traded his perfect record for a perfect moment.” Andy is . . . well, we have no idea.

We see the same pattern when people with Down syndrome are “allowed” to score touchdowns, score baskets, or otherwise mimic the norms of typical sports. There’s nothing real about these stories. They never address the lack of genuinely integrated competitive athletic options for disabled people.

Still a third type of inspiration porn relies on the word “overcome.” “Student overcomes down’s syndrome for spirited cheerleading routine,” for example, in which a disability is assumed to have been an obstacle. This feeds into the idea that disability’s obstacles stem from it being a medical impairment, rather than the social stigmas associated with it.

In almost every case, I have no criticisms of the young men and women who are seeking ways to better include their classmates with Down syndrome or other intellectual disabilities. Teenagers like Kate, Deven, the high school quarterback, or the cheerleading squad are good people looking for ways to be more inclusive. High-school kids must take such steps because too often, our education systems, recreation leagues, and society at large lack natural pathways for people with and without disabilities to compete, play, or develop easy social interactions with each other.

My issue is with the reporting.

Pornography, whatever your feelings about it, is inherently aimed at the viewer. That’s the whole point. Inspiration porn, likewise, turns the disabled individual into an object for your consumption. These stories place the emphasis on the typical person who does something nice to the disabled person, assuming that’s who you will identify with. The non-disabled person gets to be active; they get to drive the narrative forward. We learn about why they did their good deed and how it all makes them feel. Such pieces often editorialize, or allow wise grownups to editorialize, about how good these young people are.

In contrast, the disabled individuals are rendered passive. They rarely get to speak for themselves, to communicate how they feel, or to express their desires. Their lack of competence is presumed.

I bet Tori is an extraordinary advocate for herself. People seem to know she wants to lead the parade. Did any journalist work to find out how she communicates, or did her lack of easy speech just make it easier to rely on Kate and Tori’s mom? Similarly, what does Andy Howland have to say about his wrestling victory? Or Mary Lapkowicz about the prom?

These are the questions journalists need to learn to ask. Unfortunately, as long as inspiration porn goes viral, there’s no incentive for them to do so, and that’s a pity. We all have the right to be agents of our own stories, rather than objects for someone else’s emotional high.

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Lead image: Pixabay

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