“You’re so brave for crossing that street all by yourself!”
“You handle those stairs better than I do!”
“You’re such an inspiration… Sometimes I have trouble motivating myself to go to the gym. But when I see you there, I know I don’t have an excuse.”
These are all real things I have been told, usually by strangers or casual acquaintances. And it’s not limited to one-on-one conversations either: Increasingly, social media is being inundated with “inspiring” images of disabled people going about their normal business, flanked by captions like “What’s your excuse?” or “The only disability is a bad attitude”. The late disability activist Stella Young unaffectionately called these portrayals “inspiration porn”, highlighting the fact that they are often, intentionally or not, created by nondisabled people to make other nondisabled people feel good.
On the surface, the comments and social media memes seem positive. Everyone enjoys a compliment now and then. And, if my actions can inspire another person to improve their life, what’s wrong with that?
Disabled people have found several problems with inspiration porn. It often objectifies the disabled person; it obscures real problems of disability discrimination; it accentuates the “otherness” of disabled people; it undermines disability identity. I agree with all those critiques, but I also want to offer another reason why inspiration porn bothers me, based on social psychology. I call this the “shifting standards” critique.
To illustrate, let’s think about children for a minute. We often get really excited about children’s accomplishments. We might marvel that the infant who breaks 20 pounds is “such a big boy!” or the 2-year-old who can recite the ABC song is “such a smart girl!” Now, when we consider the full spectrum of humanity, a 20-pound human is not all that big, and knowing the ABC song is definitely not the pinnacle of human intelligence. But, when we’re thinking about little kids, we naturally shift our standards. We know that little kids have not yet reached their physical or mental potential. So, we compare their achievements to those of other kids their age, or perhaps to where they were six months ago. There’s no real harm in this, and in fact, exaggerated praise may be a young child’s first reward for practicing a new skill.
But how would it feel, as a grown adult, to be praised for doing something as ordinary as filling out a deposit slip at the bank or parking your car? What if the stranger next to you at the gym, visibly lifting more or running faster than you are, kept going on about how strong you are? Might you wonder if your actions are being viewed through the lens of a shifting standard?
Social psychologist Monica Biernat described “shifting standards” as a discrepancy in social judgment. With shifting standards, we may judge members of some social groups positively on “subjective” metrics-like rating women higher than men on an athleticism scale of 1 to 10-but at the same time, we rate those group members lower on “objective” metrics-like believing that women score lower batting averages than men. What matters most about this, though, is that shifting standards can disguise discrimination against members of some social groups.
In a provocative studysharing the title of this blog post, Biernat and her colleague Theresa Vescio had college students pretend to be managers of a coed softball team. They were given pictures of 18 people, 9 men and 9 women. Their job was to assign 13 of the 18 people to be on their fantasy softball team, and then to pick 10 out of the 13 people to be in the starting lineup and assign batting and fielding positions to each player. The other three players on the team were “benched”. Then, the students looked at each picture again and were asked to imagine how they would respond, as managers, if the player hit a single (i.e., would they do nothing, or would they praise and congratulate the player)?
Consistently, the students (both men and women) chose more men than women to be on their fantasy team, and the women they chose were more likely to be benched. They also put men in more prestigious positions on the field than women. However, along with this, they said they would publicly praise and congratulate more female than male players for hitting a single.
So, what does all this have to do with inspiration porn?
As disabled people, we get benched all the time. Sometimes quite literally (a particular stretch of fourth-grade gym class comes to mind). Other times, the benching occurs in the form of job rejections, housing denials, being passed up for dates, or access refusals. And sometimes we are told, “You’re so independent!…But we think you’d be too much of a liability for this job” or “You’re so pretty…You’re like a sister to me”.
In other words, when I am called inspiring or amazing for doing ordinary things, it makes me question the standards used. Am I being measured against the same standards as my peers? Or am I being praised as amazing or inspiring compared with some stereotypic idea of what blind or disabled people are expected to do? The latter possibility suggests that the person praising me could pbench me, or pass me up for an opportunity that really matters. Ironically, while these “compliments” are often meant to raise disabled people up, their implication of shifting standards may unintentionally drag us down.
So, next time you are feeling impressed or inspired by a disabled person, ask yourself a few questions. First, would the same action still be inspiring if this person were nondisabled? And second, is what this person is doing impressive enough that you’d pay your own money for it? For example, if you’re inspired by watching a disabled person walking their dog in the park, would you feel comfortable hiring them to pet-sit for you?
If your answer to either question is “yes”, great! But if your honest answer to both questions is “no”, then you may want to re-examine your standards. Get to know us, read about us, and learn the adapted methods we use to achieve equal results. Perhaps by meeting and interacting with disabled people, you might be surprised by how ordinary and unremarkable life can be for us.
And, to help spread more balanced information about disabilities, check out these tips for creating anti-inspiration porn
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