The Dangers of Inspiration Porn: The Case of Oscar Pistorius, a Great Athlete

Oscar Pistorius, a double-amputee runner who uses J-shaped, carbon-fiber prosthetic blades called “cheetahs,” has made history by becoming the first double-amputee sprinter to compete in the Olympics. This Saturday morning, he finished second in his heat in 45.44 seconds and will run in the semifinals on Sunday.

Pistorius’ presence in the Olympics has not only caused us to rethink what it means to be an able-bodied or disabled athlete. It also requires us to reexamine stereotypical, albeit unconscious, attitudes about disability and individuals with disability that we may harbor.

The Problem With Inspiration Porn

In the photo illustrating this post, Pistorius appears beside a girl with disabilities; both appear poised to run. “The only disability in life is a bad attitude” reads a caption under this “inspirational” photo.

Some may see the photo and its caption’s message to be along the lines of “these people have a disability and see what they can do, be inspired!” But, as Philippa Willitts recently wrote in the Independent, the photo is an example of “cripspiration” that

…does nothing at all to advance the cause of disabled people. We do not exist to be living, breathing models of inspiration tand presenting us in this way is objectifying and reductive.

Willitts explains how the photo objectifies individuals with disabilities:

Using a snapshot of disabled people as a tool to convey a message to, primarily, non-disabled people, involves playing on stereotypes and assumptions. It removes a person’s humanity and individuality in order to present them in a way that will goad a non-disabled person to buck up their ideas. It does not matter who the people in these photographs are, as long as their representation is enough to guilt non-disabled people into action. Their use of prosthetics is the only thing about them that is of interest in these images, and it automatically turns them into some kind of superhero. Along with the captions, the implication is supposed to be, “Wow, they have a great attitude!”.

You will have, or will read commentary about Pistorius that draws on similar assumptions about disability. Some have said that it does not matter what Pistorius does or does not in the London Olympics, that he’s “already a winner” just for getting there “at all” and that isn’t it something that he has “even” made it to the semifinals (that’s from NPR).

On the one hand, this is the case.

On the other hand, such statements, though meant in full support of Pistorius, repeat and reinforce stereotypes about individuals with disabilities, that just because they are doing something (anything), the rest doesn’t matter. But such a perspective suggests, however unintentionally, that because an individual is disabled, we don’t have to apply the same standards of achievement and can judge them based on “lesser,” “easier,” “downgraded” criteria.

Disability Isn’t About a “Bad Attitude”

Saying that disability is equivalent to having a “bad attitude” also, Willitts points out, “puts the blame on disabled people for their predicament.” She offers a personal example of the insidiousness of this sort of thinking:

When I fell down the stairs a few days ago I misguidedly tried to work out which failing body part had caused the tumble when, presumably, I should have been adjusting my attitude instead: a much more effective way to prevent further falls.

Blaming someone with a disability for “their own predicament” means that those of us without disabilities avoid “tackling the real causes of disability such as inaccessibility and discrimination.” Willitts uses the example of a woman with disabilities being blamed because she did not attend a meeting when the reason she did not was because it was held in a place without ramps or elevators.

Similar stereotypical thinking about disabilities is not only evident in media coverage of Pistorius, but has prevented him from competing in his sport. For five years, athletics authorities have been debating whether Pistorius, who had both legs below the knee amputated when he was 11 months old, has an “unfair advantage” from his prosthetic devices. After years of testing and debate, Pistorius was cleared to run against able-bodied athletes by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, in Switzerland, in 2008. He did not qualify for the 2008 Beijing Olympics; he won a number of medals at that year’s Paralympics and also in the 2004 Paralympics in Athens. After the London events, he will compete in the 100, 200, 400 and 4×100 relay in the Paralympics which start on August 29.

Someone I’m very close to is an above the knee amputee. You don’t just strap on a prosthesis and start walking; you have to learn how to walk again, as you use different parts of your body to move with the prosthesis. In Pistorius’ case, his prosthetic “cheetahs” require him to rely on his hips to generate power, causing him to expend more energy actually than an athlete without disabilities who uses their ankles, hips and calves.

As Robert Gailey, a professor of physical therapy at the University of Miami (Florida.) School of Medicine, explains to the New York Times, Pistorius’ “ability to compete is a testament to what a great athlete he is, not because of any technological advantage.”

How Ironic: Able-Bodied Athletes Are Wary Of an Athlete With Disabilities

Two-time Olympic champion Michael Johnson says of Pistorius that “because we don’t know for sure whether he gets an advantage from the prosthetics, it is unfair to the able-bodied competitors.”

I find it a bit ironic to hear Johnson talking about the “unfairness” that “able-bodied competitors” may experience running against Pistorius. Those with disabilities are quite aware of how “unfair” a place the world is. In a way that I suspect he did not intend, Johnson’s statement  shows both how much the world has changed for individuals with disabilities and how very far we have still to go.

Related Care2 Coverage

Sports & Equal Rights: Double-Amputee To Run in Olympics

Down Syndrome Girl Is Swimsuit Model: Progress… Or Not?

Disabled Death Row Inmate Granted Stay of Execution At 11th Hour

Photo via the Independent

160 comments

Christine Stewart

I disagree with the premise- no one is saying you must become a world class athlete- the ad is showing that you can try to do more than you think you can...

Connie T.
Past Member 3 years ago

Bsd timing with this article!!

Erik B. A.
Erik B. A.3 years ago

Oscar Pistorius Charged With Murder:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/02/14/oscar-pistorius-charged-with-murder_n_2683388.html

Viki V.
Viki A.3 years ago

beautiful picture.

John S.
Past Member 3 years ago

I think this post is no better than the ad, but the ad will have more people talking about it, so I guess it worked.

Jonathan Y.
Jonathan Y.3 years ago

Complex issues, important to point out. Thanks Professor Chew.

'Normally-abled' people are sometimes tempted to push people with disabilities far beyond their limits, when they embrace the old (discredited) idea that disabilities are mostly mental. This can cause physical and/or psychological damage both to the disabled person and their helper, loved one, or coach. Education and some medical expertise/training about disabilities is critical when caring for or coaching a disabled person.

It's great that Pistorius achieved what he did. But not every disabled person can become a Pistorius, no matter how hard they try. What he has done took tremendous, exceptional effort, more than a normally- abled person, not to mention years of therapy and painful training.

colleen p.
colleen p.3 years ago

Steven M. I wonder if someone could have minimal research and create a fictional story "that reads like it is true" for such inspirational nonsense.

like the hoax emails that people spread around.

Ruth Anastacia Adamcik

I am sick to death of such "inspirational" rubbish. I have a physical and psychological disability. I am also often "shamed and blamed" when I don't act like a perfectly "normal" person. Chronic pain and clinical depression can be quite debilitating, but seeing such a so-called inspirational image just makes me think: "Well, jeez, when you have enough money, resources and support, of course you can achieve more as a disabled person. Not many disabled people have such a support system; so, who are we - human garbage?" Inspirational - yeah, right...

Danielle K.
Danielle K.3 years ago

I think the author missed the point of the photo in question. The idea is that being an amputee or having a disability should not impede you from succeeding in life. The "bad attitude" is the disability.

I suppose the only problem with the inspiration goop (i hesitate to use the word "porn", given the objections from others) is that it focuses so much on their disability rather than showing them as a person WITH a disability. It makes caricatures of them and doesn't recognize that they have bad days just like able-bodied people. It doesn't seem to recognize them as human. Oscar Pistorius is a man first and an amputee second. Yes, he overcame adversity to achieve a dream, but not everyone is so lucky to have the support system he had to make this happen.

Brian, your story reminds me of the guys in "Murderball", the documentary about quadriplegic wheelchair rugby players. One player, who had been injured in a car accident, said that he was a [jerk] before his accident and is a [jerk] now.

Steven M.
Steven M.3 years ago

Does Pistorius have an advantage because of his prosthetic legs? I think it is a reasonable question to ask. Handicapped folks have been and are discriminated against every day. But that isn't the question here. The question is whether this guy has an advantage because of these prosthetic legs. There is a lot of power bound up in a coiled piece of metal. If the goal is that all athletes start from a level playing field it is a legitimate concern.

I agree, however, about "Inspiration Porn". I have always hated "inspirational" stories, movies, books. Their premise is that all any of us has to do is try harder and we can overcome our problems. Well, no. Not everyone can overcome their problems. Maybe some kid with Down Syndrome can become a football star but I know lots of DS kids who struggle with activities of daily living. Inspirational stories are okay to an extent but we are now swamped with these stories. They have become a societal excuse for not providing the resources and help people with "disabilities" actually need. When the model for dealing with your "disability" is to simply try harder the down side is that most will not succeed. We then have the double whammy of an excuse not to provide help (the solution is within each of us and is our own responsibility after all so we should just all get off our butts) and an added reason to feel depressed about our situation.