My Disability IS My Excuse

There are many different types of disability. Some are lifelong. Some are temporary, such as a cancer that someone has successfully eradicated or a high-risk pregnancy. Some involve physical pain. Some don’t. Some disabilities involve illness. Some don’t. Some wouldn’t even be disabilities in a world that was structured differently, like Deafness in a world that used sign language rather than oral speech and open captions everywhere. Some impairments can be overcome with accommodation and medication, so that treating them is a minor part of an otherwise able life. Some impairments would still be disabling even in an accommodating world, because the experience of the impairment itself is so unpleasant.

inspirationporn

There’s one kind of disabled person that the abled world really likes: The disabled athlete. The disabled athlete pushed boundaries, “overcomes disability”, and is often used as inspiration porn for the abled. “What’s your excuse?” they superimpose over a picture of an attractive young woman with a single lower leg prosthetic. Disabled athletes are used (wittingly or not) as symbols of personal responsibility and determination. This fits into broader cultural ideals promoting individualism, and not accommodating disability. This is where I point out that most of the amputee athletes in these inspirational pictures are wearing prosthetic running blades that cost $15-18,000 each.

excuse invalid

Disabled athletes are usually not ill. They may have mobility impairments or be amputees, but arthritis and Chron’s disease are not commonly associated with athletics. What’s more, disabled athletes were very often athletes first and became disabled second. Veteran amputees (at higher numbers due to IED usage in overseas wars) and amputees who lost limbs due to athletic endeavors like rock-climbing are among those amputees most likely to engage in sports after being fitted for a prosthetic. They already liked sports, so finding a way to do sports while disabled mattered to them.

only disability is bad attitude

I don’t already like sports, or at least, not as much as I like lying in a pillow nest on my bed or basking in the sunlight on my balcony. I have chronic pain and chronic fatigue. I have less energy and less stamina than a non-disabled non-athlete woman my age. I have about three hours of active energy per day and another eight hours of very passive energy, where I can get things done so long as I don’t have to get up to do them. Those three hours are precious and I need them for cleaning my house and running errands.

whats your excuse

I do know it’s important that I get in some form of exercise, so I do quite a lot of leg lifts and crunches in bed. Chronic back pain for me means that lying on a hard surface like a floor or weight bench or gym mat is going to hurt before I even start to move my body. During my three active hours, while I’m cleaning the house, I play music and dance around my apartment. I move poorly and hilariously, not gracefully or well, but I move because it matters and because dancing is a way that makes moving feel good for me.

whats your inspiration

For other disabled people, running is what feels good. Or playing wheelchair basketball. Or beep ball, baseball for the blind. Some people need to move their bodies a lot each day to feel good. Some of us need to keep our bodies relatively still and concentrate on getting lots of rest. Some find exhilaration in competition and pushing their bodies to meet new goals. Some of us are just glad when there are fewer than twelve bathroom trips in the day. Neither experience of disability, ill or well is a reflection on the person. They’re just different, like us and our disabilities.

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17 thoughts on “My Disability IS My Excuse

  1. Frankly those pics of the scantily clad amputee women do seem a little odd. I remember a TV ad for something, maybe a breakfast cereal that was supposed to be an “athlete’s breakfast”, which had a man running an obstacle course at an army camp and at one point he hallucinates a sexy woman seductively telling him “You only get out what you put in” (he then returns to reality to see his instructor telling him “Get on with it!!!”). I think the woman in that TV ad could almost class as “inspiration porn”. I’ve actually seen some far better inspirational posters (they are memes basically) with disabled athletes. My favourite was one showing a double amputee track runner, helping up a single amputee on the track. The caption was something like “The people who help you are those who have been where you are”. Obviously this meme was meant for anybody, not just athletes.

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    1. I read your blog. I did Taekwon-Do myself as a teen. More than anything I wanted to learn self-confidence in the face of schoolyard bullies. It was unfortunate that after about 6 years of training, I realized that my club hadn’t really taught me that, despite that I knew fighting technique. I realized that to be self-confident I needed to know more than how to fight.

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      1. My blog post wasn’t about self-confidence though being mistreated by coaches has a negative impact on that. I was talking about the systemic lack of access for disabled people in recreational activities because they are either inaccessible or the people who run them ignore or are hostile to disabled participants. Which is why images that suggest that our success is just a matter of initiative and action are so very offensive, It’s like saying “sure we won’t let you play but it’s still your fault when you don’t succeed”

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    2. I also wonder about the difference between challenging someone and inspiring someone. The posters as Angie’s examples are certainly on the challenging side. People assume that always challenging yourself e.g looking at things that make you feel as though you should be better, makes you a stronger person. As has already been suggested, the challenges on abled people in the examples are rather unfair. Angie pointed out that some disabled athletes were once abled athletes i.e they did sport and continue to do sport because they like it, not necessarily to prove that they are not worthless because of their disability. The posters suggest that disabled athletes expect abled people to prove their worth through sport and athletics, but of course we don’t known what the disabled athletes on the posters REALLY think.

      I wonder if anyone has seen the ’90s music video for Joan Armatrading’s “Everyday Boy”? It shows a disabled boy competing in a swimming race. He comes last, but nobody had even expected him to compete and they all cheer when he makes it to the other side of the pool and forget about the boy who actually won the race. Interestingly though, the video is just symbolic of the real story behind the song. It was about a friend of Joan’s who had AIDS, but still held his head up proud and enjoyed life in full. I’m very disappointed that this video isn’t on youtube 😦

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      1. That music video would make me cringe because it is another form of inspiration porn which is celebrating disabled people fot doing ordinary things. I suugest you watch Stella Young’s TED talk, it really lays out why images and narratives like that are harmful. In the case of the video you describe celebrating someone because they exceeded the arbitrary expectations of able-bodied people. Which just suggests that we are generally not expected to succeed at all.

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  2. Alright I think I see your point. Abled people “consume” these posters to make them feel good without thinking much about the disabled people. The way people get a thrill from sex porn without thinking much about the people.

    The “What’s Your Excuse?” examples of inspiration porn that you use don’t sit well with me. The whole “if they can do it so can/should you” thing. I’ve suffered from depression for a long time and seeing posters like this doesn’t help. The poster I talked about with the double amputee helping up the single amputee however wasn’t preaching to or challenging anybody and I can’t see anyone putting that poster up on the wall of a gym. It was actually on the wall of a centre for people with mental illness. It actually made sense because the centre was run by people who suffered mental illness themselves i.e “The people who help you are those who have been where you are”. The poster compared peer support between amputees to all types of peer support.

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  3. Ok so apparently I like inspiration “porn”. I’ve heard of the term “inspirational junk food” at least. Apparently I’m ignorant and need to be schooled on what’s “porn” and what isn’t. On what’s shallow and what isn’t. Well excuse me, but I actually do have some confidence in my own ability to discriminate. I don’t believe that I am cheaply inspired by cliché ideas. I’ve already said that I am offended by the posters that Angie showed. I refuse to let them tell me that I’m not good enough as I am. I find music to be inspirational, but certainly not ALL music. I’m discriminant. I don’t expect everybody to like the music that inspires me, but does it deserve to be called “porn”? There is plenty of stuff in this world that people like and rely on for which the word “porn” might be fitting. I think crippledscholar has been a really harsh judge, calling that inspirational music video, “porn”. As for the other poster I talked about with the amputee helping up the other amputee, well I lightly defended that poster earlier cause I was concerned that somebody was going to say that it was “porn” too and it appears I had a reason to be concerned. Am I so stupid and misled that I need to be totally re-educated? Does anyone have a clue how I feel?

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    1. I think you are misunderstanding why we call it porn. It’s because, like pornography the images you see aren’t real, they are distortions of reality created to illicit particular feelings in the viewer, even though it’s not how things play out in real life. The problem is most people understand this about traditional pornography but miss the point on overly saccharine views of disability.

      As a person with cerebral palsy who also happens to be able to swim I would feel utterly awful if I was applauded more vigorously than the winner of a race if I came in last (which I almost certainly would). swimming isn’t a major triumph for me, it’s a thing many people can do. My being disabled doesn’t make it exceptional. Saying that it does is dehumanizing. I’d rather be allowed to have actual achievements or at least be able to define what I think is an achievement for me. These images absolutely rob people of that. The term isn’t “porn” it’s inspiration porn, context matters. Disabled people are hardly the first to use it to show how inaccurate focus dehumanizes people. Terms like poverty porn (the use of often exaggerated imageries of poverty usually in developing countries) or patient porn (the use of usually sick kids to illicit pity for profit in charities) predate inspiration porn.

      If the term bothers you then try to focus on the reasons people don’t like the imagery. Why we think it hurts us. Because in the end it’s not the term that’s the end all be all. It’s the harm that the term describes.

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      1. Well yes we allow ourselves to be inspired or impressed by things that are at best partly real. Film, books, games, photos (including pornography). I’m perfectly conscious of exploitation that occurs in some of that media. I’ve done time as a church going Christian and feel that unfair exploitation occurred there. I’m reminded of the recent Christian film God’s Not Dead which a critic described as “emotional porn”. Having seen a preview of the film, I think I understand what the critic meant.

        As for the Joan Armatrading video, well I don’t expect that EVERYONE would be impressed by the video. Was it shallow? Were disabled people being exploited for gain? I can see some people thinking so. I think there should be a little more acceptance of this type of inspirational material though. It’s a little hard NOT to feel good for the boy in the video, because he is clearly happy that he finished the race. Actually I think perhaps the audience’s reaction was meant to be seen as one of relief, relief that the boy didn’t drown in trying to finish the race (when he reaches the other side of the pool, he is exhausted and stops moving. Lifeguards jump in to save him). Yes, it’s all just fiction and as I said, it’s only symbolic of what the song is really about (a man dying of AIDS), but I have strong feelings for this particular video.

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  4. Hey, thank you for this.

    My boyfriend has been permanently disabled for life. He has a complicated set of birth defects that basically mean he has no pulmonary artery, his blood pumps backward around his body, and he’s slowly dying of congestive heart failure. His OSat’s 85% on a good day. Obviously he can’t exercise; walking faster than 2 mph would make him turn blue and lifting weights is equally out of the question.

    I also teach. A few years ago I had a student with cerebral palsy. She participated in a school club fashion show and when she walked down the aisle everyone cheered louder for her than for anyone else. It bothered me. She walked everywhere. Walking wasn’t unusual at all for her. But they were applauding because she was ‘inspiring.’ I really liked this student, but I didn’t think she was inspiring, and I don’t know how to explain it without sounding bizarre.

    However, we have another kid with CP at my school right now (not one of mine) who has great trouble walking. She is usually in a wheelchair, but she practices walking in her walker up and down the hallway outside my room once a day. To her, walking is an achievement, and she smiles on days she can walk further. Sometimes I feel like applauding her, especially when she looks so happy to be walking so far, but I also don’t know if that would be appropriate. She isn’t inspiring me. She just looks happy.

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    1. I understand dishonest, patronizing attitudes towards people with illness or disability. I’ve received such myself. Ok, if someone is genuinely surprised that you are able to do something, that’s one thing. Maybe you’re at fault for not expecting more, but the point is that you’re genuinely impressed right? (But it doesn’t mean that now YOU need an excuse for not doing it, like those posters suggest).

      What I hate is when people applaud your achievements and then expect you to always achieve at that level. As though the more they reward you with praise, the more achievements you owe them and the less burdensome you’re allowed to be.

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    2. I don’t think it would be wrong to always with your second student — you clearly know and like her, and for me when friends clap at something that makes me happy it just makes me feel like they’re acknowledging how proud I am of myself :). Strangers doing it would be weird, or friends when I’m not trying.

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  5. I know I am late but I appreciate this post. My husband has had a vision problem his whole life and it is evident to others. He is truly offended when he is told he is inspiring.

    If you don’t understand why inspiration is not cool, think about this. We went on a challenging multi-day hike in the mountains with a small group of wilderness enthusiasts. We got to know each other quite well after a few days. At the end of the hike my husband was standing talking with a small group including a young Asian woman and an older white lady. The older white woman sincerely complimented the Asian woman on how well she spoke English. The Asian woman replied that she should, after all she was 4th generation. The older white woman then turned to my husband and said with great enthusiasm “And you’re a gutsy guy!” My husband didn’t have a witty comment and could only shake his head and walk away. Not that it would have gotten through anyway.

    I have noticed over the years whenever there is a story about a blind person climbing a mountain or doing something like it, there is uncomfortable silence. I don’t bring it up because I can see it hurts. I am now wondering if he is getting the message that if that guy can do it, so can you. Well he can’t. For many reasons including lack of interest he just can’t.

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