Reprint: You Have to Take the Stairs

“There is no elevator to success. You have to take the stairs.”

This is meant to be inspiring and motivating, to encourage people to push themselves. Like most disability inspiration porn, it is meant for abled people. Disability inspiration porn is a style of message using the challenges faced by disabled people to inspire abled people to do more. Overwhelmingly such messages ignore the social model of disability, or the ways in which society excludes people with disabilities and creates additional barriers to our full participation in society.

“There is no elevator to success,” the writing on the stair risers reads. “You have to take the stairs.” I’m reasonably convinced whoever came up with these words wasn’t thinking of “truly disabled” people when they said this, but rather “lazy” people who “don’t need” an elevator.

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Black and white photo shows disabled activists climbing the steps of the US Capitol building in March 1990, leading to the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The historic Capitol Crawl shows us what it looks like when people who cannot walk take the stairs. The disability activists who pulled their bodies up those steps didn’t do so to say “See, we’re good. No help needed here. We’re too inspirational for that!” They did so to demand dignified access to participation in all of society. I do find this event inspiring because it inspires me to follow in the path of my disabled siblings and to fight for their rights as they have fought for mine. It doesn’t inspire me to say stairs are good enough because those special disabled people will just crawl if it really matters to them/us.

Too often our struggles are romanticized. Our persistence is admired, but in ways divorced from helping us not have to be so much more determined than people for whom stairs and other barriers are easy. Our efforts are applauded in lieu of our demands being met.

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Color photograph shows the torso and legs of a white man in a wheelchair. White and orange text overlaying the image reads: “the only disability in life is a bad attitude – Scott Hamilton”

Stories of disabled people should ideally lead to greater understanding and empathy, and a desire to help us knock down the socially constructed barriers in our way. Our struggles should inspire people to ally with us as we fight for dignity, healthcare, marriage equality, and a livable income. All too often disability inspiration porn instead helps abled people to ignore or accept our struggles as inevitable.

If “the only disability in life is a bad attitude” as Olympic figure skater Scott Hamilton said, then there’s no need to provide an elevator or ramp or eliminate strobe lights or turn down sensory overload-inducing sound or in any other way accommodate and include us.

There should an elevator to success, because success should not be limited to the abled.

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