Congratulations to Danita Mapes, our 2020 Cerebral Palsy Scholarship Winner!

Danita Mapes cerebral palsy scholarship winner

Danita Mapes

Arcadia University

Danita is currently pursuing her BA in Global Media from Arcadia University, where she serves on the Accessibility Committee, and is a part of Arcadia Honors. Danita aspires to be a journalist dedicated to exposing injustices around the world. You may read her winning essay and watch the accompanying video below. Congratulations, Danita!

The Cold Truth: Inspiration Porn and the Systematic Objectification of the Disabled

“You are such an inspiration.”

If I had a dollar for every time somebody told me something like this, usually within minutes of meeting me, I’d have no more problems. Sometimes they even congratulate me in a manner that’s disproportionate to what I’ve actually done, like carry a few bags up the stairs or go to class every day. I usually respond with a polite thank you and plan an exit strategy from such an offensive conversation, but what I so desperately want to say is, why? Why am I an inspiration for using the body I was born with?

I have Cerebral Palsy and Osteogenesis Imperfecta, two conditions that so ironically compliment each other that I explain them simply by saying, “my muscles and bones are compromised!” Cerebral Palsy occurs when the brain is abnormally developed or damaged and, in my case of spastic hemiplegia, results in stiff muscles caused by increased muscle tone that makes moving around more difficult and painful than usual. I have poor balance, walk with a limp and a crutch, and the constant tightness of my muscles results in chronic pain. In the case of Osteogenesis Imperfecta, more commonly called Brittle Bone Disease, I break bones. A lot.

But I’m also a college student, one with a dream of becoming a renowned journalist that exposes global injustices. One who dabbles in photography and likes to play the ukulele even though I’m not really good at it. One that does teenager things like stay up late and drive around with no destination and play music really loud and make dumb mistakes. I’ve been working since I was a kid, and I’ve been at a job I love for two years. My friends from my hometown and I go to Buffalo Wild Wings almost every Thursday even though I don’t eat meat. At 6 o’ clock every day I meet my peers at the dining hall and we stay until we’re forced out. I go to Target way too much and use my employee discount even though I quit ages ago. I wear this silly beret when I write and direct because I feel like it makes me more productive. I have a crush on every single person who holds the door open for me even though that’s a common courtesy, and I write letters to my friends and mail them even though they live a short drive away. I’m a bundle of quirks and virtues and regrets, as all people are, However, it seems most people only see one side of me- the side that’s most visible, evident by the way I walk.

And that’s why inspiration porn is so frustrating. Inspiration porn, as explained perfectly by the TV show Speechless, is the “portrayal of people with disabilities as one-dimensional saints who only exist to warm the hearts and open the minds of able-bodied people.” More specifically, inspiration porn are faux-uplifting messages circulating through media objectifying the disabled that employ a few main themes:

  1. Positivity and/or pity
  2. A message/quote about the disabled overcoming their struggles
  3. Content of a disabled person accomplishing a task typical of abled people

Think of those Facebook memes displaying an amputee running a track race with the quote “the only disability in life is a bad attitude” or a photo of a young man taking a disabled girl to prom captioned “he asked her to prom, even in her condition!” Another photo circulating the internet is a man in a wheelchair kissing a woman, the caption proclaiming, “if he can get a girl, so can you!” Why are these things considered inspirational in the first place, I wonder? Why is it inspirational for a disabled person to fall in love, to get a job, to go to school? What else would they be doing?

Why is this so bad, you ask? Isn’t it amazing that people are able to overcome their adversities to accomplish something not expected of them? No, not inherently. Not just by existing. As disabled writer Cara Liebowitz put it, “reducing a human being – and a stranger, at that – to “inspiring” or “brave” or any of those labels is problematic, because you’re filling in qualities that may or may not be true in order to make yourself feel better. It’s using disabled people as tools for your own betterment.” It also gives abled people the relief of – “oh, at least I’m not dealing with this.”

Inspiration porn means I’m revered, in the most unflattering sense of the term, for not killing myself because of my dreary diagnoses and forging on, because “the only disability in life is a bad attitude.”  It’s a strange dichotomy I’m subjected to in my everyday life- I’m a conversation piece of sorts, worshipped for the harrowing task of being alive, but judged and stared at all the same. I’m so brave for waking up every morning and “overcoming” my shortfalls, but not given the tools to navigate a physical environment made for everyone except the disabled. Because I’m inspiring when I wake up every morning and go to work, but not when I complain about the lack of accessibility in the world I’m supposed to “overcome” every day, as if my unwavering optimism and joy of being alive will fix the sidewalks I trip over and the out-of-commission elevators. In perpetuating inspiration porn, which portrays disability as a burden one must overcome, you’re ignoring the societal obstacles we face and doing nothing for the disabled community except dehumanizing them.

Being told I’m doing a “good job” for walking around campus, that I’m “overcoming” and I don’t let my disability “define me” or “stop me” makes me feel far from empowered. It’s just a constant reminder that I’m considered to be “other,” that the value of my life is inherently lower and that value is decided by abled people who view me as a charity case rather than a human being. Do I hate waking up every day in pain? Yes. Do I hate the constant risk of breaking a bone? Yes. But that doesn’t mean that I am to be pitied. It means that this physical landscape I live in, one that constantly works against me, has to change.