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October 17, 2014

Getting a rise out of RISE

Campus diversity initiative unknowingly reveals pervasiveness of ableism in our culture.

The first sentence of an e-mail from the campus diversity initiative RISE about upcoming speaker Blake Leeper, a Paralympian athlete, reads, “Blake Leeper was raised to believe that the only disability in life is a bad attitude.” Seems harmless right? Complimentary even? Not so fast. Such statements bring with them a number of complex implications for the view nondisabled people have of disability.

This is not admiration. This is not empowerment. Quotes like these, plastered across pictures of people with disabilities, are a demonstration of nondisabled people dismissing disability as a matter of attitude, which means they can avoid addressing the real problems—inaccessibility and discrimination. There are barriers for people with disabilities that extend far beyond “attitude,” because this world was literally built by nondisabled people for nondisabled people. The world is, in fact, very inaccessible, and smiling at a steep set of stairs isn’t going to turn it into a ramp; thinking optimistically about troubling and deep-rooted attitudinal barriers, which cause employers to underpay and under-hire people with physical and mental disabilities, isn’t going to erase these conceptions and get you a job. This quote and many others like it are prime examples of victim-blaming in the form of a micro-aggression that serves only to perpetuate inequities in society.

And that’s what makes this such a problem—ableism is complex and often carefully hidden behind a layer of apparent harmlessness. It is very often not ill-intentioned. And this is true of all other -isms as well—sexism, racism, and ageism to name a few. Discriminatory and demeaning behavior isn’t restricted to violent hate crimes, outright slurs, and genocide.

This sort of media that exploits disability to prove a fallacious point about optimism has a name, albeit a colloquial one—inspiration porn. Inspiration porn typically consists of an image of a person with a visible physical disability, emblazoned with a quote like the aforementioned “the only disability in life is a bad attitude,” or, “your excuse is invalid,” or, “before you quit, try.”

This inspiration porn only exists so that nondisabled people can put their worries into perspective. It exploits the assumption that no matter how bad something is in a nondisabled person’s life, it could not possibly be as bad as having a disability. These feel-good tools, as “inspiration,” are based on the assumption that people with disabilities have terrible lives, and that it takes extra courage to live them. In fact, it is rare to find any representation of disability in popular media that doesn’t use the derogatory language: “suffers from,” “victim of,” “defying the odds,” “wheelchair bound/confined,” or the ever-misleading “overcoming disability.”

But the fact of the matter is that oftentimes people physically can’t “overcome” their disability. When people use the phrase “overcoming disability,” what they are actually referring to is overcoming the societal barriers put in place by an ableist society. This occurs in such a way that it removes the burden from the parties responsible for this discriminatory behavior and foists it upon those being discriminated against. It removes a person’s humanity and individuality. This is not a compliment. This is using the extraordinary achievements of a few people with disabilities to shame other people with disabilities who need accommodations. People with disabilities are not here to serve simply as living, breathing models of inspiration. This sort of behavior is reductive and objectifying.

Using a snapshot of people with disabilities as a tool to convey a message to, primarily, non-disabled people, involves playing on stereotypes and assumptions. Few people portrayed in these pictures are ever labeled with their name. And that is exactly the point. It does not matter who the people in these photographs are, as long as their representation is enough to guilt nondisabled people into action. These pictures create a pressure that asserts that disabled people are not ever allowed to be mad or frustrated, because that would no longer be “inspirational,” would no longer be “overcoming.”

That’s why I don’t think that people with disabilities are inherently “inspirational” by merit of existing. For the same reason that I don’t think that all Asians are smart, that all black people are good at basketball. Because these are stereotypes. These are dehumanizing. They force an entire group of people to conform to one characteristic imposed on them externally and punish them if they fail to meet the impossible standards. This is apparent in cases even as recent as the media portrayal of Mike Brown’s murder—because he wasn’t white, one small transgression in his past landed him in the “no angel” category, whereas people from privileged groups would be given free passes for falling within the human realm of mistakes and limitations. The same applies to people with disabilities and their apparent duties as inspirations. One small step out of line and harsh criticism and labels abound. This is the privilege of being an “unmarked” person, a privilege from which many of us here at the University of Chicago benefit. We get to define how people see us, largely free of assumptions based on certain combinations of race and gender as well as ability. It is time we see all minority groups for what they are—diverse, complex, and multidimensional people. Not an inspiration. Not an idea. People with disabilities are worth more than being depicted as objects to spur action in their nondisabled peers and it is mere exploitation to think otherwise.

The fact of the matter is that until people with disabilities have the same rights and access that nondisabled people do, it’s not only patronizing and objectifying to assert that their only barrier to full participation in society is access, it’s actually a severe barrier to any sort of societal equality. Until we stop pretending that disability is just a matter of attitude, there is no pressure for anyone to address with the real human rights violations that occur when people with disabilities are denied access to participation in society. This is a right that is violated every day, all around the world, a hundred times over. It’s time we stop sugar-coating it.

DISCLAIMER: A current debate within the disability rights activism community is the usage of person-first versus identity-first language (‘person with a disability’ versus ‘disabled person’). Many activists prefer person-first language, because it asserts that someone isn’t defined by any single qualifying characteristic. However, how each person chooses to identify is up to them and my use of person-first language in this article in no way asserts it is the unanimously right thing to do. It needs to be considered individually by the person being described individually on a case-by-case basis.

Kiran Misra is a second-year in the College majoring in public policy and comparative human development.

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