The Issue with Inspiration Porn

inspiration porn (noun)

the portrayal of people with disabilities as inspirational solely or in part on the basis of their disability: I’m not your inspiration porn.

In other words, thanks to ABC’s hit television series Speechless, inspiration porn can be described as 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.”

The term was first made popular by Stella Young, an Australian disability rights activist who gave this eye-opening TEDx Talk in 2012.


Despite her efforts to abolish the common conception of disabled individuals as purely motivational beings, Young describes a phenomenon that is incredibly prevalent today.

I’m sure you’ve all seen it. It’s the poster featuring the wheel-chair bound athlete with the caption “disability is only an attitude,” or the video of the child with prosthetic legs learning to walk for the first time. These depictions of disabled persons are meant to inspire and motivate those who view them, and that is exactly the problem. The result is objectification. In Young’s words, they are “there so that non-disabled people can put their worries into perspective… there so that non-disabled people can look at us and think ‘well, it could be worse… I could be that person.”

Young also makes the crucial point that social media has made the issue much, much worse. Now, many of these videos and images are sent viral. And the examples are quite varied. It’s also the prom queen who gives her crown to a classmate with Down Syndrome, and the memes captioned “your excuse is invalid.” They may keep you entertained, and invoke a certain uplifting spirit, but the effects can be quite damaging to the communities in which these individuals reside.

One community in particular that is often forced to face the harmful ramifications of inspiration porn is the Deaf community. I’m sure you’ve seen these videos too. The classic title “Baby hears for the first time” is paired with a one minute or less clip of a small child first recognizing the sounds of his or her parent’s voice. What these videos don’t show you, however, are the years (often even decades) of auditory-verbal training and speech therapy that will encompass these babies’ futures.

Further, the success rates of the technology that is currently available to enable Deaf and hard of hearing individuals to hear (i.e. hearing aids, cochlear implants, etc.) are extremely variable. The virality of these videos perpetuates the common misconception that language deprivation can only be overcome (and is easily overcome) by learning spoken language. As a result, many ignore the fact that the best guarantee of lifetime success for Deaf children is to establish sign language as a reliable first language. And with countless advances in AI technology to support the use of sign languages even in environments where most people only recognize spoken word, success rates are ever-increasing.

Huawei, the world’s second largest smartphone manufacturer based out of China, has recently used its advancements in artificial intelligence to develop an app that teaches deaf children how to sign and read. Using image-recognition and a specially designed avatar, the app StorySign translates storybooks into sign language. It works best on Huawei smartphones, but can also be downloaded via Google Play onto other Android devices.

Another company by the name of SignAll is also making waves in the Deaf community. Their long-term goal is to make an accurate, real-time translation machine for American Sign Language by using AI and computer vision. A first pilot of this type of system is in the process of being tested at Gallaudet University, Washington DC’s school for the deaf and hard of hearing. Soon hearing people will hopefully be able to interact with the university’s deaf staff via SignAll translation booths. Ideally, neither person communicating through the booth will need to do anything other than speak or sign as they normally do.

As one can see, there is SO much more to be talked about, researched, and celebrated beside the videos that are created by able-bodied individuals to sensationalize the ‘achievement’ of simply living life with a disability. Kate Mitchell, a writer from the Huffington Post explains that the solution to this issue is simple. “The big thing is that you need to ask yourself,” she writes, “‘What did this person do that is so inspiring and brave?’ If your answer is, ‘They existed while under such horrible conditions,’ when you don’t know for certain that they experienced horrible conditions, then you are using them as inspiration porn.”

So next time instead of sharing that viral video or meme, think about what you can do to help the lives of Deaf and disabled persons, rather than using them as tools for your own enhancements.

And if you still have any questions, check out this amazing piece by Cara Liebowitz.

12 comments

  1. dancreedon4 · ·

    I appreciate how you chose a ‘outside the box’ topic to blog about. You made some excellent points, some that I had not thought of. Social media users love to share and post daily motivational videos and photos of folks with disabilities. All these posts show however, is the moment in time. We don’t see the pain or struggles that occurred prior to this moment and time, and we won’t fully understand the hurdles that the individual will face after this moment. In my opinion, our parents generation are the worst when it comes to sharing these motivational posts on Facebook, the classic ‘share this if you agree’ posts that I see everywhere on my feed from older relatives.

  2. This post has really opened up my eyes and I loved how you provided a solution for inspiration porn. I do think that these videos and posts that go viral help to bring awareness about certain disabilities, but I completely agree that we need to actually understand the implications. We often don’t dwell on what their lives are actually like or make any contributions because these videos typically do not have a call to action. SignAll is an incredible company that can hopefully bridge the gap for people who use sign language and those who do not. This tangible solution is a great step in the right direction and I think that this technology needs to go viral. I think these videos need to include ways that people can contribute or learn more about disabilities because in the examples you have shown, they simply display the disability in a warm hearted way. Really great insight and post!

  3. jimhanrahan7 · ·

    Really fascinating post. I wish there was more publicity around big tech’s efforts and investments into disabilities. So often it just feels like a regulatory add on to appease lawmakers. It’s like bolting on a wheelchair lift to a stairwell rather than designing the building with an elevator. Not only would this behavior generate goodwill, but it would also pull more tech and engineering talent into the category.

    Dan’s comment above really hits it home. It’s like all social media feeds: everyone’s highlight reel.

  4. licarima · ·

    I think this is an important perspective to have, and really appreciate your post. There have been countless times that I have seen videos like these on my Facebook newsfeed. While looking for inspiration is one thing, it is another to use the comparison of someone’s life to make you feel better, or to not fully grasp the significance of what we can only see on the surface. It is amazing to the see the innovative and transformative approaches and companies you described.

  5. dilillomelissa · ·

    Olivia, I truly enjoyed this blog post. I had never heard the term ‘inspiration porn’ previously, but it makes complete sense. Many non-disabled people automatically feel bad or assume the disabled person’s situation is so much worse than their own and convey thoughts and feelings of inspiration upon them. My mom used to work at a school district specifically for the deaf and hard of hearing. She would be floored to know about SignAll. I grew up listening to her stories on a daily basis and I can’t imagine the amazing changes that are happening in the deaf community today. Additionally, I work at the GSA on campus. I try to advocte for issues important to graduate students at BC. I try to set-up a guest speaker each month to come and talk to the other leaders of the grad student organizations and have the student leaders pass on what they learned to all their programs. I had an amazing speaker, a Junior here at BC, come in and talk about accessibility marketing. Just making small changes such as writing out descpritions under any photo or video you send in your marketing (newsletters, homework, interview prep, etc) can make such a difference and cater to so many additional people. I just wanted to share this small tip which can be used as such a differential tool.

  6. shannonbenoit5 · ·

    I really appreciated this post, and loved your perspective about this. Although it is true that these videos and memes can provide some brief inspiration for those viewing them, it is so much more important to think about the implications for the people who the video portrays. Just because someone has a disability doesn’t mean that their life is terrible, and using other peoples’ stories simply to make ourselves feel better is just wrong. It is so great to hear that companies like SignAll are putting real efforts into better communication between those who use sign language and those who do not, and I hope more actions like that are taken in the future rather than just using people as inspiration porn.

  7. Really great post. I always like to hear of these alternative angles on technology use. Really helps keep the class fresh. Great topic choice and good research.

  8. Jaclin Murphy · ·

    This is a really well done post! This is great example of a microaggression! I don’t think people are trying to be malicious, hurtful, or ablest when sharing “inspiration porn;” however, that does not mean that it is not hurtful or problematic. The internet is riddled with negative news, I think people cling to these posts to make themselves feel a sense a hope. And don’t acknowledge how this minimizes and marginalizes individuals with disabilities. In my capstone the other day we were discussing the idea of community. My professor shared a clip about a neighborhood in Newton. One of the families had a daughter who was born deaf. The neighbors talked about the struggle of not being able to communicate with the child, and were worried that she would not feel apart of the community. The whole neighborhood got together and hired a teacher so that they could learn ASL. While this post in its own way feeds into this “feel good” genre, I thought it was different because the community was meeting the girl where she was at, instead of expecting her to fit into their world.

  9. cgriffith418 · ·

    LOVE this topic. I’m working on a project for a Holocaust class about how using stories of both victims and survivors to make broader points about humanity can sometimes devalue the individuality of the victim/survivor. Social media hasn’t made as much of a difference in this area, but I think my Holocaust argument and what you have presented here are both symptoms of a greater cultural issue of exploitation, which social media has definitely contributed to. Since everybody has a platform, anything can be turned into a “message” and distributed instantly, which means less and less is off-limits, from the Holocaust to disabilities. It’s a deep issue, but controlling and correcting our behavior on social media would definitely be a step in the right direction.

  10. debhan10 · ·

    I loved that you were able to shed light on such a significant issue that many are probably unaware of. I also have never heard of inspiration porn before, so I found this blog post to be incredibly insightful and informative. Social media has such a powerful effect on our communities, and it’s so intriguing to me how something that may come from seemingly harmless, sincere intentions could actually be detrimental to entire communities. It’s great to know that AI technology is playing such a transformative role in this space. And I agree, there is still so much to be talked about. Conversations spark understanding, and this is the perfect example of the importance of educating and informing others of something that we all need to be more mindful about. I’m really curious as to how you came up with this topic, because it’s truly amazing!

    1. Olivia Crowley · ·

      I appreciate the positive feedback! I actually came up with the topic because I took American Sign Language in high school, and recently saw my former teacher share a really interesting article about inspiration porn on Facebook. I had never heard of it before either, so I decided to do some research and found that it would actually be quite relevant to this class.

  11. kateu19 · ·

    Great post! I think Caitlan has a really great point about this is likely a symptom of a cultural trend of exploitation that social media has enabled. While I have definitely watched some of those videos as they have appeared on my Facebook feed, the memes and other inspirational posts always left a bad taste in my mouth – it’s almost reassuring to know that there is a name for this trend, since it hopefully means that we can take steps to combat it. I love the advice you give about trying to end the “inspiration porn” cycle – hopefully we will see more people doing the same in the future.

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