The Problem With Disabled Inspiration Ads 

I have seen those ads or Public Service Announcements where a kid facing a challenge – let’s just all call him “disabled” for short – is, I don’t know, running with blade prosthetics or doing a flip in a wheelchair. Those are all fine and dandy when presented by themselves, but when they are shown as “inspiration,” it gets, well, problematic. It again poses the stereotype that the “disabled” person is an object of pity. Dictionary.com gives the definition of “pity” as “sympathetic or kindly sorrow evoked by the suffering, distress, or misfortune of another, often leading one to give relief or aid or to show mercy:” Therefore, any achievement by the person, even those that display their strengths, should be therefore be displayed to the abled to make them feel better about themselves. It’s really putting a person down, saying their strengths and contributions are, well, a miracle. That’s taking things a bit far, don’t you think?

“But if they can do it, so can I. Isn’t that good?” Do what? Do you even know? Is it really that weird that a deaf person can dance? Is it really that weird that an autistic person can sing? Maybe they can sing or dance better than you, even. But it goes back to that “object of pity” default mode that the abled tend to give the disabled. It kind of puts the abled in a position of power and privilege to lord over the disabled. “Those poor, poor disabled! They can’t do anything that contributes to society!” It also puts the disabled at the fickle mercy of the abled, to again pity or get rid of. And as we who have had meltdowns know, the mercy of the privileged is fickle, indeed.

Of course, some people really get happy from these messages of inspiration. It’s as if they get a sort of drug like “high” from being inspired. One of the few things which gives such a “high” to the brain that is not a drug is watching or reading depictions of sexual activity, or, to put it crudely, consuming porn. That is why these sort of inspiration things are often called “inspiration porn.” Now, I know I have lost some of you at those two words, but hear me out. If we are really giving you pleasure simply by doing something slightly unexpected, like not bemoaning our lot and getting on with life, it’s really the kind of objectification you tend to get from things like porn or drugs.

“But they are different! They have (insert condition here)! They need our tender loving care!” I get that they need more tender loving care or support. But they don’t need to be weighed, measured and found wanting by people who want to feel superior to them in some way. We get enough of that from prejudice! That’s the crux of the Inspiration Porn problem; it is prejudice! It is looking at or listening to a person and prejudging their competence, contributing potential or even worth as a human being! You can rant and rave about how your child can never do this or that, but then they will see that particular thing they “cannot” do as a measure of whether they are loved.

So, comment your anger at speaking out against being your inspiration porn star. I stand here with fists at the ready, waiting for the opportunity to fight for my right to be a human being.

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Disability is Not a Costume 

I am coming off a brilliant performance of Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard III in “The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses,” a sort of Shakespeare showcase of linked historical plays. I am happy he did the performance; he did it well. What I am not happy about is that soon it will be put into the long history of abled actors donning disability like a costume, as if they can really draw upon direct experience.

It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly is disturbing me about abled actors portraying disability. Is it the lack of direct experience? Is it the donning and doffing of disability like a regular Halloween costume? Is it the presumption that we actually disabled can really do that? Or is it that it seems like a version of a white person doing blackface? Maybe it’s as if we actual disabled are not good enough to provide our own voices. Why is that? If the mathematicians in “Hidden Figures” were played by white women in “black makeup,” would it not cause outrage due to the casting? Yet, because we are disabled, such outrageous assumptions like stupidity, incompetence and inability to act are foisted upon us, causing the “need” for abled actors to don disabilities like costumes, only to toss them off later. It’s a terrible thing to consider; that I’m not good enough to provide my own voice. Does anybody else want to feel this way?

Now, I can sense some people think I’m picking on Benedict Cumberbatch. That is not my aim. I just hope that he had at least one or more consultants who could put a sense of competence into his performance. I think he did; see, when his Richard III is on horseback or in battle, he is just as elegant and competent with the horse and sword as his brothers. It seems like light is breaking through, but I’m not so sure.

My aim is simply this: to help people to understand that, at the end of the day, real disabled people still feel shunned by the film industry, unless it is reality TV aimed specifically at showcasing disabilities, like A&E’s “Born This Way,” about people with Down Syndrome. With my known condition, and the glacial pace that the film industry is moving, it’s going to be a long time before I really feel represented in film, beyond the inaccurate portrayal by Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man.” Oh, how I wish I could shed that image!

Musings on Stigma and Ableism 

I once had a friend who preferred going in and out of mental health hospitals to actually taking mental health medicine. When we confronted her about it, she felt that the medicine was “stupid” and would still not take it. I suspect, however, that there was something else at work in her brain. It somehow reminds me of country star Mindy McCready, who eventually committed suicide after learning she had been living with a mental illness. I myself am not immune to this type of thinking. I have had trouble with concealing my autism as well as revealing it. This kind of tension should not be. I mean, it’s a choice between “You’re a Weirdo and We Don’t Like You” or “You Poor Unfortunate Soul! We Still Don’t Like You!” So what am I supposed to do? I confront stigma and ableism on a daily basis.

When “The Accountant” came out with its cold-blooded killer “autistic savant,” I confronted stigma. When I see people deciding not to vaccinate their children because they don’t want said children to be like me, I feel stigma. When I was told “You suffer from nothing” by a (former) friend, I confront stigma. While I mostly act neurotypical, when I don’t, I am told either explicitly or implicitly that I “know better” and I ABSOLUTELY MUST ACT NEUROTYPICAL for the sake of other neurotypicals. I am never allowed to be my autistic self, unless I am completely alone or with only my mother. It is a vicious cycle. It seems that without my mother or the internet, I would be completely alone with nobody to understand me or my condition. I am considering moving to a low-income area near a center focusing specifically on autistics after my mother passes on, to be honest.

Don’t even get me started on the ableism I got from my sisters. For example, if I did any stimming at all, I was yelled at to stop. I was often told to sit down and shut up. They mocked me for sitting on my hands to stop the stimming; but that was the only way. Of course, after my sisters unceremoniously sent me back to my mother after telling her I was a horrible person, I had to pay back Social Security thousands of dollars due to their handling of all my money. Of course, they will deny all this. Anyway, abuse is a common effect of ableism and stigma.

Let me explain why I put ableism and stigma together. They work together. Stigma about having something wrong with you feeds discrimination for the  able bodied and able minded. The neglect of people to, say, allow an access for a wheelchair-bound person feeds the inability for that person to be there, even if they are the person of honor at the event! Hopefully, my mother won’t need to speak at church; she can’t even get up on the stage. Oh, and another thing about stage access: If you see my disability as an “acting challenge” that you can put on as if it were simply a costume, you are wrong. Can you draw on being disabled yourself, “Rain Man” actor Dustin Hoffman? DO you know what it’s like to live with the pity, “Ray” actor Jamie Foxx? Can you handle constantly being told your kind is a scourge to be eradicated, Daniel Day-Lewis? No, because nobody ever asked us what it was really like to be us! In Hollywood, we disabled are a forgotten bunch of sideshow freaks cordoned off from the main attraction, hid in the back to be feared and pitied at the same time. We are too scary to be on TV, unless you treat our disability as a costume. I hope someday your disabled performances are as offensive to us disabled as blackface is. I digress; my point is, ableism and stigma are connected; they’re practically siblings.

What can we do with my friend who used to cycle in and out of mental hospitals due to the stigma of taking care of your mental health? Self-care is not a glamorous spa experience. How can we say “There is nothing wrong with taking your medicine,” when we as a society mock and ostracize people who take medicine? How can we say “We want you at our protest/ceremony/place of worship” when they can’t get either in the door or on the stage? How can we, and this is a personal one, say we are supporting autistic people when we will not take a measure or two to prevent sensory overload or meltdown? Society, we need to change. We need to not view disability or mental illness as a moral weakness or failure. (This viewpoint dates back to Biblical times, as does Jesus’ response: John 9) I hope we can before the disabled do what other marginalized groups are doing: resorting to their most frightening stereotypes.