Dear Strangers who Just Want to Learn About Disability, I am Not an Infobooth

TEDxSydney has been getting a lot of bad press from the disability community lately. This is because of their very poorly thought out #StellasChallenge campaign. The campaign sought to capitalize on the message and popularity of late disabled comedian Stella Young. The campaign has similarities to the doomed Starbucks campaign Race Together which sought to start unsolicited discussions about race between baristas and their customers. The short-lived campaign was soundly mocked by many and died a quick death.

Similarly the #StellasChallenge suggested that nondisabled people should begin asking disabled people unsolicited probing questions about their lived experience. This was supposed to help them better understand the disabled social experience.

Disabled people were however not wowed by the plan, which has been criticized for being implemented without the input of actual disabled people.

If it had been they might have learned that nondisabled strangers asking disabled people unsolicited probing questions already happens a lot.

It happens while we’re grocery shopping

It happens while we’re rushing to catch a bus

It happens while we are out with our children

Basically any time a disabled person leaves their house, they run the risk of being accosted by random strangers who feel entitled to ask personal questions about our lives and bodies. This has been happening for decades (at least I can measure how long it’s been happening to me in decades and I doubt it started with me). In all the time this has been going on, it doesn’t seem to have had a measurable impact on improving our experiences in society. Case and point, I still run the risk of being asked random questions about my medical history every time I leave the house.

Here is how I view these interactions. They are very much a power play which tend to boil down to a few motivations.

“You are different from me, explain yourself”

This comes from a pure place of privilege and power. The idea that you can start asking someone personal and often medical questions where ever and whenever you want without pushback. If you get pushback you become defensive and say things like “calm down, I’m just trying to learn” or “don’t you want to be an advocate for yourself?”

“Your presence here makes me feel uncomfortable, comfort me by being compliant and nonthreatening”

This comes from ignorance and fear and an inflated sense of danger. Why people find disabled people inherently frightening I can’t fathom. Getting over their prejudices does not seem to be a viable option. We are expected to coddle them and not react to their fear.

“I don’t think you should be in this particular space, justify your right to be here”

This happens when you show up somewhere they don’t expect you to be like in a work or education setting. This is where you hear derisive comments about “affirmative action” and “taking jobs or places from more deserving people”

These interactions always happen on a purely individual level and even if you manage to give the questioner what they want. It only applies to you. At best this is a way to humanize disabled people one at a time to a single person at a time, a circumstance that needs to be repeated every time you meet someone new.

So even if the practice of randomly demanding information of disabled people wasn’t invasive and oppressive, it is not an effective teaching tool.

If the goal is to truly learn about the disabled experience, it should not be coming from a single acquaintance or a perfect stranger. While there are a myriad of stereotypes about disability. There is an even broader array of experienced within the disabled community. It is unreasonable to expect a single individual selected at random to be able to do that diversity justice.

In fact the very idea that speaking to individuals is a good way to learn about disability, only reinforces the idea that disability is a uniform experience.

A far better way is to engage with disabled people on their own terms and to engage widely. This way you don’t risk interrupting us when we’re living our lives and have plans. It means we’ve invited you to engage, usually in spaces where we have some control if the questions get inappropriate or offensive. It also shows a more real desire to learn and engage in discourse rather than an interrogation.

Some examples of places you can look

Blogs (like this one or many others)

There is an entire academic discipline called Disability Studies. Some universities with these programs offer their courses online if you don’t have a program near you (University of Winnipeg is one).

Ultimately remember that the lives and time of disabled people have value and that we don’t owe you explanations for our diagnoses or our assistive devices simply because it is convenient to you. We deserve to be able to exist in the world without harassment.

And if you are genuinely trying to learn remember that a person saying no to answering your questions is a lesson in and of itself. Respect it.

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My Love/Hate Relationship with Dragon NaturallySpeaking

So I type one handed and I’m an academic so a lot of typing is required, this poses a couple of issues. First I can’t type very fast and second I regularly feel like I’m getting carpal tunnel syndrome. I’ve been tested for the condition twice and in both cases the results were negative. While I may not have carpal tunnel, I do often deal with a lot of wrist and hand pain from typing. It was recommended that I start using speech recognition software and the only one that was ever recommended (by multiple people) was Nuance’s Dragon NaturallySpeaking. Since then I have owned and used two versions of Dragon. Dragon Home 11 and Dragon Home Premium 12. I will discuss my experience of both individually and then discuss issues that are common to both.

Dragon 11

I primarily used Dragon as dictation for writing but like most people with a new toy, I checked out its other features. Primarily controlling my computer with my voice. I was particularly amused with its functionality on the internet. I liked how I could command the software to open a link and have it do so (I know I’m easily amused). This function did however show an issue not with Dragon but with the general inaccessibility with website design. Occasionally buttons would not be coded with their visible titles. This meant that if you want or have to open a link with your dictation software, you have to verbally guide the mouse to the button and request the mouse click it,

Overall I enjoyed the software. I didn’t find it to be nearly as accurate as they claim (yes I calibrated it for highest accuracy). Anything composed through Dragon requires close editing.

The biggest issue I found was that it was completely incompatible with the web service Moodle which is commonly used by universities to offer online classes or online companions to campus classes.

I don’t just mean that I couldn’t dictate in Moodle, somehow the combination of Moodle and the Dragon add-on cancelled the ability for me to even type in the program. In order for me to complete online courses or online components to classes, I had disable the add-on. This forced me to type all communication through the site. It also put me at a disadvantage when taking internet delivered exams as I would have to type.

Dragon 12

I have a lot of buyer’s remorse over upgrading to Dragon 12. I found that the software was much less user friendly and entirely incompatible with the internet either for typing or navigation. If I tried to use Dragon with the internet, rather than obeying a command or typing in a text box, it would open another box type whatever I said and then I would have to click through to transfer the text to the web. So it had no navigation capability and an overcomplicated way of entering text. According to the product description, this is not how the software is meant to work so something was going wrong. My attempts at communicating with tech support were fruitless.

While I got nowhere with tech support. I was regularly called by sales begging me to upgrade to Dragon 12 from 11. As I had already done this, these repeated calls were frustrating as I explained each time that I had already done so and registered my new copy. I received at least five such calls before I demanded to be removed from their phone list.

As song as I was only dictating in Word, it worked as well as Dragon 11 but heaven forbid I needed to change tabs to check something in another program or particularly if I needed to check something online. Even if I turned off the microphone. Doing anything other than dictating while the program was active would initially slow both the program and my computer and ultimately cause Dragon to freeze, forcing me to forcibly close it through task manager and restart it. This issue deteriorated to the point that Dragon would crash on it’s own every 10-15 minutes. This eventually forced me to request the only assignment extension of my entire Masters degree because it was so time consuming.

Dragon 12 was a complete failure in functionality.

Issues in both versions

Accuracy, all versions claim to have accuracy rates over 95%, this has not been my experience at all,. Even after longterm use (accuracy is supposed to improve as you use the program more). This might be due in part to the highly academic work, I most commonly use it for, it recognized the word obstetrics as Star Trek. Often if you don’t catch errors immediately but find them later during editing it is difficult or impossible to discern what the intended word or phrase was to begin with.

I have a BA Honours in Women and Gender Studies and I occasionally wrote about issues of gendered and sexual violence. I found that the software was more likely to misinterpret words associated with violence. It really didn’t want to recognize the word rape for example. It wrote thing like grape or great. The software does have word training where you input the word and then train it to recognize your pronunciation of that word. Even with training it still didn’t want to accurately recognize the word rape. There is something disconcerting about yelling the word RAPE at your computer in frustration even if no one is around to hear you.

International English norms

Nuance and Dragon hate Canada, I can think of no other explanation. When you first use the software, you have to train it to recognize your voice. You help this along by setting your location so that it knows what accent to expect and what spelling is preferred. I don’t even know why there is a separate option for Canada because during selection it says in brackets that Canada uses American spelling. This is not true. Canada follows the British spelling system. Unfortunately selecting Britain isn’t a great option either because although we share spelling norms and say Zed instead of Zee, we use American terms for punctuation. We say period to denote the dot at the end of a sentence rather than full stop like the British. This causes issues of flow while dictating.You can’t change the settings in the software to change punctuation commands.

I am to fully programmed to use North American punctuation to be able to use the British settings. Using the Canadian/American setting causes it’s own difficulties that go beyond my frustration with being forced to adopt American spelling. If a word isn’t in Dragon’s dictionary (which happens a lot with academic terms) you can add them by dictating the spelling, You better just hope that the letter Z isn’t involved. I constantly forget that Americans say Zee, so I’m yelling Zed at my computer with no results. It’s beyond frustrating and a genuine flaw in the design of the software.

The fact that the software set up has to put in brackets that they assume Canada uses US spelling suggests that they know we don’t and just don’t care to set up a properly functioning set up for us. This despite the fact that they acknowledge the Britain does use another spelling and terminology and gives the preset options. You can go in and change the dictionary to reflect Canadian spelling but that is time consuming and quite frankly you shouldn’t have to. This is a huge oversight on the part of the software designers and it needs to be fixed.

Conclusions

When the software works it doesn’t seamlessly replace typing but it is a great option for those who can’t type or want to limit their typing. When the software fails it can be a big problem for the users who rely on it. There are some flaws in the software that I genuinely hope the designers will fix (though considering my experience with customer service I’m not holding my breath). They have now released Dragon 13 which I haven’t used and my attempts to see if they fixed the language flaws have been fruitless so I’m going to assume that they haven’t.

I start my PhD in the Fall and I will need to replace my Dragon 12 because it causes more problems than it solves and I may have to research the competition while searching for a replacement.

This post was typed single-handedly because my copy of Dragon 12 is unusable.

Disabled People Don’t Exist to Make You Look Good

I have already discussed the issue of inspiration porn on this blog before. What I was discussing last time was the use of images or videos of disabled people doing everything from the mundane to highlighting actual achievement. The major issue in these images is that they either celebrate disabled people for simply existing or fail to contextualize what it really takes for us to succeed at a level of merit. Both are dehumanizing and need to be critiqued and hopefully stopped. There is however a third form which is actually much more insidious.

Images or videos of nondisabled people doing everything from simply deigning to be in close proximity to a disabled person or being helpful. In these instances, regardless of how small the act on the part of the nondisabled person, they are treated as heroes. These stories (and they are often just fabrications based on stereotypes) often go viral online as people applaud the perceived kindness.

This kind of narrative completely objectifies disabled people and places them in the default role of victim. These stories also frequently occur without the disabled person knowing that they are being photographed or filmed much less that the resulting media will find its way online or in a news report.

A couple years ago a picture started making the rounds on the internet. It was an entirely innocuous image of three young men eating lunch in a university cafeteria. Two of them were athletes and the third used a wheelchair. The image was framed as this grand act of kindness. The Huffington Post covered it with the headline “North Carolina Football Players Join Student Eating Lunch Alone“. The picture showed up in feel good lists with titles like “35 Pictures that will Restore Your Faith in Humanity” in the list the picture is still framed around the assumption that the athletes were performing an act of charity by eating lunch with the man in the wheelchair. It also assumes that the man in the wheelchair has no social circle and requires an act of charity for social interaction. It turns out these assumptions were false.

It turns out that one of the athletes had been friends with the wheelchair user for years. They ate lunch together often. This kind of image is dangerous because it normalizes the idea that social interaction with disabled people take an extraordinary act. It rejects the idea that disabled people can and do create and maintain normal and fulfilling social relationships. /by disregarding this reality it further normalizes the idea that it is ok to feel uncomfortable around disabled people. Look they treat other people like heroes just for sitting with them at lunch.

Even before knowing the truth behind the photo it not only did not restore my faith in humanity it actually killed it. How bad must the social view of disabled people be that nondisabled people could be celebrated just for being willing to associate with us. The bar couldn’t be set any lower.

More recently another story has emerged, this time in the form of a feel good news piece. The piece includes amateur video and captures a fast food worker helping a woman in a wheelchair eat her meal.

This story has some very troubling elements beyond the fact that anyone thought that this was newsworthy much less something that should go viral.

I first encountered it in my Facebook, at the time, I intentionally avoided watching it. I knew what it would be and I knew it would be bad. I eventually watched it when it came up again on Twitter during a weekly chat on disability in the media (You can follow or participate Saturday nights 9:00PM ET with the #FilmDis).

While watching it not only were my worst fears confirmed but the video is actually worse than I expected.

In it there is not only the over celebration of a nondisabled person assisting someone who is disabled. We also learn that the restaurant is inaccessible, the woman has to wait in the parking lot until someone notices her and lets her inside. Predictably the reporter is to busy congratulating everyone willing to help her inside to consider the implications of the inaccessible building.

The video shown in the report was filmed by another patron without the woman’s knowledge or consent. In fact the reporter even makes a point of clearly saying

We don’t know her name or her story

She had no idea she was being filmed or that she was going to end up on the news, so had no say in how she was presented or talked about.

This is the norm for this kind of media. It depends on the passivity of the disabled person, so that stories can be woven around them for the benefit of others. These stories don’t educate the public about disability. They just reinforce the idea that disabled people are passive and their only positive impact on the world is by giving nondisabled people the opportunity to look good by helping them. No active recognition of the humanity and individuality of the disabled person is necessary.

I am not suggesting that nondisabled people shouldn’t help disabled people. They absolutely should but they should not do so in search of accolades. They should also avoid those accolades unless they come from the person they are helping. Otherwise it is just nondisabled people patting other nondisabled people on the back for helping disabled people and then dehumanizing them by publicizing their life without their input.

My Excuse is Not Invalid, My Experiences as a Disabled Person in Athletics

I recently wrote a general post about the insidious undertones of inspiration porn. In it I explain why even using noteworthy accomplishments by disabled people as easy inspiration is problematic. I talk about how difficult and expensive it can be for disabled people to even participate in athletic endeavours. To give some further context, I am going to describe my person history of trying to participate in sports and exercise.

I have always liked the idea of being an accomplished athlete but it has never been something I really worked towards. Whether this is because I had no real opportunities or lacked the drive and support network to do so, I can’t really say. It is most likely some combination of the two. I do know that when I enjoy an activity I will show up and continue working towards getting better.

Without further ado

Athletics in early childhood

Ballet

I like many toddler girls was placed by my parents in ballet class. I have few firm memories of ballet except for one nightmarish recital where I got confused and exited our performance of “Me and My Teddy Bear” on the wrong side of the stage and got lost.

This had nothing to do with my disabilities and at that age everyone is pretty uncoordinated so I don’t think my cerebral palsy really impacted my ability to participate. So I guess baby ballet was a win.

Jazz Dance and Tap Dancing (all one class)

I was a little bit older here somewhere between the ages of 5-7. It wasn’t a competitive class so my lack of coordination wasn’t really a barrier to participation, so the class itself was fine. The problem stemmed from the fact that though other children my age could tie their shoes, I could not. This was not an issue for the jazz portion where the shoes were just elasticized ballet shoes dyed black. Very small tap shoes did come with elastic straps but unfortunately for me, my feet were one size to big. All the tap shoes that fit me required being tied. I ended up having to wear to small shoes so that no one would be burdened with having to help me with laces. Let me tell you dancing in to small shoes is not comfortable. I did not continue dancing for long.

Soccer

I had no particular interest in soccer so I didn’t try very hard. My suckiness is entirely on me.

Gymnastics

Before I was even allowed to enroll in a gymnastics class, I had to undergo a personal strength test with a coach to determine if my cerebral palsy would get in the way. I passed the test, though my performance was affected by my disability. I couldn’t climb the hanging rope and I had to use the lowest balance bar out of fear that I would fall. It was the first time, I was aware that I could not just do everything my friends could. There were some places I might have to prove myself and that there were instances where I might fail.

Middle childhood to teen years.

High School Gym Class

I have always felt that the physical education curriculum is deeply flawed regardless of disability. It sets up standards of success but rarely has any coaching on how to reach those goals. They want you to run stairs for 5 minutes but don’t build you up to it. They just put you in front of some stair and say go, then grade on the outcome. Repeat this with pretty much any fitness goal like running 2 kilometres without any training and grading you based on your time.

This system deeply disadvantages anyone who doesn’t have a history of athletic participation for whatever reason. There is no build up training.

My high school made it worse by adding competition to the mix. They created a publicly viewable chart where they ranked our performance in everything. They did use pseudonyms but functionally everyone knew who everyone else was. This was supposed to foster competition but instead just showed who was on sports teams because they dominated the top tier. They had athletic training, they had built up the stamina that those of us without the skills to participate in competitive sports did not have and the school did not provide. Not surprisingly I placed dead last. There were activities I couldn’t a thus received no points for and I didn’t have the athletic training to run stair for extended perios of time or run long distances without walking.

Gym was a combination of having both inconsiderate teachers who pitted students against each other and poor curriculum which favours the already fit. This kind of environment is not conducive to athletic success for disabled people so it fails.

Kayaking (specifically for disabled kids)

They put us in supposedly untippable and unsinkable kayaks. I can attest from personal experience that though they are very difficult to tip, they can sink. Luckily this happened in a swimming pool where they were making sure we knew what to do if we did tip. So I tipped it on purpose, my ability to sink the thing just shows that I have skills. I was the only person who pulled that off. Safety training over, they let us lose on a local lake, no real training and only basic oversight.

In typical fashion, I was the one who demonstrated that they should plan alternate activities for windy days after I was pulled several kilometres from the marina in heavy winds. They refused to tow me back and I had to fight the current as two supervisors followed alongside in the comfort of a motorboat. They planned alternate activities for bad weather days after that.

It was an enjoyable activity but it was not always well executed.

Judo

I loved Judo, particularly my first beginner class. The instructor was nice and on the rare occasions I couldn’t do something, he just let me sit out. I excelled in that class gained my yellow belt and graduated to the intermediate class.

I did alright in the intermediate class for a while. It had different instructors. I still really loved doing Judo but the instructors weren’t as personable and there were more students. One day we were doing a training exercise where I knew best case scenario that I would break a couple fingers, worse case, I would break my wrist. I decided to sit out. One of the instructors noticed I wasn’t participating and asked me why.

I naively thought that if I explained that I feared injury because of my cerebral palsy, he would understand and move on. I though worse case scenario, not learning this maneuvre would keep me from advancing to a higher belt but that I could still participate. I was wrong.

He got angry and told me that I damn well had to participate or I would be kicked out of class.

I was shocked, not only at his threat but at his language. I had never had an adult swear at me before.

I continued to refuse, I was more afraid of injury. He got even angrier at being disobeyed and told that in order to stay in class I had to run up and down the hall until they moved on. At this point, I was actually frightened so I did run laps in the hall, while he stood guard and glared at me. At this point I was in tears. It was my last Judo class. I was not kicked out but the stress associated with not knowing how I would be treated made it impossible for me to return to something that previous to that day gave me a lot of joy.

Tae Kwon Do (specifically for disabled people)

The local rehabilitation hospital offered a Tae Kwon Do class. I lasted one session because it was immediately apparent that the point was not to teach us martial arts. In fact the instructor had taken only one class himself. It was just a way to get kids with disabilities masquerading as something else. I had no interest in being in a class where the official objective was hidden and hidden behind an activity that I wanted to learn but clearly wasn’t going to.

Therapeutic Horseback Riding (specifically for disabled people)

I have the personal distinction of being the only participant in the history of the program to fall off a horse (which was cantering at the time).

I love horseback riding. I begged for riding lessons as a kid (they were to expensive). Finally as a teenager I got a medical referral to therapeutic riding. It was still expensive but the expense could be rationalized as medical. It was a good program, they taught you how to brush the horse, pick the hooves and put on the saddle and bridal.

They were also obsessive about safety. Usually each participant had someone leading the horse and someone standing of either side to spot you in case of a fall. I quickly was allowed to ride without the spotters and eventually without the guide as well.

One day, I was considered safe enough to trot on my own. The horse ended up in a canter and when I pulled up on the reins to get it to slow down, the rein snapped, I became unbalanced and fell off. I was fine. I got back on the horse and finished out my week of sessions.

I would have continued riding but the combination of the cost and the fact that the location was difficult to get to, I had to stop. Getting there was so inconvenient that one day my mother had to drop me off two hours early because she had competing engagements. I helped out in the stable and had to put up with one of the worker’s less than informed view of my cerebral palsy. She was convinced that I was born premature and that this was why, I was disabled. She didn’t seem to believe me when I told her I was actually born after my due date and that there was no known cause of my brain damage. She became flustered and changed the subject (that she had chosen in the first place).

I think the program’s coordinator was more traumatized by my fall than I was. She even called me a year later to confirm that I had not developed a fear of horses and to make me promise that I would ride again. I did promise and I would love to but I have simply not had the money or opportunity so thus far the promise goes unfulfilled.

Adulthood

University athletics

At the university where I did my undergrad, part of our mandatory fees went towards use of the school’s athletic centre. The logic being everyone had the option to use it. If people chose not to, it was their loss. I would have liked to use the university gym. It was conveniently located and I could use it around my classes. Unfortunately the set up was terribly inaccessible. I am limited in what equipment I can use. I have a permanent shoulder injury and I risk over extending my knee if I do certain things. Unfortunately the gym rules state that you can’t book equipment in advance and more often than not, everything I could use was booked up when I arrived. Often my only option was walking or running on the track.

With so few options I stopped going and instead paid more money for a membership at the YMCA.

Gym membership

I had a YMCA membership for years and went regularly. As long as I went at non peak hours. I was assured access to a variety of equipment, I could safely use and have varied work out sessions.

Yoga

Most yoga is to focused on standing positions and balancing so I avoid those classes. I however love Yin Yoga which is most often practiced either sitting or laying down. I have however had mixed experiences depending on who is running the class. A good instructor will demonstrate how a pose is typically done and then demonstrate variations if you aren’t flexible enough to achieve it. There is no judgement about where you are skillwise or where you can reasonably expect to progress to.

I have however had the experience of an instructor who demonstrated the typical pose and then as an after thought said “oh and I guess if there’s something wrong with you, you can these variations”. I never went to another class led by her again.

The people who run activities that are not geared specifically towards disabled people are really gatekeepers and they have a lot of influence over whether you can participate and that goes beyond just getting in the door and registering for classes. Sometimes even activities geared towards disabled people have hoops to jump through. I needed a doctor’s referal to do therapeutic riding.

Bad experiences can ruin how you remember an otherwise positive program. I loved Judo but I felt shut out and actually began crying just remembering what happened. This was nearly fifteen years ago.

I have had good experiences but I also recognize that as someone who can walk, I experience even fewer barriers than others whose mobility may be more limited than mine.

I write this to give personal context to how hard it can be for disabled people to succeed in athletics even if they just plan on doing it recreationally and have no aspirations of goals like the paralympics. This is why I think success stories need context to not only show others possible pathways to success but also to show how much luck plays into it.

Failure to succeed is not just about whether someone didn’t have the ambition it’s about whether they can find people to help them achieve it.

Inspiration Porn is Not Progress, It’s a New Kind of Oppression

We’ve all seen the images. Those pictures of disabled people succeeding. They tend to fall into two general categories.

Disabled people particularly children doing everyday activities. This is often accompanied by quotes like “the only disability in life is a bad attitude”

The other uses images of disabled people doing something noteworthy like reaching a high level of athletic ability or physical fitness, with taglines like “your excuse is invalid” or “What was your excuse again”

The point of these images is to ostensibly put a positive spin on disability. Josephine Fairley argues that inspiration porn must be progress because it takes a topic which has most often been viewed negatively and puts a positive spin on it. The positivity then outweighs the patronizing tone that so often comes along with these images.

The problem is that positivity does not actually equal progress. Particularly for a group that has so often been viewed through a lens of charity. First though, let’s look at the actual messages that are most often put forward.

1. The only disability in life is a bad attitude

Here I will defer to the amazing Stella Young

Stella Young quote

“The reason that’s bullshit is… No amount of smiling at a flight of stairs has ever made it turn into a ramp. No amount of standing in the middle of a bookshelf and radiating a positive attitude is going to turn all those books to braille”

While it is true that the disabled experience has often been perceived as an existance of unending suffering and that it is important to challenge that stereotype. Framing the disabled experience as being defined only by the attitude of the disabled person lets the nondisabled majority off the hook. How disability is experienced is not just a physical experience but a socially constructed one. This line of thinking allows the oppressor to be comfortable about not challenging the fact the the world is fundamentally not built for disabled people, even where adaptations exist, they are often not available. Braille has existed for over a century and yet materials in Braille are not widely or readily available. Often they must be requested.

We essentially went from a worldview where it was acceptable to segregate and neglect disabled people, which then supported our current inaccessible society to one where segregation is less acceptable but the world remains inaccessible. Making disability about attitude allows people to ignore the existing and new physical and social structures that continue to exclude disabled people. It simply maintains the old exclusionary society but blames it on the oppressed group for not figuring out how to be included.

2. “Your excuse in invalid” or What’s your excuse again?”

These slogans are often with images of disabled people achieving noteworthy things like becoming paralympians or gaining an above average level of fitness. It is certainly true that there need to be success stories for disabled people in the media. They have the dual benefit of showing other disabled people what is possible and breaking down stereotypes. These stories however need to have context. Acheiving athleticism as a disabled person is not as simple as wanting it and then going for it. There are often major barriers so in answer to the second question, there are no excuses but some very good reasons.

Opportunities for disabled people to participate in sports or other athletics (dancing, skating, etc) are not plentiful. We can’t just show up at our local gym and expect to have comprehensive training tailored to our individual needs for two reasons. First, tailor made training is expensive, coincidentally being disabled is often exensive. Add to that, that disabled people are disproportionately likely to live in poverty. Second, assuming the first isn’t an issue, you need a trainer who will work with your specific needs and limitations. These people are hard to find. A disabled person is more likely to be refused access to a training facility outright even if they only want to use it recreationally. Classes designed specifically for disabled people are often in groups so getting individual attention is hard. Also these courses are often thinly veiled physio therapy sessions that are more concerned with getting us moving than getting us to succeed at whatever the class is. If we manage to get in the classes for nondisabled people we are often left to flounder with no individual support or even become victims of abuse if we fail to participate at the same level.

So success stories are important but so to is the context. How did they pay for training? Where did they find a coach? What barriers did they face and how were they dealt with?

Yes I know, inspiration porn is more for the nondisabled consumer than the disabled one so many of the barriers don’t exist for the intended audience but the lack of context raises expectations for disabled people who don’t live up to that standard. It creates a value based binary of those who succeed and those who don’t without looking at why some people can’t succeed. The message for those who don’t is “You didn’t try hard enough” not “let’s make it easier for you to succeed”.

Coming back to Fairley’s argument that anything positive is progress. This argument is pretty weak because good intentions don’t equal good outcomes. The battle for human rights cannot be boiled down to “It’s the thought that counts”. In the fight for equality it is not the thought that count, it’s the results that count. Positive feelings that reinforce old oppressions are nothing but a new face for an old wrong.

Disability rights activists are not the only marginalized group to take aim at this lie. We currently live in a society where rights are discussed more freely and allies from outside the marginalized group are lining up to help. Unfortunately sometimes their good intentions do more harm then good. This has led to a lot of discussion of how to be a good ally and addressing the common problems that voices of privilege brings to discussions of oppression.

So this is not a new problem or one that is unique to disability rights activism but it is one that is slightly more complicated in the realm of disability. We don’t just have allies, we are also stuck with advocates. People who don’t even pretend to stand with us but instead position themselves to speak for us. This is because of the long history of disability charities. It has long been and continues to be considered acceptable for charities to dictate how disability should be perceived and dealt with. Often without the input of disabled people either in the design or implementation of these organizations (Autism Speaks, Neil Squire Society to name a couple). We are still very deeply contained in a social mentality that we need to be saved by the well meaning who then get tax rebates for donations. Charities always frame what they do as positive and helpful even when the people who are the intended recipients disagree. Consider the newly cancelled MDA telethon that provoked protests for years but only began to lose sway after Jerry Lewis stopped hosting the event. Former MDA poster child Emily Wolinsky even helped found a competing organization that addressed issues ignored by MDA.

The false positivity of inspiration porn is just another tool to keep disabled people in a place that is controlled and defined by nondisabled people. It does nothing but reinforce old stereotypes of laziness and robs disabled people of accurate representation in the media by coopting our stories for the consumption of others.