Guest Post: The Unwritten Dress Code For Service Dogs at Graduation

 

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Image Description: A golden retriever in a work harness wearing a graduation cap with a black and white tassel.

 

Graduation season is again upon us, which means students across the US and Canada are donning their graduation regalia and marching across the stage. It is also the time of year local news agencies around the country start reporting on the adorable service dogs that are also prancing along the stage with their handlers. If a local news agency is picking the story up, there’s a good chance the service dog was wearing a cap and gown as well.

With the current graduation style trend incorporating decorated hats, and other colorful accessories, it’s easy to brush this parallel trend under the umbrella of fashion and the euphoria of the day. However, there are differences between how abled-bodied students choose to express themselves, and how the handlers of these service dogs are treated.

People frequently anthropomorphize animals. Dogs do not seek personal gratification through earning honorary degrees, nor do they understand or care about public displays of adoration. Service dogs work because they enjoy it, because they get to hang out with their handlers all day, and because of perks like getting showered with love when they do a good job. Yet every year dogs across the country are given honorary degrees.

These degrees are handed out not for the sake of the student or their accompanying service animal, because it certainly does not reflect either the student’s academic prowess nor how the dog perceives affection. No, it is instead a phenomenal opportunity for universities to get showered with praise for being so welcoming to students with disabilities, and is free advertising. In effect, it is a publicity stunt intended to serve the needs of the higher education institution. Perhaps it also serves to get donations to the progressive school who supported their student with the service dog.

The scheme does little to showcase how accommodating schools are to their students with disabilities. No one is going to pat the university on the back and tell them how amazing they are for having their staff spend weeks before school is even in session sitting at a scanner working on making materials accessible for students. But you can bet someone is going to hand over a fistful of cash when they see an adorable dog on stage receiving an honorary degree.

With the amount of pressure being put on grads to put their service dogs miniature regalia, you would think that there was some kind of dress code we’re all unaware of. When I told staff that I was just going to put a few flowers and ribbon in the university colors on O’Hara’s harness, it was met with serious disappointment. Staff tried to convince me how adorable it would be to have her in a little outfit. Service dogs don’t exist to add an entertaining cute factor to university sponsored events—or any event. O’Hara’s role that night was to do what she does every day. To guide me safely around obstacles, and keep me safe. Given the extra distractions of a loud audience, unfamiliar environments, the stopping repeatedly, and other strange going-ons, O’Hara didn’t need to be worried about wearing a cap and gown when I needed her to worry about where the microphone cord was, and making sure I didn’t faceplant.

The graduation of service dog handlers from universities does not mean it’s open season for publicity stunts for those universities, or regalia companies, or anyone else. Service dogs are not an excuse to exploit them to increase the cute factor for entertainment, or for inspiration. Pressuring handlers into putting regalia on their dogs is not acceptable, and they don’t owe you the chance to see a charming dog all dressed up. In fact, the only thing handlers and their dogs owe to anyone, is respect for the other half of their service dog team. I happily chose to dress up O’Hara’s harness with ribbons and flowers. It was simple, understated, and did not disrupt her work. Nor did it play directly into hands of a publicity stunt. More importantly, it was an artistic expression of self, which was exactly what all the other students were doing with their own adornments. O’Hara did more than look pretty in regalia that day, she did her job with poise, and served me with all the dignity her training called for. That is something that cannot be represented in regalia.

 

Author bio:

Kit is a freelance writer and public speaker working toward the inclusion of people with disabilities in STEM fields. She currently runs Femme de Chem a source for science, disability, and geek news that is 100% accessible.

 

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When I Picture Myself Being Included, I Don’t See Myself Without My Disabilities

I want to live in a world where my existence is just accepted. I don’t want to have to undergo drastic physical or neurological changes to be perceived as a normal part the world. When I imagine myself in an inclusive and accepting world, I see myself as me unchanged, still disabled but simply in a world where that does not matter.

And yet this is not what people think I should see. This is evidenced by this video, produced for World Down Syndrome Day

In the video, a narrator talks about her life aspirations and goals while the actor Olivia Wilde lives them out. The implication is that the narrator cannot do those things for some reason. That reason is revealed at the end to be because she has Down Syndrome (DS). The narrator concludes with “This is how I see myself, how do you see me?”

The intent of the video is to convey that people with DS should be able to do all of the things talked about in the video. Unfortunately the way that message is delivered is deeply misguided.

It frames the narrator as wanting not only to be accepted and to have opportunities but seeing herself achieving them without Down Syndrome. It looks a lot less like the intended “I want to have what you have” and more like “I need to be fundamentally different to achieve acceptance and opportunity”.

It suggests (though the producers object) that people with DS should want to be Olivia Wilde rather than themselves. From a larger standpoint it says that disabled people generally should see themselves as not being disabled.

It is unfortunate that the producers of this video felt that it would be more effective to have a nondisabled celebrity play out the life and dreams of someone with DS. Besides completely missing the mark on their stated intentions, the people who produced this video lost the opportunity to model how acceptance and inclusion can look.

The video Would have been far more poignant and entirely less infuriating if it had shown the narrator engaging in the activities she described rather than Olivia Wilde.

The use of Olivia Wilde completely undercuts not only the need for disabled people to have opportunities and acceptance because no one questions a beautiful celebrity being able to do those things. People do however regularly question not only whether disable people can do something but whether they should be allowed to.

Sure the nondisabled viewer may finish watching that video and think “of course people with DS should be able to do all those things” but the sentiment isn’t likely to lead to action because without a clear guide what passes for acceptance and opportunity will be defined by nondisabled people. I promise you it will not look like the images of Olivia Wilde with someone with DS swapped in.

It’s interesting that this video came out around the same time as the short film “Guest Room” starring Lauren Potter did.


<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/120125960″>Guest Room</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/joshuatate”>Joshua Tate</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

This film clearly illustrates why relying on giving nondisabled viewers “the feels” is not going to be effective because it shows so clearly how the reality of people with DS makes nondisabled people uncomfortable. Not just people like the woman in the hair salon who utters “you’re so good with her” but the people closest to the protagonist and her boyfriend. His parents are really uncomfortable with the idea of the two of them becoming parents. Particularly if the baby also ends up having DS (for more on why “Guest Room” is amazing click here).

Charities and nondisabled advocates have been exploiting people’s immediate gut reactions for decades. It is really easy to get people to think “of course the narrator should be accepted”. It is a far harder thing to actually get them to actual acceptance.

This is why it is so important to actively confront the real discomfort that society has with the reality of the full participation of disabled people in all aspects of life, as “Guest Room” does brilliantly. It is also equally important to model and show disabled people participating and being accepted.

When we dream about a better more inclusive reality, we shouldn’t show the status quo and suggest that people who don’t usually fit in should have that too. We should show a world where they actually do.

Or is that really too hard for you to imagine?

A Media Guide for Nondisabled People Talking About Innovations for Disabled People

Recently, I have written two articles on problematic media coverage of innovations designed for disabled people. The first was on the viral support among predominantly able-bodied people for a stair climbing wheelchair and a standing scooter. The second about Nike’s supposed shoes for disabled people which are actually only available in men’s sizes. In both cases none of the products being talked about are looked at critically so their flaws or limitations are never exposed.

These stories just become part of the able-bodied saviour genre of inspiration porn and inevitably do more harm than good because it leaves people who are unfamiliar with disability issues with an inaccurate assessment of what barriers still exist and the limitations on existing innovation.

I have therefor decided to provide a guide to talking about innovations for disabled people that will allow media creators to be more objective and hopefully limit the harm done by lazy inspiration porn inspired journalism or content creation.

I will use the two stories that I have already covered to show where more questions needed to be asked and more information given.

The first and possibly most pointed criticism I have of these kinds of stories is the framing. These are rarely meant to be true news stories. They are intended to be feel good click bait. This framing does not lead to a critical engagement with the content because such engagement might interfere with the intended warm and fuzzy feelings the viewer is supposed to have.

This is a problem of inspiration porn generally and it is harmful. The stories that impact disabled people’s lives should be told and they should never be diminished to the story that poses a balm to all the other bad news that surrounds it.

Doing that is both dehumanizing and perpetuates harmful stereotypes about disabled people which does not lead to warm and fuzzy endings for the subject of your feel good moment. (for more on the issues of inspiration porn go here and here)

A good way to gauge whether a story about disability is news worthy is to ask these two questions.

  1. If the subject of this story was replaced by a nondisabled person, would this still be news? If the answer is no, then you may want to reconsider it.
  2. Who is the target audience, is it everyone (this includes disabled people) or is it meant to appeal predominantly to nondisabled people? If the latter you should definitely think twice before running with it. If you are unsure, you should consult with disabled people to see how they feel about the story (the plurality of people is really important here)

Disabled people need to see stories that impact their lives in mainstream media. It is useful in both showing that media understands that the disabled experience is part of the broader human experience. Telling disability stories well also gives a more accurate representation of the disability experience to those who don’t live it, so disability stories can and do have universal relevance. They just need to be told in a more critical way.

In this article, I’m dealing specifically with how to cover innovations and technology but these ideas should be applied to all media coverage of disability.

Once you have determined that you do not want to ad another piece of retrograde inspiration porn to the world and that your story has actual merit. How do you do that story justice? The answer is ask questions. Don’t just accept the first answer.

Take the story about the Nike shoes which were widely glorified as shoes for disabled people. People who wrote about this story should have asked the following questions.

  1. Are these shoes really available to all disabled people? Look at different conditions that might require specialized footwear, is this shoe as universal as advertised. Are these shoes available to men, women and children?
  2. Does this shoe accommodate the orthotics that are common among disabled people? Things like heel lifts, AFOs, or Bioness sensors.
  3. Ask why any limitations found from the first two questions were not addressed by the company.
  4. Ask if the company plans on addressing these issues.
  5. Ask why a single company is addressing this issue.
  6. Ask other companies why they aren’t providing specialized shoes.
  7. Does a company providing a long overdo product deserve to be treated as heroic?
  8. Does the limited useability of their product indicate that the company was genuinely trying to help or just get good press?

In reality these shoes were only available in men’s styles and sizes which means that anyone who doesn’t fit those sizes cannot benefit from them. This adds up to the majority of disabled people as men and women with smaller feet as well as children were entirely left out. Nike however, still got a lot of great press and was positioned as a hero. I found no mainstream criticism of the limited usefulness of the shoes.

Attempts to engage with people who created these stories either resulted in no response or an acknowledgement but no change in content.

I did successfully get a response from the person who curated this Upworthy post on the Nike shoes.

She acknowledges the limitations but didn’t change or remove the story from Upworthy. It still has quotes like,

Nike proves that you can create a product designed for the needs of a smaller community that has mass appeal as well.”

The reality that Nike failed to deliver on its universal claims and instead only serviced a very small portion of the disabled population, isn’t really in line with Upworthy’s standard of feel good or inspirational blurbs. It is however disappointing that they would leave the story in its clearly inaccurate state even when faced with that inaccuracy (the fact that this story is blatant inspiration porn and that Upworthy is a huge purveyor of disability inspiration porn is another post altogether).

In the case of technology like stair climbing wheelchairs and standing scooters, media creators should be asking questions like,

  1. Is this  invention going to be marketed or will it stay a university engineering project?
  2. If this device is marketed who will be responsible for paying for it.
  3. Does this device answer the needs of everyone who has difficulty climbing stairs/navigating narrow corners?
  4. Is this really the the best and most comprehensive way to address physical accessibility barriers?
  5. What the the popularization of these devices mean for people whose barriers to access are not addressed by these devices?

These questions are far from comprehensive but they are a good start in contextualizing innovations for disabled people. Using them as a spring board for your story will help you have a more nuanced and realistic representation of the facts and their actual impact.

I will conclude with one final and utterly crucial piece of advice.

Always include the voices of actual disabled people, free from the spin of business advertising. Don’t just have people who talk about disabled people and the impact a given product will have. Ask actual disabled people. The wider variety of disabled voices you get, the better.

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.