A horse and rider in the ring at the London Paralympic Games.

Kevin Grow and Disability As Inspiration

With minutes left on the buzzer, high school athlete Kevin Grow managed to score an astounding number of points for his team on 8 February. His feat was remarkable given that despite the fact that he’d served as team manager for the last two years, this was his second game ever out on the court. He landed 14 points in two minutes to bring his team to explosive, and decisive, victory. These kinds of stories large and small happen across the US every day, and most of them don’t make the news, but Grow’s did. Grow, you see, has Down syndrome, and the video of his feat went viral, leading the 76ers to sign him to a two-day ‘ceremonial contract.’ The newly-signed team member attended a practice and a game, performed on court with members of his high school team at half-time, and used the locker room alongside his pro basketball colleagues.

And the media collectively rolled out a slew of inspiration porn, stories about how remarkable and sweet and special it all was, how Grow didn’t let his disability stop him and managed to persevere despite being disabled. He was objectified and turned into a creature of fascination not because he’s a good athlete, but because he’s ‘inspirational.’

Basketball teams are in the process of signing and making contracts for the coming year, but PR outreach like this isn’t completely unusual. Periodically, teams will pick a disabled or critically ill child or young adult who’s a big fan, and it’s played for an ‘awwwww’ and good feelings all ’round. In this case, Grow had a chance to meet and interact with some of the members of his favourite basketball team, though he’d never be signed to a team as a serious player. The 76ers got some good PR, and the media had yet another opportunity to fall all over themselves slavering over how inspirational it is when disabled people do remarkable things.

At the same time that I loathe inspiration porn, I also see it as a brilliant distancing tactic that allows people to abstract themselves from serious structural issues.

Grow isn’t remarkable because he’s disabled. He’s remarkable because he’s a good athlete. Unlike many other athletes, in addition to all the other obstacles he’s faced in training and honing his skills, he’s also been forced to deal with ableism. The ableism that makes it hard to be taken seriously as an athlete, the ableism that makes people refer to him with crude slurs, the ableism that makes it hard to navigate the world and be respected as a human being with equal rights.

Once Grow’s moment in the media fades, the media don’t much care what happens to him. They aren’t interested in the cuts to social services that will make it difficult for him to access support so he can live independently in his community as an adult. They aren’t interested in how ableism will make it hard, if not impossible, to find work and rewarding social environments. They aren’t interested in what it’s like to actually live with a developmental impairment — they just want the soundbyte.

We’re also building up to the Paralympics, which will feature some of the most amazing disabled athletes in the world. Again, they’re remarkable not because they’re disabled, but because they are incredibly talented, dedicated, and driven athletes. Some use assistive technology to complete events — prosthetic limbs, for example. Others need aides, like guides for blind skiers. These sorts of devices and assistance are no more than shoes for nondisabled athletes who can’t compete barefoot, or fancy swimsuits for nondisabled athletes who need an edge on their opponents, yet they’ll be presented as novel, strange, almost frightening and wrong (see, for example, controversies over prosthetic limbs and ‘cheating’).

The media will be presenting the Paralympics as a ‘triumph against adversity’ and the inspiration porn will be flying fast and thick. What we won’t see nearly as much of is acknowledgements of the fact that these are athletes in their own rights: not people to be gawked at because of their impairments, but people who have spent a lot of time training for this event.

We won’t be seeing as much attention focused on access issues in Sochi, already predicted to be a significant problem given that the city could barely get it together for the nondisabled athletes. What kinds of barriers will disabled athletes encounter as they try to navigate the Olympic village, get to venues, and compete? Where are the media, and their inspiration porn, for these issues?

I’m preparing to gag at pretty much everything I see on social media over the case of the games, as it’s not just the media that gets into the inspiration porn, but also people in general, thanks to prevailing attitudes about disability.

…to behave as though remarkable individuals are ‘overcoming’ is to place the blame on the rest of a marginalised group for failing.

At the same time that I loathe inspiration porn, I also see it as a brilliant distancing tactic that allows people to abstract themselves from serious structural issues. If you turn a disabled athlete into an object to goggle at, you can sidestep ableism, you can sidestep harmful social attitudes, you can sidestep the actual issues faced by disabled athletes. It becomes a narrative of overcoming the disability, rather than overcoming the society that makes being disabled so difficult — the society that makes it hard to access high-quality prosthetics, for example, and the society that tells people with developmental impairments that they are inferior.

The same crafty distancing tactics are used in other cases of structural and institutional oppression to avoid looking at the real problem. Individual representatives of marginalised groups are celebrated for ‘overcoming,’ but people seem to feel reluctant to talk about what, exactly, they are overcoming to get where they are, what kinds of sacrifices they have to make, what kinds of barriers lie in their way.

This is not an equal society or one free of social and political barriers. To pretend otherwise is disingenuous, and to behave as though remarkable individuals are ‘overcoming’ is to place the blame on the rest of a marginalised group for failing. Suddenly, the person with an above-the-knee amputation who isn’t a marathon runner should just take on more personal responsibility so she, too, could compete in the Paralympics: because the competition is apparently about overcoming disability, not about being an exceptional athlete.

The heavy emphasis on personal responsibility in the United States comes into play particularly viciously with these kinds of narratives, which take exceptional individuals and pretty them up for the cameras to make a point about how people should just try harder. When people bite back against the narratives, the media and society seem honestly surprised and upset — when the disabled athlete becomes an outspoken disability rights advocate, people get angry. When the Black trans woman in the media comes out swinging against transphobia, people get upset that she’s not adhering to the narrative they so kindly wrote for her, one in which she’s an exceptional object to gawk at, rather than a human being.

The infuriating nature of the disability as inspiration model for viewing disabled people who accomplish anything at all (going to the store, being athletes, writing books) parallels many other troubling structural views of marginalised groups in society. Those living on the margins are expected to remain silent and grateful for the table scraps provided by those living higher up on the food chain — and they mustn’t make a ruckus. Should any of them learn some nifty tricks, like jumping through hoops or shaking hands with their masters, they’ll be displayed for an audience, but only as long as they’re good; poop on the floor, and they’ll be swatted with newspapers and sent to the corner.

The pervasive poison of the disability as inspiration narrative is nauseating and infuriating, and it taints almost every story I read about a talented disabled person, or a disabled person getting a chance to live out a dream or experience a once-in-a-lifetime event. These events aren’t amazing or inspiring because they happened to a disabled person who wished and dreamed and hoped and worked hard enough and was rewarded by a benevolent society. The disability’s got nothing to do with it — and the ongoing structural imbalances in society that determine who gets to have these kinds of opportunities and where usually go unremarked and undiscussed.

How come uppity cripples don’t get this kind of attention or reward for their work? Why are the faces of inspiration porn so often cute little white blonde girls who, while bearing visible markers of disability, are still very approachable and media friendly? Why is the reality of disability sterilised and sanitised while intersections with race, class, and culture are elided?

These are things to ponder when encountering yet another piece of inspiration porn.

Photo: Dressage at the London 2012 Paralympic Games, Darren Glanville. Equestrian sports are among my favourites and I particularly love watching Paralympic events as the degree of connection and communication between horse and rider is so distinctive.