If there’s one thing that internet denizens can agree on, it’s that animals–especially domestic pets–are great. (There’s even a Wikipedia article on the internet’s love of cats.) And why not–pets are so cute!
From the (now inactive) Cute Overload blog to the /Aww subreddit, cute animals have been in high demand online for a while. But there’s a not-so-adorable side to the internet’s thirst for cute: the fetishization of animals, particularly pets, with disabilities.
The breathless coverage of apparently “inspirational” animals with disabilities is everywhere: A pig named Chris P. Bacon (ha ha, because we usually eat pigs, right?!) had a wheelchair made for his back legs! This duck has a new lease on life thanks to a prosthetic foot! Wow, a goldfish with a wheelchair! Don’t discount the thousands of results that a simple Google Image search for “disabled animals,” brings up, either—there are a lot of photos, stories, and memes about them.
As with a lot of internet trends, this fetishization is widespread, but difficult to trace to a single source; there are Buzzfeed articles, photo sets with varying degrees of context about the photo subjects’ disabilities, television specials, and—of course—lots and lots of “inspirational” coverage of humans who have saved animals with various disabilities (but WHO SAVED WHO?). So why is the internet obsessed with disabled animals? My take is that the various “inspiring” stories about disabled animals provide a way for nondisabled people to talk about and engage with disability in a facile way. If one is constantly gawking and aww-ing over pictures and stories about animals with disabilities, then they don’t have to spend time thinking about actual disabled people, or the ableism against disabled humans that still exists.
Much of the positive coverage of disabled animals takes a cue from inspiration porn, a term that was coined by disabled comedian and activist Stella Young. Disability activist and writer Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg sums up inspiration porn as “consist[ing] of the objectification of disabled bodies for the purpose of inspiring able-bodied people” to, among other things, stop whining, get a better attitude, and use their WILLPOWER to overcome various obstacles. The main message of a great many inspiration porn images, stories, and memes is generally: This person with a disability overcame adversity/got in shape/stopped whining and embraced happiness, so why can’t you, abled person?
Being inspired by other humans to live up to one’s full potential is not bad on its face, but inspiration porn reduces disabled people—and their varied life experiences—to life lessons and just-so stories that abled people can be inspired by and then forget about. Inspiration porn uses disabled people as objects—not subjects—in its quest to motivate (or shame) abled people into getting up and “doing something,” living their dream(s), or accomplishing amazing feats. Simply put, inspiration porn images, articles, and memes use disabled people as inspiring things to be shown off, usually for the benefit of abled people’s personal motivation.
There are other phrases and tropes that tend to be used in inspiration porn material, including “[condition or disability] doesn’t stop this person from achieving their dreams,” “[person] is so happy despite their disability,” and “[person] has such a great attitude about life” and can teach abled people so much about what it means to really live; that last one seems to have sprung from the ridiculous Scott Hamilton quote about the “only” disability being a bad attitude. [An aside: That quote is also a great example of a person with a disability policing the experiences and opinions of other PWDS—Hamilton has had a few much-publicized battles with cancer, but doesn’t seem to have realized that cancer is disabling, no matter what kind of attitude you cultivate.]
Unsurprisingly, these tropes are also present in a lot of disabled animal inspo-porn:
These animals are so INSPIRATIONAL for doing normal animal things, plus a side of “disability is bad”: “These fur balls were dealt crappy hands, but they’re still smiling, purring and wagging their little tails. That’s what I would call totally inspirational!”
[Disabled animal] has so much to teach us nondisabled people about compassion and empathy: “Now, Joe has a new mission: using his experiences to help teach young kids to prevent bullying by using empathy and compassion.”
Another [disabled animal] has so much to teach humans about themselves—and LOVE! “He shows them that with love and kindness anything is possible.”
Hear that, nondisabled humans? Don’t complain or feel sorry for yourselves—be like this cat. “Cats just figure things out…They do not waste time feeling sorry for themselves—they simply get on with the act of living and have a whole lot of fun doing it! In their heads, they are fine and dandy, just as they are!”
This INSPIRATIONAL cat can do things, just like normal cats! “Belle is quite an inspiration. She cannot jump like other cats, but that doesn’t stop her from climbing on anything that she can stick her claws into.”
Gawking at these disabled animals—and sharing their “inspiring” stories (usually written by nondisabled humans) across social media—becomes a way for people who may not have significant personal experience with disability to engage with some common tropes about disability. Unfortunately, many of these “positive” tropes about inspiring disabled animals who (unlike humans?) don’t complain about their lot in life are still damaging. It may not be politically correct these days to pity and gawk at people with disabilities, but it is accepted—even encouraged—for nondisabled people to project these feelings about disabilities onto disabled animals. The compassion that commenters, Tweeters, and social media sharers may have for these disabled animals doesn’t seem to extend to people with disabilities; while pigs and goldfish get wheelchairs and their humans are praised for “good deeds” by the internet, many members of the online disability community have had to crowdfund for wheelchairs.
Certainly, on the scale of issues surrounding the comparisons of disabled people to animals, this one lacks the horrifying implications that, for example, Peter Singer’s continued contempt for people with disabilities in the name of animal rights and utilitarian philosophy do. But the continued and unquestioned objectification of “cute” and “helpless” disabled animals highlights how even the most well-meaning nondisabled people can and do project damaging stereotypes and tropes about disability—and the apparently “inspiring” nature of people with disabilities–onto animals. Such projections do both animals and humans with disabilities a disservice. Disabled animals deserve to have full lives—not to just be “inspiring” objects at which to be gawked.