All posts by Anna Hamilton

Anna Hamilton is a writer, blogger and social media whiz who has contributed articles, cartoons, and more to publications such as xoJane, Bitch Magazine, Ladyish, The Toast, and Global Comment. She and her partner live in California's Bay Area. You can contact her by visiting her website at http://annaham.net, or email her at hamdotblog[at]gmail.com.

What’s up with the Internet’s Fascination with Disabled Animals?

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.

Book Review: The Biopolitics of Disability by David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder

The term “biopolitics” was first ushered into wide use in a variety of academic fields of inquiry by French theorist Michel Foucault during his lecture series “Society Must Be Defended,” delivered at the College de France in the late 1970s. In a nutshell—and a simplified one at that, for the purposes of this review—biopolitics refers to the overall control of citizens’ bodies and states of being by state apparatuses, and the ways in which this control shows up.

A biopolitical lens can be applied to a variety of current and political events that have to do with bodies, the state, and control—from U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump’s fixation on building a wall between the U.S. and Mexican borders to keep “illegal immigrants” out, to the recent panic in the U.S. over the so-called “opioid epidemic” that (conveniently) leaves out the perspective(s) of people with chronic pain who depend on opiate medications to have some semblance of a normal life—the effects, positive and negative, of biopolitics are everywhere.

George Washington University Professor of English David T. Mitchell and his co-author Sharon Snyder convincingly and aptly examine the implications of 21st century, neoliberal biopolitics for people with disabilities in their new book The Biopolitics of Disability: Neoliberalism, Ablenationalism, and Peripheral Embodiment. The book’s central thesis argues that neoliberalism in the 21st century–which, in Mitchell’s words, “involves strategies of the seizure of the very materiality of life at the level of the individual” (8)—has made space for the acceptance of certain kinds of disabled bodies, but this comes at the direct expense of other disabled and marginalized bodies.

This conditional acceptance and welcoming “establishes a form of biopolitics within which nationalism and ableism come together.” Of course, some may argue that any acceptance—however conditional—of people with disabilities into the mainstream is good for all people with disabilities.

However, Mitchell and Snyder strongly contend that this is not the case. The conditional acceptance of people with disabilities who also happen to uphold certain neoliberal and abled norms—especially those regarding capitalist ideas of productivity, appearance norms, and ways of functioning—serves to push disabled people who cannot uphold those norms further past the margins of society. The conditional acceptance of disabled “heroes,” hyper-enabled sports stars, and the “Supercrip,” who is great at one thing and so inspiring to nondisabled people, are just a few examples of a neoliberal embrace of some people with disabilities, to the ultimate exclusion of others.

Mitchell and Snyder’s first chapter, “From Liberal to Neoliberal Futures of Disability,” outlines how this acceptance/exclusion process works, and how biopolitics influences who gets left out and who is accepted by state apparatuses, the media, and systems of nationalism.

A “conditional acceptance” of specific disabled bodies also has implications for people whose disabilities are unpredictable, not visible to the naked eye, or cast aside by nondisabled people in ways large and small because they are thought to be “not really disabling.” For example, think of the many jokes regarding Restless Leg Syndrome and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome that every hack comedian thinks are just hilarious, and the many internet comments arguing that fibromyalgia is not a real illness.

Mitchell and Snyder’s points about which kinds of disabled bodies get included in the nationalist project versus which do not were extremely compelling to me, both as a longtime reader/student of Disability Studies and as a person whose disability (fibromyalgia) forces me to walk a fine line—often with my cane—between a kind of conditional acceptance in certain settings and outright dismissal in others.

The book’s second chapter, “Curricular Cripistemologies; or, Every Child Left Behind,” is its strongest; here, Mitchell and Snyder critique academia’s overall silence when it comes to disability and disability studies—except for when universities or individual departments are able to use students or professors with disabilities to check the box for “diverse” or “multicultural” funding or hiring initiatives. Conditional acceptance rears its monstrous head again in said initiatives; some people with disabilities are accepted, but some are not.

As the authors explain, their critique in this chapter “centers on inclusionism as a neoliberal gloss on diversity initiatives that get some disabled students in the door while leaving the vast majority of crip/queer students behind” (80). The questions that Mitchell and Snyder ask here are not simply hypothetical or theoretical. There are some very real boundaries that keep the majority of people with disabilities from accessing—or thriving in—higher education.

Various chapters in The Biopolitics of Disability cover such wide-ranging topics as “disability futures” in the classic film Midnight Cowboy, the politics of disability film festivals, disability representation in independent films, online support groups for rare health conditions and the navigation of the medical industry, the labeling of certain people with disabilities as “unproductive,” and the implications of said labeling for modern capitalism.

I found this book both informative and a great call-to-arms for Disability Studies, the academic Humanities, and the disability rights movement. If you’ve had trouble understanding terms like neoliberalism, biopower, and biopolitics in the past, you should think about taking a look at this book—Mitchell and Snyder provide comprehensive definitions of these terms and real-world examples of these ideas in action. If The Biopolitics of Disability seems like a book that you would enjoy due to its content and subject matter, I’d encourage you to check it out.

The Biopolitics of Disability (ISBN: 9780472052714) is available now from the University of Michigan Press. Image via University of Michigan Press.

Nervous Systems: Part 7

Previously: Parts 1, 2, 345, and 6. Image descriptions can be found below the .jpgs, under the “read more” tag; click the images for larger versions.

Regarding the “tender point” test referred to in this installment : In 2010, the American College of Rheumatology (ACR) revised the diagnostic criteria for fibromyalgia so that rheumatological exams do not utilize the “tender point” test. The new diagnostic criteria include a Widespread Pain Index (WPI) and Symptom Severity (SS) Scale.

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Nervous Systems: Part 2

Here is the second installment of my theoretical/graphic memoir on disability, visibility, and gender! Previously: Part 1

Image descriptions can be found below the .jpgs; click the images for larger versions. Should you need more background on the “Supercrip” trope, a piece that I wrote for Bitch on the topic (all the way back in 2009) is cited on page 7.

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Nervous Systems: Introduction and Part 1

Note: The following graphic work was part of my Master’s thesis. Rather than letting it sit and collect dust–and, just as crucially, now that I have a bit of distance from it–I have decided to share it. It will run on DI in several parts; since the chapters are quite long, I’ll be dividing it up for maximum readability. Image descriptions can be found below the .jpgs; click the images for larger versions.

Text description for this comic can be found below the jpegs.
Text description for this comic can be found below the jpegs.

Continue reading “Nervous Systems: Introduction and Part 1” »