Performing an access audit on her local shops at the age of 14, Stella Young has engaged in a lifetime of vehement promotion of the disabled community. With membership of the Victorian Disability Advisory Council and Ministerial Advisory Council for Women with Disabilities Victoria, Stella Young has also hosted eight seasons of No Limits, Australia’s first disability culture program. An inspiration, we might say? Well yes. But an inspiration qua activist. Not, Young would stress, qua disabled person.
Young tells us that “we are more disabled by the society that we live in than by our bodies”
In Young’s TED lecture on so-called ‘Inspiration Porn’, brimming with candid comedy and ironically inspiring insights, the osteogenesis imperfecta sufferer expresses contempt for the objectification of disabled people for the benefit of the able-bodied. Recalling being nominated for a community award as a teenager, regardless of her lack of achievement, and countless occasions on which she has been approached by strangers and called ‘brave’, Young attracts attention to the ridiculous notion that disabled people are inspirations, by virtue of their disability. Disabled people shouldn’t have to be inspiring. We’ve all seen those images shared on social media sites of disabled people, emblazoned with inspirational slogans. The words ‘Before you quit, try.’ plastered over a picture of an armless girl drawing with a pen in her mouth. What is it really saying? Or at least, what response is it seeking and succeeding to evoke in its audience? Your life isn’t so bad after all, you could be armless. Young eloquently labels these pictures “bullshit”.
Young’s notion of ‘Inspiration Porn’ really sums up how many of us experience disabled people. Many more of us have probably experienced the handicapped as those who come into school to give us motivating talks, rather than those teaching us, or cutting our hair. This inspiration and admiration for the disabled for just going on, is completely unfounded, Young contends. Isn’t this ‘admiration’ just thinly veiled pity? This ‘inspiration’ is tantamount to greeting a disabled person with the words “If I had your body, I wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning. How incredibly courageous of you to bring out that body into public every day.”
And yet, whilst Young highlights the social and cultural barriers facing the disabled with her contention that “we are more disabled by the society that we live in than by our bodies and our diagnoses.”, her proposed social model of disability therein, might prompt less of a unanimous agreement than the former contention. Are these the sole barriers faced by the disabled community? Rooting disability in the organisation of society rather than in physical difference or impairment – the social model of disability once dubbed the ‘big idea’ of the British disability movement – seems to me to solve fewer problems than it creates.
Social and cultural barriers faced by the handicapped ought to be eradicated
Is the denial of physical difference not just as detrimental to disability as it was for feminism in the 1970s? Can we simply ignore this physical difference in a social theory? The handicapped are not just ‘disabled’, they are also ‘people with impairments’. Linda Birke’s contention that “Feminist theory needs to take into account not only the ways in which our biology is interpreted, but also the very real ways in which biology does in practice affect our lives” demonstrates that differences (both in gender and) in physical capabilities, do have important impacts on our daily lives which cannot be reduced for the sake of a social theory.
But while I find it detrimental to argue, as Young does, that there is nothing intrinsically ‘bad’ about disability – that it is rather society that is ‘bad’ – I agree that the social and cultural barriers faced by the handicapped ought to be eradicated, and Young puts forward a convincing, comedic and candid argument in favour of this which I, ironically, find inspiring.
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