Inspiration Porn or Inspiration as a Mission?

I was recently asked a question at an event that had me thinking about my career as motivational speaker and the fact that many people draw inspiration from the things I’ve accomplished in life, especially as a person with disabilities. The question was, “Do you think your message as a motivational speaker is doing harm to the image of people with disabilities?”

I understand what they mean. Some people in the disability community feel that it is condescending to say that a person with disability is an inspiration merely because he or she is able to hold a regular job or perform an activity that nondisabled people regularly perform, like playing a sport. They call this “inspiration porn.” The implication being that society expects people with disabilities to be helpless, and when they are not, they are to be applauded. The question asked of me implied that my work as a motivational speaker and my stories about flying and overcoming other physical and mental challenges is perpetuating the condescension of the community of people with disabilities.

Before I offer my opinion, I want to say that I am only one person. I do not speak for the rest of the disability community. I also do not speak only as an American, but as someone who has seen and heard stories from all over the world, having been blessed with the opportunity to travel and see firsthand the work of HI overseas. Let me tell you a few quick stories that set the stage for my argument.

I met Luisa in Accra, Ghana, where I had traveled to give a motivational speech. Because she was born without arms, her father called her an animal and left their family. Her mother was advised by their community to leave Luisa in the wilderness to die. But she didn’t listen. The mother raised Luisa in hiding, and the girl was educated by nuns who worked in the region. Today, Luisa is a schoolteacher, helping shape other lives. Luisa told me she was so happy I had come to Ghana: more Ghanaians, including Ghanaians with disabilities themselves, needed to know that people with disabilities are not worthless. She told me I was an inspiration to her—and I told her that she and her mother were inspirations to me.

On a visit to my mother’s remote village in the Philippines, I was told the story of a little boy born without arms who lived in the same town. He was not going to school and was completely dependent on his parents, who looked at him as someone who will never be able to fend for himself. I knew from my own experience it didn’t have to be this way. What if those parents had known of someone like me when their son was born?

These stories made me think of what my own fate would have been if I was born one generation earlier, into my mother’s family in the Philippines. Would my life have been limited not just by my disability but by the circumstances I was born into? Fortunately for me, my mother immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 22 through an opportunity to work as a nurse. With that decision, she unknowingly shaped my future and saved me from what would have otherwise been a difficult life.  

There are 1 billion people in the world living with disabilities. One in every six people will be faced with disability at some point in their lifetime. The majority of people with disabilities are stigmatized, marginalized or hidden away. This is especially true in countries other than the U.S. Most developing countries do not encourage children with disabilities to attend school. It would have been difficult for them to imagine a woman, let alone an armless woman like me, having the ability to fly an airplane. Unlike Americans, people with disabilities in other countries face barriers as their normal reality.

One of my missions is to change the stigma of disability, especially in the developing world. I want to take advantage of the power of the media to accomplish that. Even my own perspective of my disability was changed with the help of mass media. As a teenager I watched a TV show featuring a woman named Barbara, who was armless like me, but was able to raise her two young sons. This segment changed how I saw myself, and opened my eyes to possibilities for my life.

I want to do the same for others, especially in places around the world where people with disabilities are shunned or even denied the right to live. Rather than putting people with disabilities down, I want to think that with my life, I am showing the very humanity of a person who happens to have a disability.

I recently met an armless little girl named Sophie, whose parents found out about me through a YouTube video. Sophie was born in China and was put in an orphanage. Her adoptive parents wanted her to meet me and I showed her how I drive a car. The demonstration was powerful, not just for Sophie, but also for her dad, who was reassured that his daughter, though different, will be able to drive herself independently someday.  

I also want my message to stretch people’s imaginations, to make them see possibilities where there were once barriers. I want people to see me fly an airplane without arms and realize they can expect so much more of themselves, as well as what they expect of people with disabilities. I want teachers of children with disabilities to see all the potential in their students. I want hiring managers to know people with disabilities can be productive employees.

And I want everyone to join me in striking the words "I can't" or "you can't".

If my being touted as "inspirational" can shape one person’s attitude about disability, I would deem myself as having truly accomplished something. I once received an email from someone in India who told me that he was suicidal but after hearing my story he changed his mind about ending his life.  

There will always be different perspectives on disability. Different people with different experiences will not always agree on the complex and dynamic issues surrounding this topic. In many ways, we are all fighting for the same thing–that people with disabilities be seen as very able, despite their differences. I can make peace with that.

Jessica Cox