(The photograph above shows poet and nonfiction writer Stephen Kuusisto posing as comedian Marty Feldman. Kuusisto has pulled his sport coat over the top of his head, thereby framing his face as if he’s wearing a dark cowl. His facial expression is that of an enthusiastic duffer or dunce. His eyes (blind) are exophthalmic. The real Marty Feldman was also visually impaired.)
Disclaimer: I am not now nor have I ever been a member of the Inspiration Porn Party.
No one who is disabled should be in doubt about the deleterious effects of inspiration. Who would want to be Tiny Tim? If Tiny Tim isn’t fresh in your mind, here’s the famous passage from “A Christmas Carol” in which Bob Cratchit and his wife discuss their crippled boy:
“And how did little Tim behave?” asked Mrs Cratchit, when she had rallied Bob on his credulity and Bob had hugged his daughter to his heart’s content.
“As good as gold,” said Bob, “and better. Somehow he gets thoughtful, sitting by himself so much, and thinks the strangest things you ever heard. He told me, coming home, that he hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see.”
All too often snug piety is easy for cripples. Your name is “crutch-it” and if it isn’t precisely true you are what you eat, every crip knows according to the alchemy practiced by able bodied people, we simply “are” our wheelchairs, canes, dogs, or breathing tubes.
Dickens was a writer of considerable force but he was also a moralist and eager to save Christmas as a holiday for by the mid 19th century the deracinated laborers of Britain had been uprooted from their ancestral villages and families had been broken. Moreover, the disabled were seen as a social liability and were increasingly sent to asylums and specialized hospitals. One may think of the asylum movement as “crippled daycare” for it allowed the rest of the family, or what was left of it, to soldier on in the factories. But I digress.
What I mean to say is that Tiny Tim wasn’t born in a vacuum. Dickens means to suggest crippled children are valuable, both within the family, and yes, alas, as Christian symbols. Many of us who live in whatever this thing we call “the disability community” might be, feel a wild discomfort where disability pietism is concerned. We should, for if we simply “are” our wheelchairs, canes, dog, or breathing tubes than we must be replaced with something better. Utility demands it. Where Tiny Tim is concerned, he will be made to walk by dint of Scrooge’s conversion. As Scrooge becomes virtuous, Tim becomes healthy. What a wonderful story. I say this without irony. Zero causticity. People need stories and as Leon Trotsky once put it:
“The proletariat has to have in art the expression of the new spiritual point of view which is just beginning to be formulated within him, and to which art must help him give form. This is not a state order, but a historic demand. Its strength lies in the objectivity of historic necessity. You cannot pass this by, nor escape its force …”
Even Trotsky would defend Dickens effort to insert an affirming view about the poor and the cripples into the body politic.
Our trouble comes with the development of charity which throughout its punctilious history has depended on mawkish representations of the infantilized disabled as “things” to be cured. There’s no escaping the long, ugly, spell binding parade of poster children and direct mail appeals and telethons promising to save them.
(Photo: vintage advertisement for The March of Dimes depicting a crippled child who has been cured. The caption says: “Your dimes did this for me!”
In his posthumously published study of Telethons, edited by disability historian Catherine Kudlick, Paul Longmore points out that organized charity depends on an appeal to personal freedom, an appeal that takes full advantage of Americans’ fears of powerlessness and loss of independence:
“The availability of people with disabilities—or rather the cultural handiness of their bodies—as metaphors of the loss of autonomy predated the telethons and operated outside them. But in the late twentieth century, those shows, more than any other cultural institution, propagated the notion that people with disabilities literally embodied some of Americans’ deepest fears: overthrow of individual liberty, helpless dependency, cultural and social invalidation. In a historical moment when many feared they might lose—or already had lost—control of their lives, the ritualistic contrast with disabled people’s bodies reassured them that their bodies/selves were still free, still autonomous. An Easter Seals broadcast had former Chicago Bulls Team Captain Norm Van Lier spell it out for viewers: “You can celebrate your independence as a person right now by helping to give the gift of independence to someone with a disability.”
Excerpt From: Paul K. Longmore. “Telethons.” iBooks. https://itun.es/us/7Pzlab.l
The key word is “ritualistic” insofar as the disabled function as figures both of abjection and spiritual immanence. (It’s an “in” joke among the disabled to relate how many times you’ve been the recipient of unwanted prayers from strangers.)
Within the rising disability rights movement, a movement that’s still gaining traction and growing ever stronger, there’s nothing quite so pleasing as calling out ableist disability pornography or “inspiration porn.” As far as I know, the term was first coined by the Australian disability rights activist Stella Young. Here is a link to her fabulous Ted Talk about the matter:
It’s certain: no one wants to be Tiny Tim anymore. No one wants to be a poster child. I don’t want to be a figure of religious transformation or of a pervading or sustaining God. Such stories are a narrative hostage taking, a life in abeyance to fatuous balderdash about bodies and their putative maker, an oppression that’s outlived it’s welcome for cripples.
The charity model of disability upon which inspiration porn rests—nay, into which it’s woven—is still enormously strong. In fact it’s protean and changes shape swiftly. It pops up in bad movies and novels. It asks you to imagine death would be preferable to living without a cure. Mainstream media fawns over it. The Today Show and Oprah will sell you an overcoming narrative faster than you can say hallelujah.
Back to Longmore:
“If premodern cultures and religious worldviews took health or illness as signs of divine favor or displeasure, modern American culture, whether secular or religious, saw them as emblems of fulfillment or failure in meeting the demands of democratic individualism. Unfitness was a modern form of moral failure. It was delinquency in practicing individual self-control. The twentieth-century ideologies of individualism and the human body asserted a corollary moral premise: Even if individuals were not culpable for their conditions, disabilities rendered them incapable of exercising the sovereignty of the self.”
In our time inspiration porn has been transformed from Victorian lameness to secular disenfranchisement. But your dollars can help. Guide dog schools tell donors that with a dog the blind can have their dignity back. This inspiration erotica is everywhere. The Wounded Warrior Project is a colossal purveyor of inspo po.
Inspo po depends on the handiness of our bodies, as Longmore rightly says. We’re easy. We’re the thing you want if you need to feel good and you need to feel good really fast. We can serve as emblems of instant fulfillment.
Nowadays Tiny Tim doesn’t talk so much about Jesus he simply represents belonging which is why we now see him throwing out the first pitch at a minor league ballgame, leaning on his crutch, helped to the pitching mound by the strapping and virile catcher.
So those of us who teach in the field of disability studies or who fight for disability inclusion (these are not mutually exclusive) have a problem—we’re simply not permitted to feel inspiration from others, recognizing it as a trap, nor are we allowed to be inspired by one another within the movement.
Not long ago I attended a film showing about a woman who promotes wheelchair dancing. “It’s just inspiration porn,” said a disabled man as he wheeled out of the auditorium.
Not long ago a friend whose son is the subject of a soon to be released film about his journey as an autist was told by a disability studies colleague that it’s inspiration porn.
I have to ask, really, where does this stop? Is all inspiration simply pornography? Who calls it out? And who exactly holds the crippled porn card? How did they get it?
I am inspired by John F. Kennedy’s speech declaring we will go to the moon. Whenever I see it I want us to go to the moon all over again.
I’m inspired by heroism mostly, by vision, by proposals to make things. I’m inspired by people.
We are not supposed to be influenced by or emotionally caught up in stories that involve “overcoming”—disability can’t be overcome, it’s not the product of a bad attitude. No one needs to transcend his or her physical alterity. Of course this is true.
But when my stepson who suffered serious depression in his teens taught himself to play the piano, I was inspired. He didn’t overcome his disability but he did something. He made something. It was beautiful.
When I walk with my guide dog through downtown Manhattan at rush hour, I may very well inspire strangers. There’s a clarifying beauty associated with speed, mobility, and confidence. Seeing such a thing is in fact, inspiring.
I don’t like motivational speeches. No one can give motivation to others. But inspiration, a joyous opening to what’s around us, that’s poetry itself.
To hell with Tiny Tim. But instead, imagine he’s writing poems of his own.
He says things like:
“My indignant nail studded shoes are now pink slippers.”
We better know the architectonics of inspiration or we’ll become sad contrarian egoists.