This article was originally published on The Independent in August 2012
An ‘inspirational’ photo has been making its way around Twitter and Facebook. The photograph is of Oscar Pistorius, a disabled athlete, running with a small, disabled girl. The caption, “The only disability in life is a bad attitude”, is a quote from Scott Hamilton, a former figure skater who is also a cancer survivor. There are others, too, in the same vein, including one of a small child walking with prosthetic legs and the caption, “Your excuse is invalid”.
For many disabled people, myself included, this kind of inspiration porn is tiresome at best, and damaging at worst. Using a snapshot of disabled people as a tool to convey a message to, primarily, non-disabled people, involves playing on stereotypes and assumptions. It removes a person’s humanity and individuality in order to present them in a way that will goad a non-disabled person to buck up their ideas. It does not matter who the people in these photographs are, as long as their representation is enough to guilt non-disabled people into action.
Their use of prosthetics is the only thing about them that is of interest in these images, and it automatically turns them into some kind of superhero. Along with the captions, the implication is supposed to be, “Wow, they have a great attitude!”.
It is a massive assumption. The photographs are of disabled people doing things, that is all. And yet a seemingly endless stream of non-disabled people find them profound enough to repost on their own social network feeds. While this kind of ‘cripspiration’ might, at first glance, appear to be harmless it actually does nothing at all to advance the cause of disabled people. We do not exist to be living, breathing models of inspiration and presenting us in this way is objectifying and reductive.
What’s more, as long as non-disabled people can happily dismiss disability as a matter of attitude, they then have no need to start tackling the real causes of disability such as inaccessibility and discrimination.
That disabled woman who complained because she couldn’t attend your inaccessible meeting? She’s just got a bad attitude! A good attitude would presumably have magicked up a ramp and large-print leaflets.
The world is a very inaccessible place. There are structural barriers to disabled people’s participation, such as steps and a lack of accessible toilets, as well as troubling and deep-rooted attitudinal barriers which cause employers to refuse to hire a person with mental health problems, or commenters to slate the otherwise-national-treasure Tanni Grey-Thompson when she dares to complain that she had to crawl off a train because appropriate systems were not in place to allow her to travel with dignity.
Stating that the only disability in life is a bad attitude also puts the blame on disabled people for their predicament.
When I fell down the stairs a few days ago I misguidedly tried to work out which failing body part had caused the tumble when, presumably, I should have been adjusting my attitude instead: a much more effective way to prevent further falls.
For people with mental health problems, the ‘bad attitude’ meme is a particularly galling piece of inspiration porn. Already well accustomed to being told to pull themselves together and get a grip, their friends and family resharing this image reinforces the narrative of blaming the sufferer.
There is often a lot of self-blame inherent within mental ill-health already, it tends to be part and parcel of many diagnosed disorders. Adding guilt via images of young children running in prosthetics is not going to be the final step in curing somebody’s madness, it is much more likely to reinforce their self-blame and negative internal dialogue.
The message sent out by the “only disability in life is a bad attitude” quote is one which also fits in very well with the Government’s ’scrounger’ rhetoric around disabled people, reinforcing the idea that we are not trying hard enough. This is what has allowed them to bring in such draconian and devastating changes to the welfare system, and equating disability with a bad attitude is what allows such abuses to continue.
Telling people who are bedbound that they could work if they tried harder, and telling those with severe mental health difficulties that they have been allowed to languish on benefits for too long, all equate to the same thing: you have a bad attitude. You could be cancer-free if your approach to life didn’t stink; your bipolar disorder is because of your inability to look at the best in a situation; and that amputated limb would have grown back if you weren’t such a pessimist. Now get a job.
Bad attitudes do not cause disability any more than good attitudes guarantee health, and what may appear to be a harmless, if patronising message is actually judgemental and damaging. Until disabled people have all the same rights that non-disabled people do, it is wrong to assume that this kind of objectification can ever be benign.