I’m a fan of the TV show Speechless. The fact is, I was hooked from the pilot episode. This is probably the first time I’ve been treated to a prime-time sitcom that tells the truth about family life with a disability. When I say “telling the truth,” I don’t mean hiring able-bodied actors to pretend they know what it’s like (chances are, they don’t) to be blind or have a speech disorder or use a wheelchair, and exploiting stereotypes that further marginalize a group of people. (Here’s me giving you the side-eye, Glee creators.)
In one recent episode of Speechless, JJ – the character with a disability who is played by an actual actor with a disability – complains about “inspiration porn.” When another character asks what that means, JJ’s TV brother pipes up: “It’s a portrayal of people with disabilities as one-dimensional saints who only exist to warm the hearts and open the minds of able-bodied people.” That may sound preachy, but it’s made funny because it’s delivered in a sardonic tone by a teenager who has this dictionary definition of inspiration porn so well-rehearsed that he manages to explain it in six seconds flat. In other words, this TV family (and, by extension, everyone in audienceland living with a disability) has confronted it a bazillion times before.
Does that mean people with disabilities can never be inspiring? No. All it means is that they shouldn’t be portrayed as heroes simply because they took a breath today, and then another one and then another one after that. In my view, people are inspiring when they do or say amazing things in front of people who do not do or say those things. It’s not amazing, for example, that someone went to school today or chaired a business meeting or put on pants. Why put him or her on a pedestal just for living a normal life?
This weekend, I saw actual inspiration. I was at a disability-themed trade show filled with displays of wheelchair accessories and sports equipment and modified vans. Naturally, there were heaps of individuals with disabilities in the building. So it wasn’t unexpected to overhear a conversation between two of them while I washed my hands in the ladies’ room.
Both women were wheelchair users. Both were beautiful, stylishly dressed and with impeccable make-up. One was in her 30s, however, while the other was only about 20 and with her mom. From the way they spoke, it was clear that the younger woman was fairly new at disability. And it didn’t take long to realize that the older one was taking the time to educate and encourage her. “You can’t dwell on it, you have to go on with living your life,” the older one (who we’ll call Mentor) said. “That’s so true,” said Protégé, nodding vigorously. “Don’t limit yourself,” Mentor said. “Oh, I like that one,” Protégé’s mom piped up.
The women were all smiles, clearly delighted to be having this conversation. And why not? Mentor was taking the opportunity to make a difference. We all know how great that feels. Protégé was getting the chance to chat up a role model. Maybe she hadn’t, yet, been able to meet that many of them.
Mentor was inspiring. Protégé was inspired.
And that, in my opinion, is how inspiration works.