What is Inspiration Porn: Exploring Tiny Tim & Weaponized Pity

For those not familiar with it, inspiration porn is a phrase that refers to the way disabled people are frequently used as objects of inspiration for abled people. It was coined by the disabled writer and comedian Stella Young, and once you understand the concept, you can’t help but see it everywhere. Especially on social media.

There can sometimes be push-back and confusion around this term, because it makes it sound like no one can ever be inspired by someone with a disability without it being a problem. That’s certainly not true! Just as it’s okay to be inspired by talented, amazing abled people, it’s fine to appreciate and be inspired by real talent and achievements by disabled people as well. That’s okay and there’s nothing wrong with that.

In my book, you can tell if something is inspiration porn because it fails three basic questions:

1) Voice and choice. Is the disabled person choosing to be portrayed as inspirational?

2) Pity. Is this using pity to create a feel-good moment?

3) Real accomplishment. Would this “achievement” still be celebrated to the same extent if the individual was abled?

To get a feel for it, let’s try a few examples on for size. Would this video trailer for the Rio Paralympics be considered inspiration porn?

Are the disabled people in the video choosing to be portrayed this way? Yes, they’re all adults and they obviously consented to being recorded for the video. Does the video use pity to inspire us to feel good about something? No, there’s no pity involved; the video deliberately pushes back against pity and challenges viewers to realize how talented and amazing people with disabilities are. Would these achievements still be celebrated to the same extent if the individuals were abled? Yes, these are Olympic athletes we’re talking about! Of course they would be!

Quick note: While the video above doesn’t fall into the inspiration porn trap, there are some problems with the phrase “superhuman” being used to reference people with disabilities. You win some, you lose some.

On the flip side, here’s a question: is it okay to tell a person in a wheelchair in the grocery store that they’re an inspiration? Answer the questions: is that person consenting to being portrayed as inspirational? No, it’s being ascribed to them and they’ve had no say in the matter. Is pity involved? Oh yes, definitely–why else would shopping at a grocery store be inspirational if pity wasn’t involved? Would this “accomplishment” (i.e. shopping at a grocery store) be celebrated and seen as inspirational if an able-bodied person did it? No, not even close. So I think the answer is clear: that’s inspiration porn, and it’s definitely not okay to approach that person and tell them they’re inspiring.

And now, let’s consider a holiday-themed case! In the novel A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, the character Tiny Tim is portrayed as having a disability; he’s depicted as weak, in poor health, and uses a crutch. His character is part of what inspires Ebenezer Scrooge to change his ways and become a generous man.

Tiny Tim is almost always pointed to as the classic example of inspiration porn. And if you consider the three questions, you can understand why:

1) Is Tiny Tim given any personal voice or choice? And was Tiny Tim’s portrayal the choice of a person with a disability?

Charles Dickens was a tremendous author, and considering the time period he was from, there are some positive aspects to his portrayal of Tiny Tim. There are still very few characters with disabilities in literature, nonetheless (relatively) main characters. Visibility is important, and at a time when most people with disabilities were sent off to asylums and not incorporated into society, it was notable that Tiny Tim was shown as living at home and capable of living a full life in the community.

That said, Tiny Tim was not the creation of an author with a disability and he’s not given any agency as a character. He doesn’t get to decide that he wants to try and inspire Scrooge to be a better person; he’s left completely oblivious to Scrooge and the Spirits peering in on his life.

2) Does A Christmas Carol use pity to create a feel-good moment?

100% absolutely. Tiny Tim’s whole narrative purpose is for the reader (and Scrooge) to feel bad for him. He’s such a pure, wonderful person; he doesn’t deserve to be disabled or die. It’s not fair, and showing us a possible future where Tiny Tim dies just ladles on the pity you feel for him. The Spirits freakin’ weaponized pity here to make Scrooge feel the maximal amount of guilt and shame possible.

3) Would his “achievement” still be celebrated to the same extent if the Tiny Tim was abled?

This begs the question: what exactly was Tiny Tim’s “achievement” that was so inspirational to Scrooge? The nearest I can tell, Tiny Tim’s achievement is that he’s a decent human being that cares about others. He’s depicted as so pure of heart and innocent, his mere presence and demeanor is enough to inspire Scrooge to change his ways. You can almost here Scrooge thinking, “If someone disabled can be so happy and generous in spirit despite their struggles, how can I be such a curmudgeon?”

But wait, you ask: why is this such a big deal? I get that it’s a double standard to celebrate when disabled people do everyday things that aren’t a big deal when others do them, but what harm is being done with bringing a little more inspiration into the world?

Look at those three questions one more time. The harm being done is 1) people with disabilities aren’t having their wishes or voices respected, 2) people with disabilities are being viewed as one-dimensional objects of pity (which nobody likes!), and 3) people with disabilities can get so used to having everything they do praised as exceptional, it can make all praise they receive (even for actual accomplishments) feel hollow and fake.

So the next time you’re on Facebook and see a viral video involving a person with a disability making the rounds, think before you automatically click “Share”: is what I’m sharing inspiration porn?