Mindy Rhiger reviews CENTAUR RISING

Mindy RhigerMindy Rhiger is a librarian specializing in children’s books.  She was born with one arm and has worn a prosthesis since she was a toddler.  You can read all about it on her FAQ called Fake Arm 101.  Mindy shared more books about being different in an article in Book Links called Just Like You: Helping Young People Understand Disabilities Through Books. She will be serving as a judge on the inaugural Walter Award, which will honor diverse teen fiction in 2015.

Cover for CENTAUR RISINGWhen a review copy of Centaur Rising by Jane Yolen landed on my desk, I immediately put in my “to read” pile.  Not because I have any particular interest in centaurs.  Nor for the name recognition of the author, though I have enjoyed many of Jane Yolen’s previous books.  My initial attraction to the book was based on the reference to “birth defects caused by an experimental drug” in the book description on the back cover.  How many middle grade novels reference Thalidomide?  Centaur Rising is the only one I know of.

Thalidomide, as explained in an author’s note, was an anti-nausea medication taken by pregnant women in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s.  It was eventually banned when doctors learned it caused birth defects in children.  Most middle grade readers aren’t going to know about Thalidomide.  It was well before their time, as it was before my time as well.  Nonetheless, I knew about it in the late 1980’s when I was a kid because people of a certain generation saw my limb deficiency and immediately connected it to Thalidomide.  I regularly had to tell people that I was not a “Thalidomide Baby,” that my congenital limb difference was random.  It remains one of many assumptions people often make about me, and I still find myself having to explain that I am not old enough to have been affected by Thalidomide.  There is also the fact that it was never approved for use in the United States, and the affected children (adults now) are largely European or Canadian.

In Centaur Rising, Robbie has the typical “Thalidomide Baby” traits.  He is described by his sister Ari as she notes how he wouldn’t be able to help if she needed anything when tending to a horse in labor on their farm: “He can’t use his legs, his pelvic bones are missing, his arms are too short, and his hands are like flippers because the fingers and thumbs grew fused together.”

When the foal turns out to be a centaur, the characters have various reactions.  The adults are concerned about what people will think.   Ari wonders if the creature is magic or a mistake.  Robbie connects with the baby centaur immediately.  He says that they are both “half something.”  Half human, half animal.  It sounds harsh, and I suppose it is harsh to read that a child views himself as only part human.  But it is true that kids affected by Thalidomide were called “seal children.”

It is worth noting here that a version of Centaur Rising was originally published in the short story collection Half Human.  In the story, the character with the birth defects died at birth, and the family names the centaur after that lost child.  In the book version, the child and the centaur consider each other brothers.  They both feel freakish and need protection from those who would hurt them or exploit them.  Robbie’s father represents all villains here as he treats Robbie harshly and wants to cash in on the centaur’s potential as a moneymaker.

The idea that Robbie relates in any way to the centaur isn’t exactly a comfortable idea for Robbie’s family, but by the end of the book everyone in the family has learned something or shifted perspective thanks to Robbie and his relationship with the centaur. This element of the plot came across as didactic to me, and I didn’t think that either Robbie or Kai were fully fleshed out characters, which made the ending in which they begin a charitable organization for kids with disabilities feel somewhat inauthentic.

In the end, Ari learns that the creature was not a mistake at all.  He was magical.  He transforms her world and perspective in many ways, and by extension, her brother with all of his differences has an inspirational element to his character.  I couldn’t help but wish that there was an option other than magic or mistake offered for Robbie and Kai. Perhaps, like me, they might just be different for no reason and with no obligation.

Despite the elements that I saw as didactic or inauthentic, there is a lot that kids will like in this book.  Ari is a relatable character, and her story is satisfying.  Readers who are drawn to horse novels or realistic fantasies are the most likely to appreciate this gentle, uplifting story.  The author’s note offers more information about Thalidomide, horse therapy, and historical language for people with disabilities for those who are interested in further context. Centaur Rising presents opportunity for teachers or other educators to bring up a discussion of preconceived ideas about people who are different as well as give some historical context to the way that our treatment of people with disabilities has changed.  There is a lot to talk about in this story, and if the book can start those, often uncomfortable, conversations about how we view people (or creatures) that look different and how they are represented in fiction, I count that as a good thing.

Mindy Rhiger interviews Shannon Hale about DANGEROUS

In April, librarian Mindy Rhiger reviewed Dangerous, a YA science fiction novel by NYT bestselling and Newbery Honor-winning author Shannon Hale. We invited the both of them to the blog to discuss the book and its main character Maisie, who was born with one arm.

To make things even more exciting, we’re giving away a brand-new hardcover of Dangerous! Details at the end of the post.

Welcome, Mindy and Shannon! Take it away …

Dangerous coverMindy: I opened my review of Dangerous by saying that the first time I read a character like me (with a congenital limb deficiency) in a book and she turns out to be a superhero. Tell me about your decision to write a superhero with a limb difference.

Shannon: I don’t think I ever thought about it like that, in the same sentence. For years I’d wanted to write a superhero story. And for years I’d wanted to write about a person with a congenital limb deficiency. And I’d wanted to write about someone from Paraguay. And someone who loved science. And someone who was homeschooled. And someone who was burdened with the middle name of “Danger.” And everything just came together in this story. People with limb deficiencies exist in life but not so much in books, and I felt that lack. I don’t think I’d be the right person to write an issue book about disability. But I thought I could write a superhero story, and I thought I could write a character who has one hand.

Mindy: I think that Maisie’s limb difference challenges many people’s preconceptions about superheroes, and your story includes more than a few details about one-handed life that may challenge reader’s assumptions. Tell me about how writing Maisie’s story challenged assumptions you may have had.

Shannon: I love getting inside characters’ heads who are different from me. Writing, even more than reading, is so immersive. But I remember in a second or even third draft (I did about 20 drafts) finding passages where I’d forgotten that Maisie didn’t have a right hand. Two hands is so fundamental for me. And one hand is fundamental for her. This was not a loss for her, she was born with it, this was her norm. I really had to rewire my brain sometimes, because I would consider the amputation of my right hand a huge loss (as did one of my favorite characters ever in a Megan Whalen Turner book) but for Maisie this is just a fact of her life.

Mindy: Many people don’t even realize that it’s possible to be born with a limb deficiency, much less the differences between life with a congenital amputation versus with an acquired amputation. What kind of research did you do to make sure you got the details correct?

Shannon: Initially I wasn’t aware that Amniotic Band Syndrome wasn’t common knowledge. I can’t remember when I first learned about it. My father is an OBGYN and I think I grew up assuming everyone knew stuff that I’d learned from him. Let me give a peek into what it’s like to be my father’s daughter. On a bookshelf at home we had a miscarried human embryo in a small glass jar of formaldehyde, and my siblings and I used to take it to show & tell at school. Not till adulthood did I look back and wonder if that made anyone uncomfortable. Words like “vagina” and “cervix” weren’t dirty words; we overheard our otherwise very conservative father use them regularly on phone calls. I remember a specific conversation I had with a friend in my 20s when she told me I probably shouldn’t share gynecological stories over dinner. In some areas, I was naively overeducated. But anyway.

The first person I met with Amniotic Band Syndrome was a newborn. In 1999, a friend of mine was fostering a baby who had been born without one hand and one foot. I held that sweet, happy baby and just fell in love. She was eventually adopted and I don’t know what happened to her, but our meeting stayed with me. I crossed paths with other people who had limb deficiencies: a teacher, an extended family member by marriage, a sibling’s roommate, a friend’s son. And I read, did as much research as I could. Nevertheless, I’d be surprised if I didn’t get some things wrong. And I’m sure not everyone with a limb deficiency or everyone who uses a prosthesis has the same experience.

Mindy: While I appreciate books that are specific to the disability experience, I loved that Dangerous wasn’t that kind of book. Nor was it a book about a homeschooler (though Maisie is homeschooled) or about a Latina (though Maisie is a Latina). How did you keep all these elements of Maisie’s experiences from overshadowing her story?

Shannon HaleShannon: Apparently by having so many Maisie elements that they all drown each other out! Girl’s got lots of stuff going on! Really, I think it’s a matter of genre. This is a scifi superhero story. It doesn’t have time to be an issue story. I too appreciate so much books about the disability experience or any experience that isn’t in our default canon. But that’s not what I wanted to write. I wanted to write a fast-paced, kickbooty, twisty adventure story, and I wanted the heroine to be a real girl who I hadn’t met in books before.

Mindy: You mention in a recent blog post that one challenge of writing a Specific character (characters of color, with disabilities, who are religious or LGBTQ or have any other non-neutral traits) is that people will challenge you if they feel you get it wrong. What kind of response have you gotten from readers about Maisie’s disability or other Specific traits?

Shannon: No challenges. Nothing so far. (I hope that doesn’t mean no one’s reading it!) I have gotten several emails from readers, who say things like “I’d never read about another homeschooled Latina like me before” or “I’d never read about a girl with a prothesis like me before” or “I’d never read about a Latina science geek like me before.” That’s really awesome. And if challenges do come, that’s great. People need to feel free to speak up, to draw notice, to educate. I can’t get it all right. No writer can. And one of the best things a book can do is start a conversation. I hope the fear of the challenges won’t stop any writers from respectfully tackling Specific characters.

Mindy: There are no references to Maisie’s disability on the back cover of ARC I have. Was that a conscious decision on your (or your editor’s) part?

Shannon: I don’t know. I don’t write the jacket copy. I tried early on in my career and discovered I was horrible at it so I stay out of it now. I actually didn’t even notice that until someone pointed out to me after publication that the jacket copy made no mention of her disability or race or any of her specific traits. I guess none of my other books’ jacket copies mention those kinds of traits about my other characters either. It’s more about plot points, setting, and relationships. What do you think, is that something we should change in the paperback?

Mindy: What advice do you have for writers who want to write Specific/diverse characters that are outside their own experiences?

Shannon: Research. Read. Talk to people. Do your homework. Be respectful. But don’t be afraid. Mindy, if I’d known you when I was writing this, I’d have begged you to read a draft.

Mindy: What’s next for you?

Shannon: Zoinks, so much. I kind of exploded. Sorry about the mess. Third of my EVER AFTER HIGH books this summer. THE PRINCESS IN BLACK, a new early chapter book series, this fall. The third and final PRINCESS ACADEMY next March. And I’m starting a new MG series with my husband. It’s a contemporary realism/fantasy/scifi/horror/wish fulfillment/alternate history/dystopian/comedy because why pick one genre when apparently you can squeeze them all in?

Thanks so much, both of you!

Bloomsbury has generously donated a hardcover of Dangerous to be given to one of our followers. To enter, simply leave a comment here on WordPress or reblog our Tumblr post. (Yes, doing both increases your chances!) In one week, we’ll select a single winner from one of these locations. This giveaway is limited to US addresses.

The giveaway has ended, and the winner has been notified. Thanks to everyone who entered!

Mindy Rhiger reviews DANGEROUS

Mindy RhigerMindy Rhiger is a librarian specializing in children’s books.  She was born with one arm and has worn a prosthesis since she was a toddler.  You can read all about it on her FAQ called Fake Arm 101.  Mindy shared more books about being different in an article in Book Links called Just Like You: Helping Young People Understand Disabilities Through Books.

Dangerous coverThe first time I’ve really seen someone in a book who is just like me, and she turns out to be a superhero.

I was born with one arm, a condition called a congenital amputation.  It’s not terribly common in real life, and it’s even less common in fictional life.  It’s more common to that people with limb deficiencies lost a limb later in life in an accident or in combat.  Most people assume that’s what happened to me.  It often takes people by surprise to learn that I was born this way.  And that’s just the first of many assumptions I encounter on a daily basis.

If there’s a book about an amputee, it’s usually about someone who has lost a limb later in life.  Often I can find elements of relatability in these stories, but it’s never quite right.  Books like Izzy Willy Nilly and One Handed Catch, both amputee stories, are about adjusting to a new physical reality.  When you’re born with a physical difference, you don’t have to adjust to it.  It’s always a part of you.  The adjustments that I make to do things one-handedly are almost subconscious.  So I was excited to discover that Dangerous by Shannon Hale featured a protagonist with a congenital amputation, but I was also very skeptical of any writer’s ability to write my experience accurately.

Dangerous did not start off well.  On page ten, you find out that our heroine, Maisie, has one hand.  She describes amniotic band syndrome as the reason for her lack of an arm, which is cool because no one usually knows what that is.  But then she says, “It was my right arm’s fault that I was into space.  When I was old enough to dress myself, Dad replaced buttons on my clothes with Velcro, saying, ‘Velcro—just like the astronauts.’ I’d wanted to know more, and a few library books later, I was a space geek.”

I wish she would have said shoes.  My parents bought me Velcro tennis shoes when I was a little kid, so I didn’t have to worry about tying them.  It took me a bit longer to learn to tie shoes than it did other kids because it was hard to get the shoes tied tightly enough with the kind of prosthetic arm I used.  I did eventually get it, but it took some hacking.  But buttons?  They really don’t take two hands to do.  Not even as a little kid.

It’s an easy mistake to make though.  Most two-handed people assume that if they do it with two hands, it must be done that way.  I decided to let it slide.  I rationalized that Maisie’s parents wouldn’t have known about one handed life any more than most people.  It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to think that they would try to make life easier for their daughter by replacing buttons on clothes with Velcro.  I might argue that shoes would have been a more obvious choice, but I’ll set aside my arguments and move on.

The story moves quickly—sometimes too quickly—and soon Maisie is on her way to astronaut camp.  She’s a little self conscious about her limb deficiency, but she isn’t worried about her ability to do everything the other kids do.  That’s when I started feeling optimistic about the book.  It’s often hard for people to believe, but the biggest worry of my one handed life isn’t how I’m going to do something with one hand.  It’s wondering how people are going to respond to my one handedness.  Will I have to prove myself?  Will they not let me participate?  Will they stare or ask questions? Will they acknowledge it at all?  Especially as a young person, these social concerns were a much bigger deal than physical tasks.

When Maisie and her astronaut camp team gain super powers through some alien technology, the focus shifts away from any social concerns Maise might have to more pressing issues that propel that fast-moving plot ever forward.  Her limb deficiency didn’t come up that often as the story unfolded, but every time it did I found myself pleasantly surprised.  Hale avoided falling into the main false assumptions about one handed life: that everything will be so hard and that everything about a person who is different has to be serious.  I loved that Maisie never needed help because of her limb deficiency.  She didn’t complain about it or not attempt to save the world because of it.  She made jokes about it.  She nicknamed her initial prosthetic device and the robot arm she eventually builds herself.  That might not seem like a big deal, but it is.  Those assumptions are ever-present in my life, and it is always a pleasant surprise when someone gets it.

There were occasional minor slip ups, like the Velcro thing at the beginning, throughout the novel.  I would have loved more detail about her prosthetic arm, and I also wondered where her amputation began.  It makes a pretty big difference in how you do things whether you have an elbow or a wrist.  I was skeptical of Maisie’s teammates casually referencing her limb deficiency so quickly since that isn’t my experience.  But these things seemed so unimportant considering what Dangerous did right.

I really believed that Maisie was born without a hand. With the exception of the superpowers via alien technology thing, she might have been me. Kudos to Ms. Hale for doing her research and not allowing assumptions to write the story.

Mindy Rhiger also live-Tweeted her experiences reading Dangerous; check it out for even more of her thoughts and details about the character’s portrayal.

Mindy Rhiger reviews ONE-HANDED CATCH

Mindy RhigerMindy Rhiger is a librarian specializing in children’s books.  She was born with one arm and has worn a prosthesis since she was a toddler.  You can read all about it on her FAQ called Fake Arm 101.  Mindy shared more books about being different in an article in Book Links called Just Like You: Helping Young People Understand Disabilities Through Books.

Cover for ONE-HANDED CATCHWithin the first ten pages of One-Handed Catch by M.J. Auch, eleven-year-old Norm’s life changes abruptly when his hand gets caught in the meat grinder in his father’s butcher shop. A week later, he is sent home from the hospital an amputee. In 1946, it wasn’t uncommon to see an amputee, but they were usually war veterans. Norm is a kid, and from his perspective, losing his hand isn’t about learning to light cigarettes with a hook prosthesis. It’s about playing baseball and riding his bike.

Before I get too much further into this review, let me admit something: I am not an amputee. Like Norm in the book, I only have one hand, but I was born this way. Though doctors refer to my condition as a “congenital amputation,” I think a distinction between someone like me and someone like Norm is an important one to make. For one, I have no traumatic accident in my past. For another, I have no phantom pain, which often plagues amputees whose brains remember their absent limbs. The third difference is that I have always done everything with one hand (or with one hand and a prosthetic hook) while Norm has to adjust the way he does things throughout the book. Those differences aside, I still regularly recommend One-Handed Catch as the best book for young people about limb deficiency because it captures two big aspects of life with one less limb than the rest of you that I haven’t found in other books on the subject: humor and problem solving.

I’ll talk about problem solving first. One of the most frequently asked questions I get is some variation of “How do you [fill in the blank] with one hand?” Most people have never considered life with one hand, and the simplest tasks seem impossible to them. That’s what Norm thinks initially too. But thanks to his mom not letting him off the hook after his amputation, he learns very quickly that he can do everything he used to do with a little bit of creative thinking. The author doesn’t just say that Norm figured it out and leave it at that. She knows that kids want details. She describes Norm’s process for tying his shoes, which most people assume is impossible to do with one hand, and his trial and error method for figuring out how to play baseball well enough to make his local team. Some may say that Norm’s super-determined attitude when it comes to baseball crosses the “inspiration porn” line (I think every review I read of the book used some variation of the word “inspire.”), and I will admit that the tired theme of overcoming adversity is strong in this book. But I weigh the inspiration element with the de-mystification of many aspects of my life, and I still end up with more pros than cons. This book answers so many of the questions that kids ask me everyday about how I do things and how I learned to do them that way. That alone gets high marks from me.

Then there is the humor. I think this is the hardest thing for fiction writers to get right when writing about disabilities. My childhood was full of arm jokes with my brother or with close friends. We laughed at silly arm or hook related puns, and we giggled every time we passed a “second hand store.” Maybe we were just reacting to the awkwardness of people who tried to avoid using words like hand, arm, or hook. I don’t know the exact psychology behind it, but I do know that I loved the relationship between Norm and his best friend Leon. Leon was protective of his friend, often unnecessarily, but he was also willing to laugh when things were funny. Not everyone is willing to write about that. Or if they do, they don’t always get it quite right. The fact that the book is a light read without sacrificing realism or becoming saccharine is another huge chunk of points in its favor.

An author’s note from Mary Jane Auch reveals her connection to the subject. Norm and his story are based on her husband Herm’s childhood. While I would not discourage writers who have no connection to a particular disability from doing their research and include a character with a disability in their story, I imagine that the accuracy of the details and the realistic humor in this book are due to the author’s personal experience. I think that many readers will latch on to the element of perseverance despite an obstacle, but my hope is that readers will leave the book more informed about life with one arm. That they will consider the various responses of the characters in Norm’s life to his disability, which are all very realistic from his dad’s reluctance to acknowledge it to his mom’s tough attitude about it, and think about how they react to people who are different from them.

The story also explores period details of small town life just after World War II ended and includes some sports action and history throughout. Add it all up, and you have a great book to recommend to middle schoolers who like sports or historical fiction. It might also make a good classroom read-aloud (don’t worry, Norm’s accident is not graphically described) for fifth or sixth graders. You might even have your students try doing things like tie their shoes or sharpen their pencils without one of their hands to get an idea of Norm’s and my experiences. I predict it’ll be easier than they expect, and that’s one of the reasons I like this book.

Discussion #1: Inspiration Porn

Welcome to our first discussion post! We’ve selected a topic for each Thursday of this month, and asked our contributors if they had any brief thoughts to share on that topic. This way, we can showcase a variety of perspectives and opinions.

This week’s topic: inspiration porn. Don’t know what that is? You’ll find the answer below–we asked our contributors how they define this concept and what they feel about it. Read on!

Kody Keplinger:
To me, inspiration porn is any sort of media (a picture, a movie, a book, etc) or even a view of an individual, that tries to fabricate an ordinary action as something extraordinary. For instance, a meme depicting an amputee with a prosthetic leg walking with the caption “Brave!” (Yes, I have seen this before). It can also be imposed on an individual. For instance, I’d say I’ve been turned into inspiration porn by strangers who tell me that I’m “so amazing” for – no kidding – walking down the street with a guide dog or a cane.

I *hate* inspiration porn. I can’t even convey how much I hate it. To me, it’s such a dangerous thing because, even if the intentions are good, it implies that the average disabled person is weak or lacks independence. So when people tell me I’m “amazing” for being out in the world, it implies the average blind person is a shut in. In reality, disabled people are people and want to be treated like normal people. This means not being seen as “brave” or “inspirational” for average, every day actions. Unfortunately, the news, modern lit, modern film, etc, seem to think this is the only way to tell the story of a disabled person. The plot is always “Character X has Disability Y, but she STILL MIRACULOUSLY MANAGES TO OVER COME IT.” Disabled people in the media are always treated as extraordinary and not ordinary. And, to put it eloquently, it sucks.

s.e. smith:
That Oh So Special way of viewing disability. Inspiration porn positions disability as a terrible burden, assuming that disabled people have no quality of life, but they can find some redemption in inspiring nondisabled people by doing novel, heroic, and amazing things like having jobs, getting good marks in school, or participating in society. Inspiration porn is photos of disabled athletes with sappy captions. It’s news stories about brave little disabled children boldly ‘not letting their disabilities stop them.’ It’s handing awards to disabled students for doing what everyone else is already doing, like they’re freakish, fascinating objects rather than human beings. It’s the treatment of disability as a valuable learning experience for nondisabled people, rather than just something that’s a fact of life for some members of society.

And in fiction, it’s pernicious. Disability is often used as a plot device to teach characters something, and disabled characters frequently show up as object lessons or figures of inspiration to the other characters, particularly when they are not the narrators or the centres of the storytelling. Thus we have stories where characters are ‘inspired’ by the fact that disabled people exist, or do things in the name of their disabled object lessons. It deprives disabled characters of all autonomy and objectifies them; from human beings, they have been transformed into mere caricatures, and they aren’t allowed to just be themselves.

Want to avoid disability porn? Focus on this: people should be inspiring because of their deeds, not because of who they are. Thus, for example, a woman like Hannah McFadden isn’t inspiring because she’s a wheelchair athlete and it’s just amazing that someone who uses a wheelchair for mobility can be an athlete. She’s inspiring because she’s a world-class athlete who competes on the international level with some of the fastest, strongest, most amazing athletes in the world.

Mindy Rhiger:
Recently on my bus commute home from work, an older lady leaned over to me and said words I have heard so many times in my life: “You are so inspiring.” I still don’t know how to respond to that even though people have been saying it to me since I can remember. In that moment, I couldn’t help but wonder how the woman saw me. Clearly I was not just another commuter reading a book on a bus. I knew I looked different—the hook-shaped prosthetic arm took care of that—but what did she think that meant for me?

I wanted to tell her that what she could see didn’t mean as much as she thought. That my life was pretty normal, really. But she had already leaned back in her seat and turned her attention elsewhere. The conversation was over without any contribution from me. I understand that inspiration is a tricky thing, and I don’t want to take good feelings away from anyone. I do, though, caution people who are willing to listen that inspiration based on assumptions may be more de-humanizing than they realize.

Corinne Duyvis:
Inspiration porn, I feel, is a way of simultaneously focusing on how incredibly tragic a certain disability is and robbing the disabled person of any agency or complex feelings about it. Instead, it fawns over–fetishizes, almost–the aspects that make abled people smile sappily. After all, isn’t it amazing how well this wheelchair user can navigate public transport? It’s so inspiring! Just leaving the house is already an act of immense bravery, worthy of applause. In other words, the bar is set at a condescendingly low level.

In inspiration porn, it’s fine to linger on how much pain someone is in, or adversity they’ve faced, because all of it strengthens just how brave they are for trudging on regardless–but lord forbid you mention things disabled people might struggle with every day, such as accessibility, ableism, policy, benefits, healthcare. Inspiration porn glibly bypasses those issues to tell a narrative that won’t make anyone’s conscience sting, or feel like they might need to change their attitudes. The audience is abled people, and the goal is to make them feel good, and screw what actual disabled people might want or need. Disabled people act as props in this narrative. One spot-on example: the Glee episode “Laryngitis” in which a disabled character appears solely to inspire Rachel.

Kayla Whaley:
To me, inspiration porn is any story where a character must overcome the horrible tragedy of their disability, thus inspiring the able-bodied audience. This can be found in any and all types of media: books, movies, TV, etc. The first time I remember seeing it was in a Disney channel movie back in the day called Miracle in Lane 2, where Frankie Muniz heroically races soapbox cars despite using a chair. I had no language to understand what I was seeing or why it made me so profoundly uncomfortable, but now I do.

How we portray reality affects reality. Culture is made, constructed by an infinite number of tiny (and not so tiny) decisions we each make. Inspiration porn, therefore, affects how individuals and the wider culture see me. For example, I’ve had a lot of recommendation letters written for me (for scholarships, internships, awards, jobs, etc.) and I’ve read quite a few of them. Every single one so far has said something along the lines of, “Kayla never lets her wheelchair stop her. She’s such an inspiration.” And every time I think, “Really? Of all my accomplishments and qualities, that’s what you chose to lead with?” The media I consumed both as a kid and now tell me I’m not allowed to be a person; I have to be an inspiration. Whatever that means.

Marieke Nijkamp:
A college counselor once told me they really couldn’t accommodate me. Not because I was disabled—they had funds and scholarships for that. But those were only valid as long as I wanted to do what Normal People™ did. And I had just expressed my interest in doing a double degree, because the undergrad degree I was working on at the time was not challenging enough for me. She pointedly told me (though not in so many words) that if I did not stick to their preconceived notions of disability, they would not be able to help me pursue my academic plans. True to their word, they didn’t.

Inspiration porn, to me, is that preconceived notion that either turns disabled people into objects or into lesser humans, depending on the narrative. It is offensive, it is discriminatory, and most of all it is dangerous. It tells us, disabled people, that “normal” is the best we can (and should) achieve, glossing over the fact that “normal” is a culturally constructed concept, based on individual experience that should (but not always do) include ours. It tells society to expect only that and all that. If we do what everyone else does, we are objectified as an “inspiration”. If we create our own normal, we are Othered. This lowers our value and significance as human beings in the eyes of other human beings. And it tells abled people that they should not expect more from us, not just in terms of what we achieve but in terms of who we are. We can be inspirational. We can be pitied. But we cannot be happy, sad, competitive, curious, lazy, sarcastic, struggling, in love, in hate, in any way or shape complex at all. Let me give you a hint though: we are. And that is our normal.

Haddayr Copley-Woods:
I have found that inspiration porn is, like porn-porn, about how the viewer feels — not about the disabled person depicted. Inspiration porn makes the viewer feel feelings. Generally pity, and generally a profound gratitude that they are not a cripple themselves. They cannot imagine how someone manages to go through life on crutches, being autistic, twitching, or using a wheelchair — without putting a bullet through their brains. They watch us struggle, or ride a bike, have one glorious victorious moment, or sit in a chair in slowmo. And they feel very, very warm inside. They get weepy. They whip out their compassion and stroke it until it explodes into fuzzy self-congratulatory peacefulness. It’s so inspirational! They say.

But what exactly does this inspire you to DO? Does it inspire you to step on a land mine, be lucky enough to have the money and resources to have blades as prostheses, and become an athlete? No? Does it inspire you to coach basketball and give every kid a chance to try out instead of giving That Autistic Kid only one chance to get a basket in four long years? No? To demand that special education services are fully-funded? No? So where is the inspiration? What. Are you. Inspired. To DO?

If the answer is “share it on Facebook,” please stifle. I don’t share my favorite xhamster videos. Let’s keep it clean, folks.

What do YOU think, readers? Were you familiar with the concept of inspiration porn? Did these thoughts shed a new light on the subject for you?

Share in the comments!