“I cried because I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet.”
No one knows for sure who wrote that. Some suspect it is a Persian proverb, others say it came from Helen Keller.
I always felt that regardless of where it originated, it is ignorant as hell.
Think about it. For whatever reason – perhaps the government, perhaps the Illuminati – Shoeless Joe is so poor, he can’t even afford a used pair of supermarket bobos. And while everyone is walking around comfortably and unimpeded, Shoeless Joe is playing hopscotch over pebbles and broken glass on very hot and cold (depending on the weather) asphalt.
I don’t know about the rest of you, but that would be more than enough of a reason to get all in my feelings every now and again. And that is exactly what he does.
He is walking down the street, weeping while thinking about the perils of capitalism when something magical happens. No, he didn’t find a new pair of Jordans in the dumpster behind Foot Locker – that would be too much like an actual solution. But rather, as Shoeless Joe walks down the hot asphalt bloody-toed and weeping his eyeballs out, he happens upon a more impaired man. His name is Stumpy Stan. And not only does Stumpy Stan not own any fresh kicks, but he also has no feet.
Got damn capitalism.
It is tragic. It is sad. It is pitiful. It is a got damn shame.
But instead of uniting with Stumpy Stan, Shirtless Dave, Cross-Eyed Marge and the rest of the downtrodden and disenfranchised against the capitalist forces, which continue to deny Joe some shoes and Stan some affordable prosthetics, Shoeless Joe only thinks of himself. And he uses Stumpy Stan’s predicament as inspiration to feel better about himself. After all, it’s not all that bad. And while Shoeless Joe has no footwear, at least he is not that guy over there with the stubs. Amirite?
Now do you see why that cliche proverb is so problematic?
If you are still not clear, let me spell it out for you: It is inspiration porn. And as a practice, it is kind of depressing.
Yet there is no shortage of it in our social media timelines. The most recent viral examples are the YouTube videos by Nicholas James Vujicic, who is an Australian motivational speaker born with no limbs. In one particular video entitled “No Arms..No Legs..No Worries!” Vujicic preaches to a room full of teary-eyed middle schoolers about the importance of having a good attitude.
And as a montage of Vujicic engaging in “normal” activities like playing soccer, speedboating, and swimming plays, he tells the kids that they should be thankful.
“There were times when I sort of looked at my life and said, ‘Well, you can’t do this and you can’t do that. And you keep on concentrating on the things you wished you had and you sort of forget what you do have. There is no point in my life when ‘I wish I had arms and legs, I wish I had arms and legs, I wish I had arms and legs…’ because wishing won’t help. But what I see in life, and a couple of key principals, is to be thankful.”
It is a poignant message about seeing your way through adversity. After all, if he can overcome the challenges of being born without limbs and still manage to live a “normal” life, why are any of us able-bodied people walking around feeling sorry for ourselves?
But in actuality, adversity is a bit more complicated than that. And when combined with a disability, a solution to the problem can’t always be found in the physically challenged having a good attitude. Some people actually face employment and housing discrimination because of their disability. Some people have disabilities that the greater society have yet to understand, let alone acknowledge.
Recently, Karrie Higgins, who is a writer with multiple neurological disabilities, penned a really good essay entitled “Able friends: I am not your inspiration porn.” In it, she offers some other salient points about the problem with looking to disabled people for inspiration.
As she notes:
Inspiration porn operates from several assumptions, the key ones being:
- that anytime disabled people do anything “normal” people can do, it’s totally amazing, like our lives are so horrible and difficult and awful that any achievement is a shock (even as the memes or posts fail to acknowledge disability rights and accommodations that would facilitate achievement)
- that all of us could “overcome” if only we tried harder! And if we fail to overcome, well then, it is all our fault. EVEN when some of the reasons we might fail involve able people creating barriers.
- exceptionalism as a “standard”: This guy is an inspiration because he’s EXCEPTIONAL, but … he SHOULD BE the “norm.” Which takes us back to #2.
She also writes:
People with disabilities are not here to inspire able people or make them feel good about themselves. Inspiration porn not only objectifies people with disabilities by turning them into magic talismans, but it erases the very real issues many of us experience–issues for which nobody is offering accommodations, I might add, or for which there might not be an easy solution. I don’t have an “excuse.” I have multiple neurological disabilities (epilepsy, Chiari, PTSD, bipolar) that aren’t “fixable,” and I can’t always get work done, try as I might.
When I have a seizure, I am out, asleep, in bed for days. I can’t find words. I can’t function emotionally. Light hurts. There is literally nothing physically or mentally I can do to make those symptoms go away so I can inspire you all with my incredible achievements. But I guess, you know, I have no “excuse” because someone else out there with another disability overcame and achieved “in spite” of everything.
Listen, I am not trying to shame anyone. Lord knows, I have unconsciously (and in my less-aware moments, maliciously) engaged in ableism during moments in my life. In fact, I am not even sure I got it all right in this piece. But I do hope to bring awareness to how our motivations and affirmations can be built on some pretty oppressive and exploitative thinking.