‘Speechless’ Just Schooled Everyone On Disability 'Inspiration Porn'

And it’s done perfectly.
Nicole Wilder via Getty Images

ABC’s “Speechless,” a sitcom about a family with a son who has a disability, tackled why it’s often offensive to call people with disabilities “inspirational.” And it’s done so, so well.

“Inspiration porn” is a term used to describe a common tendency in which able-bodied people condescend to those with disabilities by suggesting they are brave or special just for living. Ray DiMeo, a character in “Speechless” who is the younger brother of a teen with cerebral palsy, explained it perfectly in Wednesday night’s episode:

“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,” he said.

To which his brother, JJ, who has cerebral palsy, hilariously adds: “I blame Tiny Tim.”

Examples of inspiration porn include, but are not limited to, stories like a high-school wrestler who is heralded as a hero for giving up his shot at a perfect season to allow an opponent with Down syndrome, to win and “make his dream come true.” It’s also in features like the homecoming queen who gave up her crown to a student with cerebral palsy simply because she has cerebral palsy.

Or, as this comic — created by Jessica Oddi and Lianna Oddi of The Disabled Life blog — illustrates, sometimes people with disabilities are showcased as inspirations just for talking a stroll down the street:

He’s just running some errands, guys.
He’s just running some errands, guys.

While these sorts of simplistic attitudes may seem harmless, if misguided, they can have real consequences in a world where disabilities are stigmatized. Research even shows stigma can lead to damaging health care consequences.

What’s more, these kinds of portrayals render the person who is disabled as a side character only revered for what they provide to others. The most recent episode of “Speechless,” however, flips the script.

The episode, titled “H-E-R—HERO,” begins with Ray, played by Mason Cook, wanting to use JJ, portrayed by Micah Fowler, as the subject for an essay contest about “heroes” at school. Ray knows that writing this kind of essay is an easy way to win because of inspiration porn, but JJ rejects his idea, saying that he’s not Ray’s hero. JJ is so insulted and annoyed by the idea of it, he tries to run Ray over with his wheelchair. But when another student utilizes the same tactic — citing JJ as his hero, although the two aren’t friends — Ray and JJ team up to outdo the competition.

The result is a speech dripping with offensively saccharine lines like, “Who needs to walk when you can soar” and, “JJ knows, in his heart, that the only real disability in life is a bad attitude.” Yet, as Ray reads his finished essay aloud for an audience during the contest, he notices the patronizing and pitting way people are responding to JJ:

Ray then breaks down and speaks the truth.

“My brother isn’t a hero,” he says, deviating from his overly-sappy script. Ray notes that despite JJ’s disability, his brother is a normal teenager, who quite honestly, can be a jerk sometimes who has no qualms with running him over with his wheelchair.

“He’s just living his life. There’s nothing brave about that,” Ray concluded.

The audience does not like the speech, but JJ loves it.

People in the disability community also loved it. Dominick Evans, a filmmaker and disability activist, applauded the episode for its honesty.

“I picked on my siblings. I could be a real jerk growing up. I’m human,” Evans, who has OCD and spinal muscular atrophy, a progressive neuromuscular disability, told the Huffington Post. “But society would make you think I’m not just because of my disability.”

Evans also pointed out that this is the first time many in the disability community have heard the term “inspiration porn” used on primetime television, which is a big deal.

“Many of us have been told that we are too sensitive, that inspiration porn is not a real thing or we are making it up,” Evans said. “So, it was very satisfying to hear it because it completely validates our experiences with inspiration porn and acknowledges the problem that exists.”

So next time you see inspiration porn, consider taking the show’s lead...

...and help alleviate the problem.

Before You Go

Living With A Disability