Social media images of people with disabilities: exploitative or inspirational?

Stella Young is a comedian and journalist who uses a wheelchair, and I just heard her Ted Talk explaining why she doesn’t want to be thought of as inspirational (click here for the transcript). I really liked the beginning, where she talks about growing up in a small country town in Australia. “I had a very normal, low-key kind of upbringing,” she says. “I went to school, I hung out with my friends, I fought with my younger sisters. It was all very normal.”

When she was 15, someone in town approached her parents and wanted to nominate her for a community achievement award. Her parents thanked the guy and told him it was a very nice idea. Just one problem, they said. Stella hadn’t actually achieved anything.

“And they were right, you know,” she says, explaining to the audience how she got good grades and had an after-school job at her mother’s hair salon, but spent most of her time watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dawson’s Creek. “I wasn’t doing anything that was out of the ordinary at all,” she says. “I wasn’t doing anything that could be considered an achievement if you took disability out of the equation.”

She claims the reason average people see people with disabilities as inspirational is because they see having a disability as a Bad Thing, and then she delivers the only line from her Ted Talk that I disagree with. She says, “Having a disability is not a bad thing, and it doesn’t make you exceptional.” I beg to differ.

I lost my sight when I was 26 years old. Adaptations like computers with speech synthesis, audio books, Braille and talking iPhones help, but being blind is a drag. I’d rather be able to see. And since only 0.5% of Americans are legally blind, like it or not, I am exceptional.

The rest of her talk was great. She explains how images on social media can be exploitive — the one of a little girl with no hands drawing a picture with a pencil held in her mouth, for example, or the child running on carbon fiber prosthetic legs. She listed some of the comments used with these photos:

  • The only disability in life is a bad attitude.
  • Your excuse is invalid.
  • Before you quit, try!

Young points out that these images and phrases objectify one group of people for the benefit of another group of people. She claims the only purpose for these sorts of images is to inspire average people, to provide them with pictures to look at and think, “Well, however bad my life is, it could be worse. I could be that person.”

That, she says, is exploitive. And you know what? She might be right.


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  1. Beth Finke Says:

    I appreciate the comment, Sara, but really, this Australian comedian deserves all the thanks for opening our eyes, ahem, to the issue!

  2. Sara Croft Says:

    Hi Beth – I agree with your points. I used to post “inspirational” quotes on our Easter Seals Crossroads Facebook page, but something about them irked me. I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time, but you hit the nail on the head here.

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