I'm a queer, disabled survivor, but I'm not your "inspiration porn."
BY ALAINA LEARY
I remember the first time I heard it: “You should be so proud, after all that you’ve been through!” I was 11 years old. It was within a year of my mom’s sudden, unexpected death, and I’d been given several awards and switched into the Honors programs halfway through sixth grade.
When I first heard it, there were so many thoughts running through my head. I was only a kid, and I really didn’t know how to react to compliments yet. I heard that I should be proud of my accomplishments, but I also heard that pride was based on the struggles I’d survived. Would I have been showered with these accolades if I were just a normal 11-year-old?
I guess I’ll never know. Since day one, I’ve been part of the other—marginalized groups that are frequently discriminated against. I have several interconnected sensory and developmental disabilities—autism, with comorbid dyspraxia and sensory processing disorder—that can be hard to explain to other people. I have no sense of balance, so I can’t ride a bike, walk in a straight line one foot at a time, or walk the balance beam. My brain shuts down if I experience sensory overload, and it’s very difficult for me to learn faces, geographical directions, and, for whatever reason, the parts of a sentence.
Because I’m disabled, from the beginning, I was always going to be subject to inspiration porn—either that or its direct counterpart, people feeling sorry for me or my caregivers because of the things I can’t do.
But I never made it to the point where I was somebody’s disability-specific inspiration porn, because my story became so much more than that. My story became one of survival, perseverance, and following your dreams. And people loved it.
When I was 11, my mom died unexpectedly, and my world was thrown into chaos. At the same time, I was exploring my sexuality, and came out as gay to friends and family. I was bullied relentlessly by my peers for years as a result. In early high school, I was the victim of sexual assault three times. In college, one of my best friends died in a car accident, and I was raped at a college party. Along the way, I’ve also lost aunts, uncles, grandparents, family pets, and have dealt with my dad’s worsening physical and cognitive health.
“Inspiration porn” was a word coined by the disabled community, and it’s a word that I sometimes use to describe myself. The people who are tokenizing me don’t always know that I’m disabled, but they might, or they see the symptoms but don’t recognize that they make up a disability. I've taken the word to mean, in my personal experience, that people use my story to be inspired because of what I've accomplished in spite of hardship. In spite of disability, in spite of being marginalized, in spite of so much loss at a young age.
Being inspiration porn does a funny thing to your psyche: in equal parts, you’re so proud to be such an advocate for the communities you’re a part of, and you’re happy to inspire others who may be struggling; but you’re also thrown off, because you’re so much more than an “inspiration because of your circumstances.”
When I first started receiving these compliments, I was only a kid. After years of one-on-one tutoring, special education classes, and physical, speech, and occupational therapy, I made the Honor roll. I got into Honors classes. I got the top awards for best grades in English and Science. I read more books in a year than anyone in my class. I was on TV. I was in the newspaper. I wrote a book, met the mayor of my town, and got an award for it.
And what did people see? They saw the story. They saw me as a headline. Here I was, seemingly “formerly disabled” girl who failed English class, who barely passed the second grade, who couldn’t ride a bike or walk up the stairs one foot at a time, getting straight A’s.
Somewhere along the way, being everyone’s inspiration porn became a part of my identity. I heard it so often that I went along with it—and that was easy. All I had to do was keep up a string of constant accomplishments, each one slightly more impressive than the last, and make sure they were publicly known. In more ways than one, I became almost addicted to the rush that came with the slew of compliments.
But giving in to the inspiration porn doesn’t allow me to fully be myself. I am disabled. I am queer. I am a rape survivor. But there is so much more to those parts of me than my ability to accomplish “in spite of.”
I am disabled. I am queer. I am a rape survivor. But there is so much more to those parts of me than my ability to accomplish “in spite of.”
People mean well, and they sometimes get it right. My cousin and I have a special relationship, in that the first thing she always says to me when we hang out is, "I'm really proud of you. But I would be proud of you no matter what." She congratulates me on my work and my education, but says that her love and pride are not contingent on those markers of success. They're unconditional.
It's something we don't talk about often. Not in the space of marginalized groups, but not in majority spaces either: the radical idea that you can be proud of someone and love them beyond the way they're meeting societal standards of success, like education, work, and professional achievements.
It's probably why I'm so bad at taking compliments. Just last week, I was distinguished as an alumni speaker at my alma mater, and it involved being showered with compliments both before and after my speech from faculty and students alike. Part of it is because I've adopted a lifelong growth mindset; the idea that my work and I can always be improved. But part of it is also because, in the back of my mind, I'm wondering: "Would people be proud of me if I were a queer, disabled survivor who wasn't published in Cosmopolitan, earning a master's degree, and working full-time?"
That's not because the people in my life make me feel that way. It's because I've internalized the idea that being disabled and a survivor are bad, and they're things to overcome and leave behind. It's only in recent years that I stopped feeling the same way about being queer, and a lot of that has to do with shifting the way we talk about LGBTQIA people: not solely classified as burdens or inspiration, but as fully-actualized people. I'm starting to see the same mindset shift with disability and mental health, but there's so much work to be done and conversations that need to happen in a public space. A huge step is adding well-rounded representation in the media, so people have a window to look through; to see that a disabled person or a survivor is so much more than just a label.
After my mom died, I threw myself into being busy. I’d always been a creator—someone who wanted to make the things that didn’t already exist, and who was very hands on in her approach to creating. Being busy distracted me from being sad. During the nights when I was home after school and mourning, I threw myself into writing a book about losing my mom, and then producing it: creating the layout, setting the typography, designing the cover, and printing and binding it.
Being busy provided reassurance for me when I went through tough times. I lost my mom, so I learned how to code web layouts and design graphics for them. I was sexually assaulted, so I threw myself into photo editing and professional photography. I was bullied for being queer, so I moderated online social spaces for LGBTQIA youth. These were all skills I continued developing, and I owe a lot of my success to living through these experiences.
When people reduce me to inspiration porn, what they’re often missing is how integral my disability, my queerness, and the things I’ve survived are to the person I am today. My success and my struggles are all wrapped up together, and my identity can’t be reduced to “moving past” or “overcoming,” when the very reason I’m so passionate and driven is because I’m there, in the trenches, living life as a disabled, queer survivor.
It’s not in spite of what I’ve gone through that I succeed. It’s because of.
Alaina Leary is a native Boston studying for her MA in Publishing and Writing at Emerson College. She's also working as an editor and a social media designer for several magazines and small businesses. Her work has been published inCosmopolitan, Marie Claire, Seventeen, BUST, AfterEllen, Ravishly, BlogHer, The Mighty, and more. When she's not busy playing around with words, she spends her time surrounded by her two cats, Blue and Gansey, or at the beach. She can often be found re-reading her favorite books and covering everything in glitter. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @alainaskeys.