Autistic Future
March 9th, 2019

Inspiration Porn and Achievement

Despite woe­ful­ly inad­e­quate sup­ports for those who need them, dis­crim­i­na­tion, low expec­ta­tions, and oth­er atti­tu­di­nal bar­ri­ers, grow­ing num­bers of Autis­tic peo­ple are becom­ing con­ven­tion­al­ly suc­cess­ful. This can take many forms, includ­ing edu­ca­tion­al achieve­ment, finan­cial suc­cess, build­ing a val­ued and valu­able career, attain­ing elect­ed office, home own­er­ship, and tak­ing on respect­ed reli­gious and com­mu­ni­ty roles. For many Autis­tic adults, it hap­pens qui­et­ly. Some­times, how­ev­er, the neu­rotyp­i­cal world takes notice. Efforts of many dis­abil­i­ty com­mu­ni­ties to push back against inspi­ra­tion porn and pro­mote media nar­ra­tives that rec­og­nize and acknowl­edge the full human­i­ty of dis­abled peo­ple have helped but not com­plete­ly fixed the sit­u­a­tion. Although the prob­lem is unlike­ly to com­plete­ly dis­ap­pear any time soon, there are some steps Autis­tic peo­ple can take to min­i­mize the risk of becom­ing inspi­ra­tion porn and reduce harm if it hap­pens, any­way. It is also imper­a­tive that the neu­ro­di­ver­si­ty-ori­ent­ed Autis­tic com­mu­ni­ty learn to sep­a­rate the sto­ry from its sub­ject.

The media atten­tion to Haley Moss’ admis­sion to the Flori­da Bar, and the sto­ry ulti­mate­ly going viral, is just the lat­est, and one of the most promi­nent, of many episodes of very real achieve­ment by Autis­tics or oth­ers with dis­abil­i­ties han­dled regret­tably by the media and pop­u­lar cul­ture. The usu­al pat­tern is that an Autis­tic adult does some­thing that is gen­uine­ly worth­while. Some­times, the activ­i­ty in ques­tion would be news­wor­thy even if per­formed by a neu­rotyp­i­cal. Some­times, it is only news­wor­thy because it is a ‘first’, a bar­ri­er bro­ken by a mem­ber of a minor­i­ty group. Some­times, it is not news­wor­thy, and its very cov­er­age is some­what patron­iz­ing. News out­lets, often start­ing with local ones, cov­er the activ­i­ty and the sub­ject of the sto­ry’s dis­abil­i­ty, but the cov­er­age is low-qual­i­ty. Actu­al achieve­ment is simul­ta­ne­ous­ly sen­sa­tion­al­ized, exag­ger­at­ed, and described in an incred­i­bly patron­iz­ing way. The sub­ject of the sto­ry is often quot­ed selec­tive­ly, with words that add dig­ni­ty and nuance cut out. The end result is some­one who has done some­thing gen­uine­ly chal­leng­ing and worth­while being cov­ered like a curios­i­ty, like a talk­ing dog. These sto­ries often go viral.

Vol­umes have been writ­ten on this issue. Many dif­fer­ent dis­abil­i­ty com­mu­ni­ties have tried hard to push back, and there have been some improve­ments. In recent years, a grow­ing num­ber of well-regard­ed media orga­ni­za­tions have put opin­ion pieces on dis­abil­i­ty in the hands of dis­abled writ­ers with excel­lent results. There are also a grow­ing num­ber of guides for jour­nal­ists cov­er­ing dis­abil­i­ty. Writ­ers, blog­gers, and jour­nal­ists who get these sto­ries right con­sis­tent­ly find that their rep­u­ta­tions pre­cede them, and dis­abil­i­ty com­mu­ni­ties trust and sup­port them more and more over time. Although the sit­u­a­tion is improv­ing, con­tact with the media remains risky for the dig­ni­ty of peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties, espe­cial­ly when the sto­ry in ques­tion is one of achieve­ment and suc­cess. It remains impor­tant for Autis­tic peo­ple antic­i­pat­ing con­tact with the media to take basic steps to reduce the risk of end­ing up at the cen­ter of an inspi­ra­tion porn sto­ry and going viral and for the com­mu­ni­ty to avoid blam­ing the vic­tim when that does not work out.

Not all atten­tion or rep­re­sen­ta­tion is worth­while. The first step to pre­vent­ing an inspi­ra­tion porn inci­dent is to avoid, if at all pos­si­ble, becom­ing part of sto­ries that are not news­wor­thy and low­er-grade pub­li­ca­tions that may care more about going viral than pro­duc­ing real news. Some­times, the best thing to do is to turn down the inter­view, express sur­prise and con­fu­sion that the activ­i­ty in ques­tion may get press cov­er­age, and point out that it is com­mon, rou­tine, or unin­ter­est­ing. It is also impor­tant to con­sid­er the source. It is unsur­pris­ing that Forbes’ arti­cle on Haley Moss described the sig­nif­i­cance of her achieve­ment in much more nuanced, inter­est­ing, inter­sec­tion­al terms than USA Today’s. No pub­li­ca­tion is per­fect, but the ones that are more com­mit­ted to high jour­nal­is­tic stan­dards will get this right more of the time.

The for­mat is also impor­tant. At least for those who are good with words, it may be eas­i­er to get one’s full human­i­ty across in a longer-form inter­view than a short quote that will be heav­i­ly con­tex­tu­al­ized, for bet­ter or worse, by a reporter who may or may not be informed about dis­abil­i­ty, by the sur­round­ing sto­ry. If an oppor­tu­ni­ty to speak with the media does seem worth pur­su­ing, it is impor­tant to plan ahead as much as pos­si­ble. Hav­ing a basic out­line, or even a script, of what one wants to say can make it eas­i­er to stay on-mes­sage. Con­sid­er words care­ful­ly, and try to think through every sen­tence as if it could be the only one that makes it into pub­li­ca­tion.

Of course, these tac­tics are not always suf­fi­cient to pre­vent inspi­ra­tion porn, and whether to coop­er­ate with a giv­en sto­ry is always a judge­ment call. Peo­ple who are look­ing for inspi­ra­tion porn will some­times find ways to read it into the most dig­ni­fied cov­er­age of a dis­abled per­son achiev­ing some­thing worth­while. Adding con­text on social media, speak­ing out about the prob­lems with low­er-qual­i­ty cov­er­age, enter­ing into dia­logue with peo­ple who want to dis­cuss the sto­ry, and oth­er­wise try­ing to get some mod­icum of con­trol of the nar­ra­tive, as Haley Moss has on Twit­ter in recent days, all help to reduce the harm and increase the odds that a sto­ry will change per­cep­tions. Ulti­mate­ly, there are parts of the process of media cov­er­age and a sto­ry’s flow through social media net­works that are out­side of the con­trol of its sub­jects, but Autis­tic adults can exer­cise some agency before and after con­tent is cre­at­ed.

The Autis­tic com­mu­ni­ty must remem­ber that get­ting caught up in these sto­ries is often some­thing that hap­pens to peo­ple with­out being inten­tion­al­ly orches­trat­ed by them. Although pro­fes­sion­al Autis­tics are a real prob­lem, albeit one dri­ven by the com­mu­ni­ty’s hor­rif­ic unem­ploy­ment rate, many or most peo­ple caught up in inspi­ra­tion porn sto­ries are vic­tims, rather than per­pe­tra­tors, of indig­ni­ties on them­selves and oth­er dis­abled peo­ple. The Autis­tic com­mu­ni­ty can be unfor­giv­ing to peo­ple who are per­ceived as imped­i­ments to a good nar­ra­tive. How­ev­er, it must rec­og­nize that the per­son at the cen­ter of the sto­ry is a human being who belongs in the com­mu­ni­ty, often regrets their role in the sto­ry, and is some­where between bare­ly cul­pa­ble and not at all cul­pa­ble in most cas­es, at worst hav­ing made a hand­ful of easy mis­takes. Doing some­thing worth­while, mak­ing a good faith effort toward qual­i­ty rep­re­sen­ta­tion, and get­ting bad cov­er­age despite one’s best efforts should not be grounds for exclu­sion, humil­i­a­tion, or harsh reproach. In all of these episodes, Autis­tic peo­ple must refrain from dri­ving away those who did good things only to have them cov­ered bad­ly.

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