Every time a video like this goes viral, many disabled people cringe. Here’s why.
A video of a groom named Hugo standing up from his wheelchair with the help of his father and brother so he can dance with his wife Cynthia at their wedding recently went viral.
This happens every so often — someone who uses a wheelchair will stand up for an occasion such as a graduation or speech, often with the help of their friends and family, and the coverage will go viral. Captions and headlines claim that it’s inspiring and heartwarming.
But this dance isn’t inspiring, and it also isn’t the full story.
What most people who read the viral story didn’t see was that the full dance was partially choreographed for Hugo to dance in his wheelchair.
Too often, media coverage of disabled people treats us like inspiration porn, a term coined by the late disability activist Stella Young in 2014.
When the media reports on videos of wheelchair users standing up and walking, they often rely on emotion as the major reason to cover the story. If the person in the video wasn’t a wheelchair user, what they’re shown doing — a first dance at their wedding or accepting a diploma — wouldn’t be newsworthy.
When the media and average nondisabled social media users share these stories, they’re perpetuating the idea that to live as a disabled person is inspiring and that we aren’t worthy of being seen as complex human beings beyond our disabilities.
I’m not a wheelchair user, but I’ve been told that I’m inspiring for simply graduating high school or working full-time with a disability.
When media outlets and social media users share inspiration porn, they also typically do so without context. A lot of these lack a first-person perspective from the person in the video or story.
Viewers don’t hear how the disabled person who has gone viral choreographed that dance or how much work it took to earn the degree. They only get to see disabled people as objects of inspiration instead of fully-fledged people with agency and our own stories to tell.
This kind of coverage also spreads myths and misinformation.
Many wheelchair users can walk and stand. Portraying it as a feat of inspiration when a wheelchair user stands up, walks, or dances perpetuates the false idea that wheelchair users can’t move their legs at all and that it’s always an extremely difficult task for a wheelchair user to get out of their chair.
These misconceptions lead to people accusing wheelchair users of faking their disability if they’re stretching their legs or leaning to get an item on a higher shelf
That’s dangerous for many disabled people, both those who regularly use mobility aids and those who don’t and whose disabilities may be less immediately visible.
Disabled people have been harassed in public for getting their wheelchairs from the trunks of their cars and told that they don’t actually need to park in accessible spots.
The next time you see a story or video circulating that celebrates a disabled person or their story as heartwarming, tear-jerking, or inspirational, instead of sharing it immediately, watch it again.
Ask yourself: Is this telling the full story of who this person is? Is their voice part of the narrative or is it being told by a third party without context? Would I want to be told that I’m inspirational just for doing whatever they are doing here?
If the answer is no, reconsider and share something written or created by a disabled person — and center their voice instead.
Alaina Leary is an editor, social media manager, and writer from Boston, Massachusetts. She’s currently the assistant editor of Equally Wed Magazine and a social media editor for the nonprofit We Need Diverse Books.