'I felt like an imposter in this ancient institution where people like me simply didn’t belong.'GEOGRAPH / RUTH SHARVILLE

Inspiration porn is everywhere. It is every photo of a disabled child doing an everyday task with the caption, ‘Your excuse is invalid.’ It is every disabled person hailed as a hero for achieving a feat society – but no qualified professional – has deemed them incapable of. It is every time someone has told me they admire me simply for carrying on.

The term itself may be unfamiliar. Coined in 2012 by Australian activist Stella Young, ‘Inspiration porn’ is any portrayal of disabled people as inspirational solely, or in part, because of their disability. It is images, videos, memes, and everyday attitudes that use disabled people as motivation. It is every time you’ve heard someone say, “if they can do it, anyone can.”

It has consequences. While on the surface it may seem largely innocuous – after all, what’s wrong with a little motivation? – the idea that people with disabilities should be celebrated for ‘overcoming’ their conditions, for doing what those uneducated on disability deem remarkable, is predicated on notions of our inferiority. We cannot possibly be held to the same standards as our non-disabled peers, yet we remain their infantilized idols. And this must change.

“I felt I had overcome my disability to reach the dizzying heights of abled equality. I had made it.”

When I opened UCAS Track in August last year to see that my offer to study at Cambridge had been confirmed, the elation that rushed through me was not merely the conventional relief of having secured a place on my dream course. It was the elation of feeling that finally, finally, all the unnecessary obstacles and discrimination I had been subjected to throughout my education were over. I had reached the pinnacle of academic achievement, which so few deemed people like me capable of. I had overcome my disability to reach the dizzying heights of abled equality. I had made it.

But my subconscious was to be bitterly disappointed. Not a week into my Cambridge journey and I already found myself too anxious to use my white cane for fear of exposing myself as disabled; I felt like an imposter in this ancient institution where people like me simply didn’t belong. And so I walked down King’s Parade unaided, tense and ashamed of my own shame.

I was ‘faking sighted’, as I have done all my life, downplaying the severity of my condition and avoiding activities that would expose it even more. I would feign what I hoped was an appropriate response whenever someone showed me something on their phone that I couldn’t see, or tell them I just sometimes needed glasses. I hadn’t overcome anything. It took me a while to realise that was because there was nothing for me to overcome.

The comedian and disability activist Stella Young gave a name to something many disabled people still faceFLICKR / JEAN-JACQUES HALANS

Looking back, and with all the time for reflection the third national lockdown has given us, I know that this mindset is borne out of internalised ableism. Even as I write this, my hands are shaking slightly; there are people who don’t know I have a degenerative retinal condition, and I’m not sure I want them to. I have worked hard to ‘overcome’ the stereotypes and preconceptions society has attached to white canes – namely that they don’t belong to Cambridge students walking down King’s Parade.

This is exactly how inspiration porn works. The notions of inferiority on which it thrives affect how the non-disabled think about us, interact with us, and conceive of our individual capabilities - which affects how we see ourselves. Inspiration porn makes ‘disabled’ the Other, a homogenous group to be marvelled at in ignorance and then swiftly moved on from, without any understanding of the dangerous consequences of this segregation.

“There is no reason anyone should discount themselves – or feel that they have already been discounted by others.”

The difficult truth is that Cambridge is not so unattainable. I may not have been given an equal education to that of my sighted peers, but I had a supportive family and a passion for learning that drove me to put in the extra work that I should not have had to do. Given the right resources, fair treatment, and affirmation from those around them that Oxbridge is a realistic option, there is no reason anyone should discount themselves – or feel that they have already been discounted by others.

Of course, my visual impairment will cause me difficulties regardless of social attitudes. But I have developed strategies to adapt to these unavoidable situations. The difficult truth is that society - all those who engage with the attitudes perpetuated by inspiration porn - creates unnecessary barriers, and falsifies hurdles over which we must jump or risk further injury. It is society that must overcome its own limitations, not us. I only wish I had realised it sooner.


Mountain View

If we are to be assessed by exams, they must be accessible to all

But merely recognising the problem does not solve it. I am one person, and I do not presume to speak for anyone else’s experiences. Combatting inspiration porn to effect a change in society’s attitudes towards disability would likely lead to institutional changes, so that students with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities would no longer be treated as an afterthought, and the funding that campaign groups have been fighting for so long to obtain would finally be forthcoming. Societal change takes time, but there are measures the University can take - such as more disability-specific outreach work - that would help to quash the notion that disabled students, who as of 2020 constituted over 17% of the Cambridge student population, do not belong here. No one would be applauded for having overcome something that is a part of who they are.

I know I will walk down King’s Parade, cane out rather than stashed surreptitiously in my handbag, when I get back to Cambridge. I only wish it hadn’t taken me this long.