Inspiration Porn: A Look at the Objectification of the Deaf

Many Deaf people inspire hearing people for what they do. Nothing is wrong. But, when it becomes inspirational solely or in part on the basis of one's being deaf, it becomes the object of inspiration.

Inspiration porn is a term used to describe any feel-good meme, video, image, or event to reduce people with disabilities to objects of inspiration, or to make people with disabilities simply living their daily lives extraordinary. To make people feel great, lucky, or inspired.

In her 2014 Ted Talk entitled "I'm not your inspiration, thank you very much," Stella Young, a social justice activist, took a close look at how media depicts the disabled community. Stella used "the term 'porn' deliberately, because they objectify one group of people for the benefit of another group." She coined the term but this concept had been around long before.

Stella mentioned memes with images of people with disabilities and captions such as "The only disability in life is a bad attitude" or "Your excuse is invalid." Another, "Tell me your excuse again" with the image of a man in wheelchair. The images are created to motivate or inspire people while degarding the disabled community by suggesting the viewers that what disabled people can, abled can do better, or how bad their life is, it could be worse.

Note that we Deaf people don't consider ourselves as 'people with disablities' but a linguistic-cultural group. Nevertheless, the concept 'inspiration porn' still applies to our experiences as Deaf people. We have been the objects of inspiration porn.

One of some examples is the "success stories" of oral deaf children with cochlear implants, when in fact, there are so many Deaf people write and read English fluently without speaking nor hearing at all. Or, Deaf people live a highly successful life without speaking or hearing at all.

Another is "You are too beautiful or handsome (to be Deaf)." "You're so brave (e.g. as a Deaf woman traveling alone in India)". These praises are well intended as long as they shouldn't be linked to objectifying conditions for your inspiration.

A 2016 Starkley Foundation Super Bowl event gave out free hearing aids, in front of an audience of hundreds, including celebrities, to watch Starkey staff or volunteers fitting deaf people with hearing aids. Some participants were turned off by the experience; some felt exploited by how they were portrayed. One parent described it as a "media circus". After this event, the California Association of the Deaf called on Starkey to change its marketing practice to stop practicing 'inspiration porn'. (StarTribute at

A number of advertising posters, newspaper photographs, and other media related to hearing often portray images that "hearing brings joy". They were created to inspire hearing people while degrading Deaf people, their natural human language, and their highly successful lives by implying that being hearing means a better life, which is an illusion.

Inspiration porn can manifest itself into other ways, not just inspirational stuff. For example, the word 'deaf' is attached to any headlines in murder, theft, or whatever. Is it really relevant? This encourages a more negative image of being deaf. How about we emphasize hearing white murderer, hearing white thief, etc.?

One afternoon, my hearing swimmate in our teen years was shocked and told me a story, "Last weekend, a street beggar tried to sell me a ABC card. He's deaf! Why didn't he get a job?!" Well, why are there so many hearing street bums begging? Isn't it a shock that they are hearing?

"I am not here to inspire you. I am here to tell you that we have been lied to about disability." - Stella Young

We have been lied to. You all have been lied to. Hearing people were told that being deaf is a sad, horrible thing, that Deaf people cannot do well without hearing, that they will have a hard life, and so on. People are naturally good at adapting with their bodies. Whatever we Deaf people do well is simply disregarded.

Many Deaf people do inspirational things and some have done amazing things. Many of them lead a normal life. Others struggle. Just like everybody else. Those Deaf people are not inspiring simply because they are deaf but because some of them are genius, talented, hard-working, successful, or whatever.

"You just so happened to be Deaf, you didn't win because you are Deaf, you won because you kicked ass." - Tyra to Nyle DiMarco who won in America's Next Top Model (Cycle 22) in December 2015.

Being Deaf is not hard that there is nothing inspirational about being deaf. It's not sad. Deafness doesn't automatically equates hardship nor tragedy. Everyone has life challenges with no exceptions. 'Disability' is a social experience and a social construction, not a medical condition. What Deaf people need is a good attitude and accessibility. As long as there is a disabling attitude, we fight for accessibility and equality, not smiling. Adapting Stella's quote, "Just as no amount of smiling at a flight of stairs has ever made it turn into a ramp," smiling at hearing people isn't going to bring us human rights and language rights, smiling at a screen isn't going to make captions pop for us and so on.

When you meet a Deaf person, connect with them as a human with their own accomplishments and challenges in their daily life. When giving a compliment, it's for their action or success, not because they are Deaf.

Resources: CAD's Open Letter to the Starkey Hearing Foundation.