I'm not your inspiration: an antidote to 'inspiration porn'

A photo of Stella Young giving her Ted Talk: "I'm not your inspiration, thank you very much"

Nearly a decade later, Stella Young's 2014 TED talk, 'I'm not your inspiration, thank you very much' remains an essential tenet of the disability rights movement and an antidote to 'inspiration porn.'  | Photo Credit: TEDxSydney / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I'm not your inspiration, thank you very much

Challenging society's misconceptions: Stella Young's TED talk is as relevant as ever

Stella Young, an Australian comedian, journalist, and disability rights activist, left an indelible mark on the world with her thought-provoking TEDxSydney talk in April 2014, titled "I'm not your inspiration, thank you very much." Almost a decade later, her message continues to resonate strongly, challenging society's habit of turning disabled individuals into objects of "inspiration porn."

Born with osteogenesis imperfect, Young used a wheelchair for most of her life. Throughout her career, she called for recognizing and appreciating disabled individuals' achievements without turning their disabilities into sources of awe. Her words from the talk still echo with relevance: "Disability doesn't make you exceptional, but questioning what you think you know about it does."

"Disabled and determined, they're not your inspiration; they're breaking barriers, changing the nation."

Deconstructing inspiration porn

In her TED talk, Stella Young passionately dismantled the prevalent notion of "inspiration porn." She pointed out how disabled individuals were often objectified to inspire non-disabled people, reinforcing a distorted perspective of disability. Young exemplified this through various images and quotes circulating on social media, urging individuals to reevaluate their attitudes towards disability. Although "The only disability in life is a bad attitude" and similar phrases may sound uplifting, they oversimplify the challenges disabled people face in a world designed with limited accessibility.

That quote, “The only disability in life is a bad attitude,” is bullshit because it’s just not true ... No amount of smiling at a flight of stairs has ever made it turn into a ramp. Never.

Stella Young

The social model of disability

Embracing the social model of disability, Young emphasized that societal barriers and attitudes are often more disabling than the physical conditions themselves. She reminded the audience that disabled people are not defined by their diagnoses; they are individuals who navigate a world built without their needs in mind. 

By sharing everyday experiences and practical solutions, Young shattered misconceptions and inspired the audience to question their preconceived notions about disability.

Shifting perspectives of disability

Young eloquently expressed her desire for a world where disability is considered the norm, not the exception. She criticized society's low expectations for disabled individuals. She challenged the idea that simply going about their daily lives is an achievement. Her call for genuine recognition of disabled people's accomplishments highlights the importance of valuing their contributions without perpetuating stereotypes of inspiration.

Young noted that when people say, “You’re an inspiration,” they mean it as a compliment. She explained why it happens. “It’s because of the lie, it’s because we’ve been sold this lie that disability makes you exceptional. And it honestly doesn’t.”

"I'm not your inspiration" is still relevant today

Nearly a decade later, Stella Young's “I'm not your inspiration” talk remains as relevant as ever. Despite advancements in disability inclusion and awareness, inspiration porn continues to be prevalent in media, social platforms, and public discourse. Disabled individuals are still often portrayed as "superheroes" for simply overcoming obstacles that the rest of society wouldn't think twice about. By revisiting Young's talk, we can reflect on its progress in disability inclusion and continue to address inspiration porn.

“I am not a snowflake. I am not a sweet, infantilising symbol of fragility and life,” she said. “I am a strong, fierce, flawed adult woman. I plan to remain that way, in life and in death.”

Stella Young

Stella Young's TEDxSydney talk, "I'm not your inspiration, thank you very much," left an enduring impact on disability inclusion discourse. Her powerful words continue to challenge the prevailing attitude of inspiration porn and the objectification of disabled individuals. By advocating for a shift in perspective, Young urged society to recognize disabled people as fully capable individuals deserving of genuine respect and appreciation. As we approach the ten-year mark since her talk, her message remains a crucial reminder that true disability inclusion demands an overhaul of societal attitudes and a commitment to valuing individuals for their accomplishments, not just their ability to persevere in the face of adversity.

Transcript of Stella Young "I'm not your inspiration, thank you very much" TED Talk

2014 Ted Talk by Stella Young: "I'm not your inspiration; thank you very much" STELLA: I grew up in a very small country town in Victoria. I had a very normal, low-key kind of upbringing. I went to school, I hung out with my friends, and I fought with my younger sisters. It was all very normal. And when I was 15, a member of my local community approached my parents and wanted to nominate me for a community achievement award. And my parents said, "Hm, that's really nice, but there's kind of one glaring problem with that. She hasn't actually achieved anything." [Laughter] And they were right, you know. I went to school, I got good marks, I had a very low-key after-school job in my mum's hairdressing salon, and I spent a lot of time watching "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Dawson's Creek." Yeah, I know. What a contradiction. But they were right, you know. I wasn't doing anything that was out of the ordinary at all. I wasn't doing anything that could be considered an achievement if you took disability out of the equation. Years later, I was on my second teaching round in a Melbourne high school, and I was about 20 minutes into a year 11 legal studies class when this boy put up his hand and said, "Hey miss, when are you going to start doing your speech?" And I said, "What speech?" You know, I'd been talking to them about defamation law for a good 20 minutes. And he said, "You know, like, your motivational speaking. You know, when people in wheelchairs come to school, they usually say, like, inspirational stuff?" [Laughter] "It's usually in the big hall." And that's when it dawned on me: This kid had only ever experienced disabled people as objects of inspiration. We are not, to this kid — and it's not his fault, I mean, that's true for many of us. For lots of us, disabled people are not our teachers or our doctors or our manicurists. We're not real people. We are there to inspire. And in fact, I am sitting on this stage looking like I do in this wheelchair, and you are probably kind of expecting me to inspire you. Right? Yeah. Well, ladies and gentlemen, I'm afraid I'm going to disappoint you dramatically. I am not here to inspire you. I am here to tell you that we have been lied to about disability. Yeah, we've been sold the lie that disability is a Bad Thing, capital B, capital T. It's a bad thing, and to live with a disability makes you exceptional. It's not a bad thing, and it doesn't make you exceptional. And in the past few years, we've been able to propagate this lie even further via social media. You may have seen images like this one: "The only disability in life is a bad attitude." Or this one: "Your excuse is invalid." Indeed. Or this one: "Before you quit, try!" These are just a couple of examples, but there are a lot of these images out there. You know, you might have seen the one, the little girl with no hands drawing a picture with a pencil held in her mouth. You might have seen a child running on carbon fibre prosthetic legs. And these images, there are lots of them out there; they are what we call inspiration porn. And I use the term porn deliberately because they objectify one group of people for the benefit of another group of people. So, in this case, we're objectifying disabled people for the benefit of non-disabled people. The purpose of these images is to inspire you, to motivate you so that we can look at them and think, "Well, however bad my life is, it could be worse. I could be that person." But what if you are that person? I've lost count of the number of times that I've been approached by strangers wanting to tell me that they think I'm brave or inspirational, and this was long before my work had any kind of public profile. They were just kind of congratulating me for managing to get up in the morning and remember my own name. And it is objectifying. These images, those images objectify disabled people for the benefit of non-disabled people. They are there so that you can look at them and think that things aren't so bad for you, to put your worries into perspective. And life as a disabled person is actually somewhat difficult. We do overcome some things. But the things that we're overcoming are not the things that you think they are. They are not things to do with our bodies. I use the term "disabled people" quite deliberately because I subscribe to what's called the social model of disability, which tells us that we are more disabled by the society that we live in than by our bodies and our diagnoses. So, I have lived in this body for a long time. I'm quite fond of it. It does the things that I need it to do, and I've learned to use it to the best of its capacity just as you have, and that's the thing about those kids in those pictures as well. They're not doing anything out of the ordinary. They are just using their bodies to the best of their capacity. So, is it really fair to objectify them in the way that we do, to share those images? People, when they say, "You're an inspiration," they mean it as a compliment. And I know why it happens. It's because of the lie; it's because we've been sold this lie that disability makes you exceptional. And it honestly doesn't. TED Talk by Stella Young: I'm not your inspiration; thank you very much!

The video and transcript for Stella Young's “I'm not your inspiration, thank you very much” TED Talk is published here under a Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 licence as per the TED Talks Usage Policy.

Article by
Brendan McDonald

Brendan McDonald, the author of "I'm not your inspiration: an antidote to 'inspiration porn'" is a former humanitarian aid worker who holds a Bachelor of Professional Studies and a Master of Social Science. In early 2014, after dedicating a year to the Syria Crisis, he experienced burn-out and was subsequently diagnosed with clinical depression. Brendan also faces several medical conditions, including chronic myeloid leukemia (CML), peripheral neuropathy, and bicuspid aortic valve disease (BAVD).