The negative effects of 'positive' stories: why the legal sector needs to improve its portrayal of disabled people

Demi Rixon
Demi RixonLawyers with Disabilities Committee Member

Disabled people want to educate the public, increase accessibility and increase acceptance of disability in society. However, the way in which disability is depicted has been disputed among disabled people.

Woman using a wheelchair taking a video call

Most have experienced discomfort with ‘positive’ stories about disabled people. The stories may be well intended but they can be demoralising and embarrassing. In recent years, these depictions have acquired the provocative term ‘inspiration porn’.

There is no definition of ‘inspiration porn’ and it is difficult to describe. It’s an informal term that was created by the late disability activist Stella Young. Like pornography, it objectifies the subject (the disabled person) whilst providing a benefit for the viewer (the non-disabled person).

It is usually seen in media portrayals of disabled people in memes, news stories, videos, pictures and articles. However well-intended these stories are, their messages can be damaging for the disabled community. They can declare that disability is a bad thing and that living with a disability is extraordinary. They promote the idea that the adversity overcome by disabled people should act as a motivation to able-bodied people.

One of the main problems with this type of portrayal is that underlying issues such as accessibility and inclusion are not addressed. It fails to bring attention to the real problems disabled people face every day.

Whilst writing this piece I’m thinking about how these portrayals have affected me. In the past I’ve read positive news articles about disabled people but wondered why I was left feeling disappointed. The articles suggested the disabled person “overcame” their disability and “defied all odds”. I felt hopeless and a failure because I was letting my condition beat me.

Reading these positive stories made me quickly forget the ill treatment I received regarding my disability. I unconsciously put more pressure on myself to ignore my disability and overcome it in order to ‘succeed’ and become a lawyer.

Admittedly, after the ill treatment I received as a paralegal I made it my mission to qualify as a lawyer to ‘inspire’ the next generation. I want future lawyers to believe that they can be a successful lawyer and be disabled. However, I can’t add to the media portrayals' lie that becoming a lawyer with a disability is easy. Therefore, I need to avoid becoming an ‘inspiration porn’ star.

Accordingly, I need to realign my mission to expose the underlying injustice and systemic failures that disabled people face in the legal profession. If properly addressed, these issues can be fixed, creating an inclusive environment for the next generation of future disabled lawyers.

But how can the legal profession avoid using ‘inspiration porn’?

It doesn’t mean we can’t highlight successful disabled people. In fact, the Legally Disabled research findings suggest that disabled people want to see more disabled role models and mentors. A few basic practices can go a long way towards avoiding 'inspiration porn'.

Organisations should include ideas from actual disabled people when considering any media portrayal in order to convey a meaningful message.

Furthermore, if you tell a story of a disabled person’s perseverance and success in overcoming difficult barriers, make sure you address why they have faced those barriers. Consider suggesting what changes could be made to remove those barriers so that disabled people don’t face them again in future.

It’s key to show what tools and support disabled people need to function every day and as a lawyer. This will normalise disability and will show the profession and its clients that it is normal to see a disabled lawyer.

In spite of what I said, disabled lawyers are inspiring. Not because of their disability but because of their remarkable achievement in becoming a lawyer. Successes of disabled people should be put front and centre because they are rarely represented well. With this in mind, and by avoiding the pitfalls I’ve described, organisations can truly create an equal and inclusive playing field and attract disabled lawyers.