There’s no end to the amount of disability-related articles that pop up around the Internet every day. However, while scrolling through various websites yesterday, I couldn’t have been more surprised to find an article covering disabilities on cracked.com by Jorden Weir. I distinctly remember that I was introduced to Cracked during my AP Language and Composition class in my senior year of high school, probably during a discussion about pop culture. I used to easily get lost in the site for long stretches, reading one entertaining article after another on movies, current events, etc. Since I would often get a kick out of Cracked when I was younger, I had high hopes that they would portray disability well. I wasn’t too terribly upset by the title of Weir’s article, “5 People Whose Major Disabilities Only Made Them Stronger.” It’s cliché, yes, but it still had potential. Then I began reading, and I didn’t get past the first line before I felt compelled to write a response.
Weir begins the article by saying: “Everyone loves stories about people who achieved fantastic things despite their disabilities; they make us feel better about the human race and, by extension, ourselves.” This, sadly, is true. Time and time again, disabled people are portrayed as heart-warming inspirations. Reading this line, I figured perhaps the author would satirize this form of rhetoric, showing why it is a theme that has long since grown old to so many disabled people.
The article goes on: “Well, these stories aren’t like that.” Fabulous! I thought. It will be so refreshing to read something that isn’t stereotypical.
So I continued to read: “These are about people who not only overcame their horrific disabilities, but did so in such balls-shatteringly unbelievable ways that they make the rest of us look like shit in the process. Prepare to feel completely worthless when compared to the awesomeness of…”
The author really had me for a second. I really believed what he had to say wouldn’t be “like that.” Yet, not more than two sentences in, Weir contradicts himself and the article falls back on the very rhetoric I had hoped, as Weir claimed, it would avoid. He ends up perpetuating two huge stereotypes all at once, addressing the trope of overcoming disabilities, of doing things “in spite of” or “against all odds,” and then calling all the disabilities he is about to reference “horrific.” First of all, Weir purports to be sharing the stories of the five disabled people he features not to make you feel good but actually to make you feel bad about yourself – but this is just as stereotypical. It places a disabled person in the role of a hero simply because they are perceived to have accomplished something despite or because of their challenges. Disability Studies scholars often refer to this idea as the “super-crip.”
Second, some of Weir’s linguistic choices demonstrate a clear misunderstanding of the disability experience. Why must mass media constantly deem disability to be a “horrific” plight or any other such terms just because a person’s body does not fit arbitrary societal norms? When discussing the accomplishments of Spencer West, the disabled man who climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, Weir writes “Where anyone else would have accepted that they were destined to be Fate’s punching bag,” West decided to fight Fate, because “what could be more impossible than for a legless man to climb a mountain that kills 10 able-bodied people a year and sends back a thousand more on stretchers?” I, for one, have not met a single disabled person who has resigned to being “Fate’s punching bag.” I’m not easily offended, but that’s actually offensive. Just because I’m not a super-crip who’s climbing mountains, doesn’t mean I’m sitting around being a sorry excuse for a human being and lamenting that life is “impossible” because I have a disability.
Later in the article, Weir goes on to write about the accomplishments of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) Champion Nick Newell by saying that he “actually turned the shit sandwich life dealt him into an advantage.” Excuse me? Now disability is nothing more than a “shit sandwich” because I’m not a winning athlete? And it gets worse. Weir explains that the two outcomes of fighting Newell are either “A) they beat the shit out of a cripple, or B) they get the shit beat out of them by a cripple.” Well, Mr. Weir, “cripple” is not a word that should be thrown around like that. And I know it’s not a direct quote from Newell, because I checked the linked article. Furthermore, any way you look at, even though you think you’re marveling at his accomplishments, you are in fact shooting down Newell’s legitimacy as a MMA champ just because of his disability.
Towards the end of the article, Weir profiles a blind pilot named Miles Hilton-Barber who set an aviation record for a flight from London to Sydney. Is that awesome? Absolutely! And here I can see a hint of Weir trying to debunk the fact that disability should be pitied: “Do you feel sorry for him? If so, cut that shit out right this second, because, since losing his sight by way of genetic illness in his 30s, that man has done more awesome things than most of us in 20 lifetimes.” The article once again returns right back to super-crip rhetoric.
Let me be clear, I’m not at all downplaying the achievements of the people featured in the article. I think climbing a mountain like Spencer West is awesome, because I don’t think I could do that in my wildest dreams. But it’s not a story of overcoming disability that inspires me. I just think it’s cool that he decided he wanted to climb a gigantic mountain and then he climbed it! Wouldn’t you be inspired by anyone who had the perseverance and dedication to climb a mountain, regardless of their ability? According to a blog post written by Spencer West, he climbed Mount Kilimanjaro with the “aim of inspiring others to rethink their own ‘possible.’” Though West was climbing for a good cause, I do wonder if he was subconsciously buying into the notion that disabled people somehow have to prove their worth. Even so, I think it’s safe to say none of the people featured in this article (interestingly, all men, but that’s another topic) had any intention of being perceived as super-crips. They’re just living their lives how they want to. It seems all the men featured in the article set out to break down stereotypes, only to be written about on Cracked in a way that perpetuates them.
So, what I struggle with is the way the Cracked article is framed. I’m well aware that Cracked is a humor website because I’m usually a fan, so I’m sure the author was trying to be funny, but there is a difference between being funny and uncouth. Also, I know the intention of this article is to (in a backwards sort of way) celebrate achievements, but to me, it sensationalizes the disability experience of some people while simultaneously shaming disabled people who have not adequately “overcome” their “dreadful” circumstances. Weir turns the stories of the five men into an unusual type of inspiration porn. Inspiration porn is a term usually reserved for anecdotes and stories about disabled people accompanied by language that is meant to make the viewer feel warm and fuzzy just because the disabled person did something ordinary. Now, some of the stories of the men in the article don’t quite fit this description, and the way the article is written definitely isn’t heartwarming. But Weir has arguably still created inspiration porn by attempting to evoke an emotional response within readers through ogling these disabled men up on their pedestals of achievement.
I am incredibly disappointed that Cracked allowed this article to be published, and truly wish the author had considered the meaning behind the words he used. It is time for writers to put an end to the use of insensitive, oppressive language.