The Voice Australia and Inspiration Porn

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I'm not really sure how it happened, but last week I found myself kicking my feet up at the end of a long day and nap-watching The Voice Australia. What I want to talk about today is how one contestant, Tim McCallum, was represented on the show as a person with a disability. Aptly enough for this topic, the show is currently in the midst of the "Blind Auditions" - pun intended, Channel ten?

Tim isn't blind, but he's pretty badass. He broke his neck as a teenager and he has no movement below the chest. He uses his arms to control his paralysed diaphragm so he can hit sweet notes as he sings. He wears cool hats.

https://youtu.be/-XGnizNA-8k

And yet, even in 2015, as soon as Tim rolled into sight as the next contestant, I knew I was in for something familiar. I call it the dichotomy of the disabled, as the media tells it - people with a disability can either be:

1. Pitied by normal people for the terrible afflictions from which they suffer, constantly, always,

or

2. Inspiration porn for normal people, for overcoming the terrible afflictions from which they suffer, constantly, always.

Pretty one dimensional, right? And it's reality TV, so in this case I knew I was in for number 2.

After a quick background clip (cue the soaring, inspirational music), Tim rolls onto the live stage to face a stunned audience. A tense silence penetrates the room, and there's just enough time before Tim starts singing for the camera to zoom into the spokes of his wheelchair. Did we mention this guy is disabled? Are you ready to be AMAZED, AUSTRALIA?

I won't lie - when Tim started singing, I was amazed. He rocked it! I felt a little stir in that deep part of inside of me that hasn't yet been taken over by cynicism and having to remember too many internet passwords. But why? In spite of myself, there I was watching Tim on stage and thinking, "Wow, look at this guy, overcoming whatever vague limitations are imposed by his disability that I don't understand, making me feel warm and fuzzy and inspired for the next few minutes. Thanks, Tim!"

Natalie Ellis recently wrote about how the media utilises disabled bodies to elicit emotion from audiences. And Stella Young did a TED Talk on how people with disabilities are either ignored or lauded for just existing.

They are our inspiration porn. "It could be worse - I could be disabled."

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8K9Gg164Bsw

People with disabilities get air-time when they inspire us. When they serve a purpose for us, as consumers. Where is the presence of people with a disability as just... you know... people? People who have normal jobs, who are nagging their kids for spending too much time on their iPads, who are going out and getting stuff done and having totally unremarkable days, not always fraught with struggle and "overcoming"?

Stella made an important point when she spoke about how people with a disability do face difficulties - in many ways, serious ones - but the biggest burden of disability is not imposed by a person's body or their limitation. It's often imposed by the people and environment around them. This argument lies at the core of the Social Model of Disability.

And so, herein lies the power of real accommodations and supports: people with disabilities speak not only of their own resilience when asked about how they get stuff done, but also, the support of the people around them who encouraged them to keep doing what they love - just differently.

On stage, Tim said it best when Delta Goodrem, mouth agape, asked how he did it - "I had a lot of special people in my life who encouraged me to keep doing what I love doing". Here, Tim talks about the fact that it took 2 years of hard work in singing lessons to get his voice back. It can take a good deal of support and resources to get your life back on track after an injury. Let's not keep pretending that all we need to be extraordinary is a positive attitude.

Stella Young: "No amount of smiling at a set of stairs can turn it into a ramp" Image by Andy Hooper.

Let's move past these shallow representations of people with disabilities.

Let's start talking about what we can do to help people with a disability live - and thrive - in a world that was not designed for them, and (cheesy metaphor warning) begin looking at where we can put ramps up instead of stairs.

Let's stop focusing on how people with a disability make us feel better (or how we'd rather not talk about it at all) and instead how we might start those conversations to help another person do what they love - just differently.

To read more about the media's portrayal of disabled bodies, and how we as a society react to and treat them, check out Disability in Australia: Exposing a Social Apartheid by Gerard Goggin.

Feature Image Source: Twitter.

Image By Andy Hooper was accessed at http://www.abc.net.au/news/2012-07-03/young-inspiration-porn/4107006