By now, we’ve heard the story of Tanner Wilson and Brandon Quall. Wilson saved up his money for two years to buy his friend an electric wheelchair because the only one his friend had was not suited for him. On the surface, it’s an inspirational story proving that the kids are all right. That’s what the news focuses on. I certainly applaud Wilson for his generosity. However, like all inspiration porn stories, it ignores a basic problem: He shouldn’t have had to do this.
The problem with inspiration porn
Inspiration porn stories like this have a big problem: They focus so much on the inspirational part that obvious things get shoved under the rug. It’s sugar-coated bad journalism. In this case, they ignore a crucial question: Why wasn’t this covered under health insurance? If the family didn’t have health insurance, why wasn’t Medicaid covering it? Wheelchairs are medical equipment. To us, they are not things we are “bound” to. They are our legs. Yet for some reason getting anything beyond one of those hospital chairs that look like it’ll fall apart in the face of a stiff breeze is exceedingly difficult.
The reasons for this are manifold and stupid. Insurance companies see the price tag for a decent chair and balk. Of course, the fact that giving a disabled person the wheelchair they need in the first place would save the company a lot of medical bills in the long-term doesn’t come up. They only see the end of the current quarter.
Medicaid can also pose its own hazards. In states run by people who oppose the very existence of Medicaid, the process of getting a good wheelchair is made intentionally difficult, largely because the people running it want to make private insurance seem more attractive. This story is out of Arkansas, the same state that implemented work requirements and intentionally made the website needed for compliance with those requirements difficult to access. I very much doubt that the people running the show have an interest in doing more than the bare minimum for Quall.
Speaking of people, we can’t just lay this at the feet of corporations or government. There is a bias against power/power-assisted chairs. A lot of people believe that a good wheelchair will make users lazy. Those people are often the ones making the decisions on whether or not we get chairs that are suited for us. Luckily for Quall, he had someone in his corner.
However, not everyone is lucky
For every inspiration porn story like Brandon Quall’s, there are thousands more kids and adults (especially adults as Medicaid starts becoming less sympathetic once you turn 21) that don’t get their needs met. There are thousands of people who don’t have a best friend that is willing to buy them a chair. There are thousands of people who don’t have news producers who will make a story about their GoFundMe effort. There are thousands of disabled people who can’t get beyond the Human Resources gatekeepers and into the conventional job market and don’t have a rich relative who can invest in their business idea so they can become the next inspirational CEO you see on your Facebook feed. What of them?
Usually, those questions never get asked in the articles. None of the journalists ever ask why a teenager had to buy someone else a wheelchair. Nobody asks why the autistic person had to become a CEO of his own sock or trinket company (those are the most common businesses I see in the disabled person becomes CEO sub-genre of inspiration porn) because the allegedly “equal-opportunity employers” weren’t actually offering equal opportunity. Anyone who asks the obvious questions of any genre of porn (“Why does the on the clock pizza delivery guy have time for a sex scene?” “Why did a teenager have to buy his friend a wheelchair in the first place?”), you get branded a jerk.
Inspiration porn is a cudgel against the disabled
That’s the thing about inspiration porn. Much like regular pornography, it sets people up with unrealistic expectations. Porn stars have people (of varying degrees of morality) in their corner to make whatever it is they’re doing look good. Inspiration porn-stars have a rich relative, a good friend or a news producer in their corner. And much like porn, the standards become too unrealistic to the point of being harmful. Part of the backlash against Medicaid, the Americans with Disabilities Act, etc. comes from the fact that America is so inundated with stories of people “overcoming the odds.” The line of logic boils down to, “Disabled people can become CEO’s now! We don’t need disability rights laws anymore!”
Anyone who suggests removing some of those odds is a communist. Any struggling disabled person who doesn’t have rich contacts or family members in their corner to help sneak them behind the human resources gatekeepers or start their own business is said to be lazy and told to try harder. Stories like Quall’s and Wilson’s reinforce the Libertarian narrative that we don’t need things like Medicaid because the community will magically rise up. But the truth is, being the recipient of voluntary charity comes down to blind luck and nothing else.
And actually, that’s what almost all inspiration porn stories come down to. Quall was lucky to have gone to the school. If he went to any other local school, he wouldn’t have gotten that wheelchair. Being able to access your community shouldn’t be a matter of luck.