This is an excerpt from Sociocultural Issues in Sport and Physical Activity by Robert Pitter,David Andrews & Joshua Newman.
By Mollie M. Greenberg and Stephanie J. Cork
Discrimination is defined as prejudice against an individual. What comes to mind when we hear the term discrimination? Ideas of physical and educational barriers, political inequality, and prejudice and bigotry are just a few. Beyond the “what,” who we think of when we talk about discrimination is just as important. Jones (2000) created a framework for understanding how discrimination operates at three different levels of society:
- Institutional or structural: Differential access to goods, services, and opportunities of society
- Interpersonal or personally mediated: Prejudice and discrimination between people
- Internalized or individual: Acceptance of negative messages by members of the stigmatized group about their own skills and abilities
Jones’ theory helps us see how discrimination is not simple and isn’t just an action or outcome done to others, even though that’s the type of discrimination that we are usually most familiar with. This three-tiered framework shows how discrimination can also be internalized—that individuals can be so negatively stigmatized and stereotyped by others that they can end up stigmatizing themselves too. We can clearly see all parts of Jones’ (2000) theory at work when we look at the ways people with disabilities have been affected by discrimination.
Institutionalized Inequality and Ableism
Institutionalized discrimination is built on a history of exclusion. When we use the term institution we are referring to the overarching systems—such as medicine, law, government, education, and media—that are tasked with defining and transmitting certain social norms. These norms are the characteristics and behaviors that members of a society are taught to be right, correct, or best, and are what allow a society to institute certain things as traditional or standard. It is the norms set by these institutions that enables institutionalized inequality to happen and discrimination to result.
Earlier in the chapter we explored how eugenics perpetuated dangerous and violent assumptions about the disability community. This goal to eliminate or separate disability from the “healthy” population has transformed into institutionalized inequality in many forms. This inequality can be seen in the presence of physical barriers, such as the lack of ramps or elevators in a public building. However, not all institutional discrimination is physical or simple. Institutional discrimination can take the form of a governmental policy that disadvantages workers who happen to have disabilities or an educational directive that separates disabled students from those without disabilities. From an athletics perspective, institutional discrimination is illustrated by the historical belief that people with disabilities are incapable of sport participation. The deliberate exclusion from these spaces has had many consequences over time, including greater health disparities in this population that continue to this day.
Institutional discrimination does not have to be, and often is not, purposefully unfair or perpetrated consciously. This is by design. As we discussed earlier, social constructions make up a large part of how we experience the world and choose to interact with each other within it. Social constructions like language and the way we use it, or the behaviors, characteristics, and bodies we are taught to view as normal or abnormal (and as conforming or deviant), greatly inform the attitudes and opinions we form about ourselves and others. Because these influences are everywhere all the time, we are often unaware they are at play and generally unaware of the effect they have on our thoughts and behaviors. Implicit discrimination occurs when the attitude or behavior of institutions, groups, or individuals is affected by prejudice without conscious thought or choice.
Though these influences are often positive, they can just as often be negative. Negative socialization results not only in institutional discrimination, but other forms as well. This includes interpersonal discrimination, prejudice and stereotyping, and even internalized discrimination. When discrimination resulting in prejudice is leveled at individuals with disabilities, this is called ableism. Like other forms of discrimination based on group membership (racism, sexism, nativism, etc.), ableism is discrimination and prejudice toward an individual with a disability solely on the basis of that disability. In popular culture, ableism is most often depicted as something done to a person with a disability by an institution or nondisabled person. However, as we are all subject to the same social constructions, so too are we all susceptible to their influence. This even includes the marginalized groups at whom discrimination is directed. When individuals with disabilities are influenced by the same constructions and stereotypes surrounding disability, this is called internalized ableism.
Social Consequences of Ableism
Interpersonal or personally mediated discrimination is a form of exclusion that most individuals can identify. We know it is wrong to talk about individuals with disabilities as abnormal or deviant. We also know that intentional discriminatory behaviors such as slurs, hate speech, and violence are unacceptable within contemporary society. However, we sometimes unintentionally behave in ableist ways. By creating spaces, events, or scenarios that exclude the disability community—or only include these individuals in scenarios where the disabled–nondisabled hierarchy is still in effect, such as specific events meant to cater to those with disabilities—we exacerbate historical and contemporary inequity. This selective exclusion also leads to traditional assumptions about individuals with disabilities centered on pity.
Continued exposure to structural and interpersonal forms of discrimination also has impacts on individual bodies and health outcomes. Once you hear that you are not worthy or valuable, this message becomes internalized into your own sense of self. Negative health outcomes and shame are just some effects that internalized ableism can have on individuals with disabilities. In addition, internalizing ableist ideas about what it means to have a “normal” or functioning body can also lead to people with disabilities feeling ostracized from society at large. Self-ostracizing can then strengthen ableist ideas that the distinction between disabled and nondisabled bodies is right and natural, which allows for discrimination against individuals to remain largely unchecked and unchanged.
Inspiration Porn and the Rise of the Supercrip
To this point, we’ve mostly focused on the consequences of inequality and ableism as they relate to the stereotype of disability as a horror and of people with disabilities as burdens who should receive pity, when they receive any social attention at all. What happens, however, when people with disabilities aren’t viewed as pitiful, but as inspirational? As extraordinary? Would these labels be considered positive? Or are they just as stereotypical? This view of people with disabilities as extraordinary is often referred to as inspiration porn (Young, 2014).
Inspiration porn, a term coined by the late activist Stella Young, is connected to the stereotype around disability that people with disabilities are not pitiable but extraordinary. In this view, disabled individuals are painted as heroic. But they aren’t usually given this label for doing anything particularly selfless or above and beyond the average person. Instead, people with disabilities are seen as inspirational for doing things that in any other situation would likely be seen as rather ordinary. This includes things like going to school, completing daily chores by themselves, or even having friendships or relationships with nondisabled people. The “porn” part of inspiration porn refers to images, videos, and other media that are used to illustrate how “inspirational” disabled individuals are.
Viewing people with disabilities as inspirational is usually illustrated as better than outwardly expressing distaste or pity for these individuals. We are often socialized to believe that looking at disabled people as inspirational is a positive thing. But, if we look a little closer at the two viewpoints, we can see that they aren’t actually very different at all. Earlier in the chapter, we discussed how the medical model of disability reinforces the idea that disabled bodies are in some way abnormal and different from “regular” bodies. That same separation between which types of bodies, and which types of people, are normal and not normal happens when we see people with disabilities as inspirational. Even though viewing disabled people as inspirational or extraordinary can seem more positive than viewing them as outwardly bad or strange compared to nondisabled people, the outcome is actually very similar. Both viewpoints categorize people with disabilities as inherently different than people without disabilities.
Another danger of viewing people with disabilities as inspirational is that it negatively affects not only people with disabilities but also people who are considered able-bodied. Inspiration porn is most often put out in the world by nondisabled people, and nondisabled people are also the target audience. These images or videos of disabled people just living everyday lives are meant to teach able-bodied people to “do better,” that if a person with a disability can succeed in a world not always built for them, then able-bodied people should be succeeding as well. If they are succeeding in the world, inspiration porn usually serves as a heart-warming spectacle. If they are not succeeding, however, inspirational images or media of people with disabilities are more of a warning that shames the able-bodied person (“If they can do it, why can’t you?”). In either situation, the disabled person or people in the “inspirational” image or video are largely forgotten about.
Similar to ideas of the disabled body being used as an example of the pitiful and the extraordinary for the benefit of the nondisabled viewer, the rise of the supercrip archetype purposefully pushes these stereotypes beyond what we think of as normal (and therefore as right, justified, and desirable). The term, coined by theorist Ronald Berger (2008), is a specific expression of how disabled identity is pushed aside and replaced with inspirational tropes, not only purposefully as is Young’s inspiration porn, but in a narrative formula. Unlike general inspiration porn, which is routinely applied to individuals with disabilities regardless of perceived health and vitality, the narrative of the supercrip most readily apparent to explain the presence and success of athletes with disabilities (DePauw, 1997; Howe, 2011; Peers, 2009) Disabled athletes are said to “overcome” their limitations and succeed “despite” their perceived flaws. Therefore, it is important to think through why we are celebrating a disabled person’s achievement. Are we recognizing them for their skills, or only valorizing their achievements because of their disability? Knowing about these stereotypes can help us debunk the myths that surround disabled sport and physical culture, and can help us built more inclusive sporting spaces.