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Laura Stinson Pushes Back on Inspiration Porn with ‘Bad Attitudes’ Podcast

A different type of disability advocacy

a selfie taken by Laura Stinson, creator and host of the podcast "Bad Attitudes"
Laura Stinson (Photo by Laura Stinson)

“The only disability in life is a bad attitude.”

Laura Stinson calls bullshit. 

The artist and host of Bad Attitudes: An Uninspiring Podcast About Disability, isn’t having any of that faux inspirational crap. 

Stinson points out that, having been a wheelchair user for nearly all her life, she could have such a good attitude that she “sprouts a unicorn horn” from her forehead, but it’s still not going to get her up a flight of stairs.

Stinson was born with osteogenesis imperfecta (OI), also known as brittle bone disease, a genetic disease that has required the use of a wheelchair since she was 4 years old.

Stinson’s interest in educating people about disability started in sixth grade. She and a friend, another wheelchair user, visited classrooms in the younger grades to teach them what it meant to be disabled.

Her passion for educating people on the topic stayed with her into adulthood; she published a monthly column in the Charlotte Observer for a year after college, launched her own podcast in June 2021 and in September 2023, was invited to lead a TEDx Talks presentation at her alma mater, Wingate University. 

On March 25, Stinson released the 100th episode of Bad Attitudes: An Uninspiring Podcast About Disability, then during that presentation, titled “Simple Steps to Better Disabled Allyship,” she detailed three practices that non-disabled people can take to better align themselves with the disabled community. The three practices have become tentpoles in her continued effort to educate non-disabled people about disability: eliminate inspiration porn, don’t treat disabled as a dirty word, and listen to disabled people.

Debunking inspiration porn

When Stinson was growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, representation for disabled people like herself was rare. Things haven’t changed much since then, she says, at least not in a way that she’d like to see it change. What she’s seen instead is how social media has perpetuated a singular image of disabled people through what is ostensibly motivational content showing people somehow defying or overcoming their disabilities by completing otherwise normal tasks or accomplishments such as finishing a 5K or graduating college. Stinson and others call this content “inspiration porn.” 

The late Australian comedian and journalist Stella Young coined the term “inspiration porn” in her 2014 Ted Talk, titled “I’m Not Your Inspiration, Thank You Very Much.” Young was also a wheelchair user due to her OI diagnosis.

Young said she was deliberate in using the word porn “because [the images] objectify one group of people for the benefit of another group of people.” 

She insited that the point of inspiration porn was not to spotlight disabled people but to lift the spirits of non-disabled people up by allowing them to compare their lives to disabled people and think, “No matter how bad my life is, at least I’m not disabled.”

a portrait of Stinson on stage with a large screen reading Tedx Wingate University in the background
Stinson rehearses for her Tedx Talk at Wingate University. (Photo by Jonathan Bradshaw)

You’ve seen inspiration porn, you may have even shared it at some point. A video of a bride rising out of her wheelchair to take a few steps down the aisle, a child hearing their parent’s voices for the first time through a cochlear implant, an image of a smiling runner with prosthetic legs.

When made into easily consumable and sharable meme form, this content is often accompanied by quotes like “Your excuses are invalid” or the aforementioned inspirational quote, infamous in disability circles: “The only disability in life is a bad attitude.” The latter did end up inspiring Stinson in the end, as it inspired the name of her podcast. 

“This quote perpetuates the idea that the limits of our bodies, whether or not we’re disabled, are fictional or self-imposed and if we just work hard enough — potentially causing ourselves untold damage or pain along the way — everything will be just fine,” she said in the pilot episode of her podcast. “What is the point in killing ourselves to reach some arbitrary goal that was probably imposed by someone else in the first place?”

She said she has always hated the way this content overlooks the humanity of disabled people in favor of focusing on the disability. 

In March, when Queen City Nerve spoke to Charlotte resident Cat Williams, a lifelong cystic fibrosis patient who in 2021 received a double lung transplant, she said she had turned down other interview requests during her recovery because she didn’t feel she could live up to the expectations that inspiration porn had established for people like herself. The only stories she saw showed those who were running marathons or climbing mountains. 

“I think people are really shocked when they find out that I still have a lot of medical problems and still have a lot of kind of disabling things that I’m dealing with,” Williams told us after agreeing to tell her story on the record. “I feel like a lot of times they get kind of disappointed, like, ‘Oh, really?’” 

She went on to explain why she sometimes feels uncomfortable when people call her experience inspiring. 

“You go through what life hands you; life handed me cystic fibrosis, and I just kind of had to deal with it,” she said. “It’s just sort of awkward feeling sometimes when people are like, ‘Oh, you’re such an inspiration,’ and I think, am I? I’m not curing cancer.” 

Experiences like those are one reason why Stinson says she isn’t out to inspire anyone with her podcast. 

“I don’t want to inspire people because I’m disabled,” she said. “If you want to be inspired by something I actually do and accomplish, great, but don’t associate it with my disability.”

The complexities of disability

Stinson prefaces every one of her 111 podcast episode with a simple but necessary message: Disabled people are not a monolith.  

Growing up with no disability representation, Stinson’s only reference point for disability was her own lived experience.

“[The podcast has] really been a journey for me learning about what it means to be disabled in a way that’s different from the way I’m disabled,” she said.

Stinson recognizes that she experiences things from one point of view — a white, heterosexual, cisgender point of view — and she recognizes that a queer disabled person or disabled person of color may have some overlapping experiences in certain circumstances while living wildly different experiences in many other ways.

“I am one voice for the disabled community, but I am definitely not the only voice,” she says to begin her podcast.

Stinson uses her gallows sense of humor and strong language to discuss contentious topics like ableism, what constitutes a disability, and the history of disability in America and elsewhere. This can be offputting to some, but again, it’s her lens and her voice. 

“If you’re not pissing somebody off, you’re not doing it right,” she said.

Stinson’s childhood friend Jonathan Bradshaw made an appearance as her first podcast guest to discuss whether or not his colorectal cancer journey and stoma classified him as disabled. 

Despite her empathy, Bradshaw didn’t direct any pity toward him during the interview; it was simply a matter-of-fact conversation about disability.

In episode 10, one of Stinson’s personal favorites, she recounts an unpleasant Facebook interaction with a trans woman who claimed the name “Disability Pride” was an appropriation of the term “Pride” as it refers to the LGBTQ+ community.

The woman said disabled people do not have a hard-fought or earned history that would allow them the right to use “pride.” 

Stinson detailed the long history of violence and oppression toward the disabled community that still permeates society today. 

Many landmark disability rights acts were introduced within the last 50 years, including the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 that prohibited discrimination based on disability, or the Disability Integration Act, which allows disabled people the right to choose to live at home rather than being forced into institutions. That act was introduced in 2019 and has still not passed.

Forced sterilization of disabled people is still legal in 31 states plus Washington DC, according to the National Women’s Law Center. 

A report published by disability organization the Ruderman Family Foundation found disabled people make up between one third to half of people killed by law enforcement.

Millions of disabled adults still cannot attain marriage equality in the US without risking their access to vital health care, community supports and other disability benefits.

Laura Stinson in the process of recording for ‘Bad Attitudes: An Uninspiring Podcast About Disability.” (Photo by Laura Stinson)

Disability rights are often left out of conversations, even within other marginalized groups, something Stinson finds ironic, as she believes the disability community is the only group where all other identities intersect.

It’s also the only marginalized group to which you may not belong today but may very well belong tomorrow, Stinson said. 

No one’s invincible 

There is a common perception that disability is tragic no matter the circumstances.

Stinson stressed that disability is value neutral; it’s not good or bad, it’s just another way people exist.

“There can be tragic circumstances around disability, especially for people who acquire a disability through an accident or an illness, but just disability on its own is not tragic and it’s not sacrosanct,” she said.

Stinson doesn’t shy away from finding humor in her trauma or using sarcastic remarks because it gives people a different perspective on what it is to be disabled.

“I think in some ways it helps people, because they realize if she can laugh about it, maybe it’s not what I thought it was,” she said.

In her TEDx Talk, Stinson pointed out that everyone is one illness, injury, misstep or twist of fate away from disability, which is why she doesn’t say someone is not disabled, she says they’re not disabled yet. 

She’s not trying to strike fear, she insists, just to point out that, whether by happenstance or age or some other way, disability is likely to catch up to you at some point.

“Seeing as how some of you are all but guaranteed to join our illustrious ranks, shouldn’t you be doing everything in your power to ensure the disabled community is given the respect it deserves?” she said in the TEDx Talk. 

a portrait of Stinson on stage while practicing for her public speech at Wingate University
Stinson rehearses for her Tedx Talk (Photo by Jonathan Bradshaw)

In response to her candid Observer columns, readers would often call Stinson “bitter” or some iteration of the word simply for presenting issues that the disabled community faces before a non-disabled audience.

There’s a popular misconception that all disabled people are always happy and cherubic, Stinson said. If they’re not happy, then that must mean they aren’t grateful for the crumbs of accessibility they’ve been given.

But, disabled people are just that: people. They have bad days and don’t always present as child-like and subservient. 

“[Stinson’s] bad attitude honestly defines her more than her disability for me,” Bradshaw joked. “Because she is who she is, regardless of how she gets around or how the world forces her to get around.”

Why the word ‘disabled’ matters

Stinson dedicated two episodes of the podcast to talk solely about the word “disabled” and why non-disabled people will go out of their way not to use it.

She said the perceived negative connotation society has tied to the word and the people it refers to is what inspires this aversion to the word itself. 

“A big problem is that a lot of non-disabled people are very uncomfortable with the idea of disability in general, whether it’s from a lack of exposure to disabled people, a negative past experience or something else entirely,” she said. “So they come up with these euphemisms to make disability more palatable to them.”

Ableist slurs like spaz, cripple or gimp are completely unacceptable for non-disabled people to use, but terms like “differently abled,” “special needs” or “handicapable” are still used despite disabled people’s objections.

“In many cases, the language used is just a symbol of the way the disabled minority has been oppressed by the non-disabled majority,” she said on the podcast. “Language has been used to infantilize us, dismiss us, and abuse us.” 

Stinson especially hates the word “handicapped,” though it is still in common usage among non-disabled people — in reference to parking spots reserved for disabled people in just about every lot in America, for example.  

The different origins of the word “handicapped” associate disability with begging in the street (handy with a cap) or making a contest more equitable by imposing an impediment to one player, Stinson pointed out.

Bradshaw used the word a few times during his interview, which Stinson promptly shut down. 

He quickly corrected himself and thanked her for pointing it out, but not everyone responds that way.

cover art for Stinson's podcast with a black and white photo and pastel blue words on top
Bad Attitudes Podcast by Laura Stinson.

Stinson’s hatred for the word is fueled by people arguing with her that they know what disabled people want simply because they work with disabled people or took a class on sensitivity.

“But none of that trumps the lived experience of a disabled person,” she said.

That is why the most important step to becoming a better ally is to listen to disabled people, Stinson said. 

As Bradshaw put it, disabled people are their own best allies.

And yet disabled people can find themselves in situations where their voices go unheard and have to rely on non-disabled allyship. 

So Bradshaw encouraged non-disabled people not to be afraid to keep a bad attitude when it comes to ableist actions. 

Bradshaw told Queen City Nerve about an incident in a Target parking lot where Stinson’s mom parked directly behind someone illegally using the disabled parking space.

“That’s another way to be an ally: Don’t tolerate others not respecting the rules and accommodations,” Bradshaw said.

“And when we share our stories and experiences, listen. When we tell you something is unjust, listen. When we point out ableism, listen,” Stinson said.

It goes back to the fallacy of disability equaling tragedy, she said. 

When society stops believing that and representation of disabled people increases in quality and quantity, people will slowly become more comfortable around using the word “disabled” and viewing the people associated with it as people.

“A non-disabled person, even one who cares for or loves someone disabled, can never fully understand the experience of being disabled,” she said. “So listen to us, and believe us.”

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