The use of disabled people as ‘inspiration’ is terribly dated
Platform: Tokenism is an empty gesture that alludes to equality rather than practising it
Louise Bruton: tokenism is a cop-out. Photograph: Aidan Crawley
Having written about my disability publicly for the guts of nine years, I’ve come to learn that, under the guise of inclusivity, there’s also tokenism and the act of being taken advantage of in the media, creating a misguided perception of disabled people that then feeds into our daily life.
Without representation and visibility of disabled people in the media, our story can be skewed and spliced, edited to fit in with a pre-existing narrative decided by someone else.
Representation and visibility are key elements for minorities to feel they’ve been heard – to feel like they matter – and that’s what this Platform column series is for.
Written by different people with different disabilities, and all from very different backgrounds, every week we hear a new perspective, whether it’s a topic we already know about or something that has never entered our heads before. To change minds and to make the world more habitable for people living with disabilities, you need to hear directly from disabled people.
I was recently contacted by the producer of a forthcoming fashion television series asking if I’d like to take part. They were looking for “three members of the public who are struggling to assert their sense of style” and they suggested that my disability – alongside suggestions that other participants would be “gender non-conforming, have a body shape outside of “the norm” or be in recovery from surgery – was the reason I could take part.
Don’t insult me
Brushing the slight insult that I’m struggling with my personal style aside – how very dare you – the premise for this series places disabled people precisely into the category of struggling. While the finished product of this series may be completely different to their producer’s original pitch, I said no to taking part and suggested they change their pitch to finding members of society that struggle with the limitations imposed by the fashion industry instead. But my biggest takeaway from this pitch is that the use of disabled people as a point of inspiration feels reductive and terribly dated.
Of course, there are very valuable insights to be given around the fashion industry as it excludes almost everyone who isn’t a Kate Moss or a Hadid. However, narrowing in on disabled people and deciding that we are struggling has the whiff of a pre-planned, feel-good narrative designed for the gaze of non-disabled people.
A new wave of inspiration culture is being beamed at us all across our social media feeds, where self-styled life gurus dole out life hacks on Instagram, using inane captions such as “She could so she did” to send a chill of possibility down the reader’s spine, and we watch influencers become nutritionists overnight, releasing diet books just ahead of the Christmas shopping rush.
Inspiration is big business, and disabled people are often used as a means to tell you that you can do anything if you put your mind to it, or, to use that well-versed line, “their disability doesn’t hold them back from living life”. The language we use to describe disabled people in these situations places an ableist perspective on our lives, removing our narrative altogether and cutting us out of the conversation.
If inclusivity is part of your plan for a project, a TV series or a campaign, do not push for a feel-good story at our expense, because that is when inclusivity becomes tokenism.
Tokenism does not push boundaries nor does it give us the freedom to lead the conversation or even change it.
Tokenism is a cop-out, an empty gesture that alludes to equality rather than practising it.
If we want to see real change in the representation of disabled people in the media, our voices need to be front and centre and not some feel-good trope. Let us lead the narrative because to really make change. The inspiration needs to be more than just fluff; it needs to be fully charged.