In February 2016, Mika Bartosik, a Florida cheerleader, asked her autistic classmate Jonathan Ramilo to their senior prom. The video of her “promposal”–featuring a giant cookie with “Will you go to the prom with me?” written on it–went viral. I cried at Jonathan’s reaction–the irrepressible joy and excitement that bounced him around the room. But many disability advocates are downright angered by these stories, dismissing them as “inspiration porn.”

What, exactly, is inspiration porn? The definition seems to have shifted since the phrase was coined by Australian disability rights activist and comedienne Stella Young in 2012. According to Young, “Inspiration porn is an image of a person with a disability, often a kid, doing something completely ordinary–like playing, or talking, or running–carrying a caption like ‘your excuse is invalid’… It’s there so that non-disabled people can put their worries into perspective… It’s there so that non-disabled people can look at us and think ‘Well, it could be worse… I could be that person.’”

Today, inspiration porn is more likely to refer to viral videos, like the one of Mika and Jonathan, that showcase a non-disabled person doing something nice for a disabled person. Other recent examples include the high school wrestler from Massachusetts who gave up his perfect season to an opponent with Down Syndrome, and the severely autistic students elected Homecoming King and Queen of their Indiana school. Autistic self-advocate Kit Mead argues that inspiration porn portrays people with disabilities as “other–less than human, or a lower level of human. Because we are other, acts of kindness toward us seem newsworthy.”

I think Mead is missing the point. Acts of kindness–significant gestures that reflect thought, consideration and concern–are newsworthy, period. It doesn’t matter whether one of the parties is disabled or not. Take the story of the Alabama college student who mowed the lawns of the elderly in his neighborhood for free. Or the African American young man from New York who brought Starbucks treats to white police officers. Or the employee of a Georgia Wal-Mart who literally gave the shoes off his feet to a homeless man. Or the members of a football team from a California high school, who each dropped an orange rose at the feet of a cheerleader suffering from leukemia. I was even moved reading about the thousands of dollars North Carolina democrats raised to re-open a Republican headquarters that was recently firebombed. I’m a sucker for human connection–and I really believe that is what people are responding to when they click and share these videos, not the objectification of the disabled… and the elderly… and police officers?... and cancer-stricken cheerleaders?

Activist David Perry contends, “There’s nothing real about these stories”–at least, the ones involving the disabled. He worries that they distract us from the real needs of the disability community, including “better policy, changing norms and real conversations about key issues. Inspiration porn makes us feel that everything is going to be OK.”

A huge focus of my own writing and advocacy has been just how not OK life is for the severely autistic and their families. I would never argue that one cheerleader asking one autistic teen to the prom is the answer to the myriad of issues facing this population, including the appalling lack of vocational and residential supports this same young man will doubtlessly face when he graduates. But that joyous moment between Mika and Jonathan is real, just as real as the tragedies that similarly pop up in my Facebook feed: the autistic boy who was hit by a car and killed in California after eloping from his home; or the baby with Down syndrome abandoned by his Australian parents. The media doesn’t have to choose between attending to one type of story over the other, nor should it. These narratives inform each other: as we fight to stop neglect and abuse and to increase support and opportunity, we need to celebrate these tantalizing glimpses of what a compassionate and inclusive society would really look like. That’s why it’s called inspiration porn, because these stories inspire us: to wake up, to reach out, to bridge gaps, and to generally look for ways to increase the level of happiness in the world. In this era of so much hateful rhetoric, I for one can use all the inspiration I can get.

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