Ohhhh dear, this is not going to be a very popular post, I feel. So, at SummerSlam, Finn Balor became the first WWE Universal Champion. We later learned that, during the course of that match with Seth Rollins, Finn dislocated his right shoulder taking a turnbuckle powerbomb, and popped it back into place. Unfortunately, in an MRI, it was revealed that he had a torn labrum. At time of writing, he has just undergone surgery on the shoulder, and we hope that he’ll have a full recovery, and that his time off is as easy for him as it can be.
That said, there’s a couple of things that are rankling with me about Finn’s injury. Obviously, I’m not happy he’s hurt, and I can’t wait to see him back in four to six months, fighting fit and chasing the championship he was the first to hold. But the way in which he’s talked about his injury – already – in a video on WWE.com… was less than stellar. To say the least.
I guess maybe most people look at this and think – so? What’s so wrong with this statement? Well, firstly, Finn’s an able-bodied, healthy, physically fit guy, looking at a disabled man and using him as inspiration. Inspiration porn is a huge issue within the disabled community, and Stella Young, who coined the phrase, puts the term in much better perspective than I could in her TED talk on the matter. But the crux of the issue is that disabled people aren’t seen as real people, but as objects of inspiration. That’s what Finn Balor did with this man he met in the hallway of Good Morning America. Finn doesn’t tell us if he had a chat with the man, if they had a coffee, or if he just walked past him and thought ‘hey, maybe I’m lucky here!’ without speaking to him at all. If they did speak, did they talk about something other than the man’s missing arm? Or was Finn so overcome with inspiration at seeing this disabled person that he completely forgot that the word ‘person’ is in that phrase?
Disabled people exist as people, not as things to make able people feel better about themselves and their lives, and when Finn makes a statement like this, to be seen by millions of people, he’s telling them that it’s okay to treat disabled people in this way. Not outright, but nevertheless, he’s perpetuating the idea that seeing a disabled person should make the able person feel lucky to have the life the have, and inspired to push forward through the adversity they face.
As a disabed person myself, I take offence at this. The other side of inspiration porn is, frankly, pity. It’s hearing people say ‘I don’t know how you do it’ when, really, what other choice is there? What people are really saying, when they say those words, is ‘I don’t know why you’re still alive’. Some people will even outright say ‘I think I’d rather die than live like that’. And while that might seem insulting, whereas taking inspiration isn’t, actually, they’re two sides of the same coin. They both come from the idea that being disabled is a bad thing. They’re both methods that able people use to make themselves feel better about their lives. What these attitudes really say is ‘I’m glad I’m not disabled’. ‘I’m glad I’m not like you’.
I’m not trying to say that all of this consciously went through Finn Balor’s head when he said this. I’m not even trying to say that he necessarily came up with those words, perhaps they were scripted for him. But either way, seeing this touted on social media as if he’s said something amazing here, for seeing a man without an arm, and being glad his is ‘only injured’, is pretty offensive.
What’s also dangerous about this sort of thinking, is it perpetuates the idea that you can’t be unhappy if someone else has it worse than you. Not only is this patently untrue, and if it were the case, then no one could ever experience sadness ever again, but it’s an evil, evil mindset. This is the sort of thing used against people with depression all the time, this idea that you should just buck up because other people are in worse situations, and they’re still carrying on. It’s used when people want to quieten someone, when someone else’s sadness or grief is too much, and it’s used to shut them up. I can’t count the number of times when I was awaiting diagnosis, that my parents would, well-meaningly, send me articles about people dying of cancer winning marathons, in the hope that it would inspire me, and make me realise how lucky I was. But it didn’t help me find a diagnosis and an answer that would lead to treatment, it didn’t help my blood pressure equalise so that I could go for a walk (never mind running) – it didn’t actually help me in any way. All it did was make me feel more upset that they didn’t seem to understand how I was feeling.
It happens all the time, and I do so hate to single out the lovely Bayley, because I’m sure she’s a wonderful human being, and visiting kids in hospital, doing Make A Wish stuff – that’s all laudable, that’s all wonderful things to do. And she’s certainly not the only person on the roster to have made these comments – just the most recent ones I remembered seeing and could access. But looking at these children, and objectifying them as something to be inspired by, as brave… that’s not. These are, certainly, children who go through a lot of things that other children don’t have to, and it’s horribly sad to think of their shortened lifespans. But if what you take from meeting another human being is ‘I’m so inspired to live my life to the full, because I’m lucky to have it’, then you haven’t really met a human being. What you’ve done is condensed a person into a few buzzwords to help you push through your next workout.
As I’ve said, I’m not blaming wrestlers on this. I’m assuming most of them don’t spend a lot of time around disability activists, or disabled adults, and that they don’t know how this inspiration porn harms disabled people. I’m also assuming that they think being called brave or an inspiration is a compliment, and that they’re saying the right things. On that, WWE need better diversity and sensitivity training, but then, we all knew that, didn’t we?
So please, WWE, please, wrestlers, think about what you say when you talk about disabled, chronically and terminally ill people. Think about whether you’re viewing us as real people, just like you, or whether you’re seeing us as something to be inspired by. We want to be able to look at you and see strong, brilliant, clever, funny people, people who do amazing things and put on an incredible show for us, we want to see you be exceptional. But this attitude towards disability is outdated and offensive – and frankly, anything but inspiring.