TW: ableism and inspiration porn
Ahead of the new series of Love Island returning to our screens tomorrow, the line up was announced last week. It’s supposedly their “most diverse” cast to date, including the show’s first physically disabled contestant, PE teacher Hugo Hammond from Hampshire, who has played disability cricket for England.
The 24-year-old was born with clubfoot, a condition that affects the muscles and bones in the foot, causing it to twist downwards and inwards instead of being straight. Following a number of operations as a child, he explains, “You can only really tell when I walk barefoot. I’ve got a really short Achilles… I walk slightly on my tip toes.”
Hammond’s inclusion on the Love Island line-up appears to be a progressive move for the show, which has previously faced criticism for its lack of diversity. And, increased disabled representation on reality TV has the potential to be truly monumental in normalising disabilities in our society.
However, reactions both from the media and online have exposed deep-rooted ableism that won’t let it.
Following the announcement that Hammond would be joining the cast, The Mirror called him “inspirational” for no discernible reason other than the fact that he’s a disabled athlete. And, Radio Times reported that he is “inspiring the next generation of athletes.”
On the surface, these comments seem perfectly complimentary. However, they play straight into the concept of “inspiration porn,” where people with disabilities are portrayed as inspirational solely or in parts due to their disability. It places us on a pedestal for simply existing and doing “normal” things because the ableist society we live in automatically assumes that we’re incapable.
Almost every disabled person has experienced inspiration porn. Earlier this year, I applied for a part-time job at my local supermarket. During the interview, I mentioned to the hiring manager that I have CFS/ME, explaining that I am unable to stand for long periods of time and would therefore be better suited to roles where I’d primarily be seated. Immediately following this, she told me how brave I was for applying.
It was incredibly grating; particularly given the fact I have over three years of experience working in similar positions.
Disabled people shouldn’t be seen as brave or inspirational simply for existing outside of the limited expectations our ableist society places on us.
Hugo’s sporting achievements are admirable — representing your country in sport is no small feat. But would we still be calling him inspirational if he were able-bodied? Former athletes on the show like basketball player, Ovie Soko and Irish rugby union player, Greg O’Shea certainly didn’t receive the same attention.
Social media posts about Hammond have had similarly ableist undertones. One tweet, which has since been deleted, read, “Good for him,” as though an attractive young man with a six-pack is really putting himself out there by going on a dating show.
Comparably, Channel 4’s The Undateables positions people with disabilities as inspirational for not letting the so-called burdens of being disabled stop them from going out and finding love. That’s not to say disabled people can’t be inspirations, but it’s incredibly patronising to call us one for simply doing the same things as everybody else.
On top of this, I can’t help but feel that Hammond is an awfully convenient choice for ITV. The nature of his disability allows them to present Love Island as being diverse without the need to offer him any additional support or accommodations.
With his dashing good looks and sporting achievements, he’s disability wrapped up in a pretty inspiration porn-worthy package, which the media has traditionally lapped up whilst simultaneously ignoring the real issues faced by people with disabilities.
Media outlets have faced criticism for referring to Hammond as the first disabled islander, failing to mention Niall Aslam, a 2018 contestant with Asperger’s Syndrome.
Nine days into his Love Island experience, Niall left the villa for medical reasons and was checked into a psychiatric hospital after developing stress-induced psychosis. He later cited insufficient support from the show as a cause.
Following The Sun reporting that Hammond would be the “first-ever disabled contestant,” Niall wrote on Instagram, “I’m used to people minimising what happened to me but let’s not act like I don’t exist.”
Ignoring experiences like Niall’s in favour of prettier, less confronting depictions of disability is incredibly harmful. For one, it reduces disabled peoples’ existence to something to make people feel good.
It ties our worth to our ability to overcome the “burdens” of our disabilities and achieve great things in spite of them, leaving us feeling as though we must be exceptional in order to be deemed worthy.
Normalising disabilities is critical and a TV show as popular as Love Island could have been the perfect platform to do so. But the media has already made Hugo Hammond into a source of inspiration porn and, unfortunately, this will only work to fuel the ableist attitudes society already holds.
To make a real difference, TV needs to truthfully reflect the realities of having a disability, warts and all. We deserve an inclusive space that doesn’t reduce us to tokens, included to make able-bodied people feel warm and fuzzy.
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