Entertainment and Media

Are You Inspired by That Disabled Person or Shocked They Were Included?

Shock conveys many things. Usually, we use it to describe good surprises and breaks in our mundane lives that are eventually welcome. What often goes unsaid about it is that shocks break up routines and events with expected outcomes. Society rarely questions ableism and the barriers that prohibit disabled people from going after those things they are passionate about, so when a disabled person appears in a space not designed to include them, it can be a shock when they not only succeed but thrive in that environment.

That is exactly what happened when Kodi Lee, a contestant on America’s Got Talent graced the stage for his audition. Disabled viewers held their breath as the blind autistic man began to play over saccharine music and a story of inspiration and “overcoming” disability played out. The nail in the coffin was when he graced the stage and “aww’ed” at his presence. A chorus of voices infantilizing a skilled musician. He was not a talented amateur in his field, he wasn’t someone who had practiced countless hours and honed his craft, he was cute. He’s extremely talented. That’s not what’s in dispute. It’s the treatment, shock and inspiration porn that surrounded his story that made it seem like his talent was improbable. It’s our fault though. It was really on us for expecting his talent and background would be given dignity.

Gif of Kodi Lee saying "I'm ready into a microphone."

There are many talented disabled people, but rarely are they given the chance to reach the epitome of those talents. And, whether they’ve admitted it or not, many able-bodied people are complicit in their apathy surrounding lack of access and inclusion. Rather than questioning the structures in place that keep someone like Kodi Lee from being able to fully explore their talents and share them, they push forth and traffic in the myth that disability can be erased once a disabled person exhibits those skills. Terry Crews demonstrated this lie when he tweeted that we needed to remove the “Dis” from “ability.”

Disabled people don’t overcome their disability because they’ve presented their skills in a manner that is palatable to an audience. They jump through hoops around inaccessibility, bias, and ableism that goes unchecked and unquestioned leading to many more disabled people feeling repressed and ignored.

Likely the worst thing to come from Crews’ tweet is that he will be heralded as an ally of the disabled community–many with the same sentiment will be. Simply looking our way has positioned him as a friend of the community, but I have some serious doubts. I doubt that the next time he returns to the set of Brooklyn 99 he’ll wonder if it’s accessible to disabled performers. I doubt he’ll question where all of the disabled talents are in front of, and behind, the camera. I doubt that he will walk into his next audition or meeting with his agent and will look for an elevator or a script in Braille. I have doubts, but they’re also my disappointing expectations.

When abled people revel in their shock at the accomplishments of disabled people and turn it into inspiration porn, they are speaking to an internalized complicity in maintaining a lack of access for disabled artists and performers.

The question shouldn’t be why we don’t take the “dis” out of “disability,” but when will anyone be making space for another Kodi Lee?


  1. I wiuld have been jumping up and down in celebration of (1) all of the great talent he displayed so naturally and confidently, and (2) that this talent search show accepted him for who he was, and put him on the show for everyone to see. That he was so talented was icing on the cake! I loved his shot at shining on the show!! Bravo!

    1. I just want to point out that they didn’t actually ‘accept him for who he was,’ they took who he is and molded it into something ‘cute’ and ‘inspiring’ so that they could pretend that they care about disabled people.

  2. I am always happy for any inclusion. Relish each chance to shine. We can hone in on the negativity, but how is that helping our situation?

    1. Now here you’re actually doubling-down by including ANOTHER incredibly toxic aspect of ableism: the “stop being negative” argument. “Always focus on the positive” is a tool of oppression because it doesn’t boost people up, it quietly erases experiences because talking about them might disturb someone, and as a bonus it punishes those who dare to speak up about their own issues or struggles. Whereas the reality remains, if you don’t talk about the problems, the problems NEVER get fixed.

  3. Let me make this perfectly clear, he is a person, a young man, a child of God, before he is disabled or autistic. His identification is a man or a person first. He is not an autistic person or a blind person, but a person. As a parent Man who is a talented musician and also happens to be blind I have been very adamant about this forever. We do not use an adjective first to describe anybody you’re a man you’re a friend you were being. End of rant

    1. I respect your choices in how you choose to identify yourself in relation to your own disability. How you wish to be viewed by others and how you view yourself, and what language you use is entirely up to you. However, policing how others discuss or identify disability by suggesting that we remove it entirely and only focus on that someone is a person is a form of erasure for people who do strongly identify with their disability. How we talked about people, whether we say person with a disability or disabled person, etc., all of that comes down to respecting individuals and asking them how they prefer to identify. I have a blind friend who chooses to center his blindness directly as a fundamental aspect of his identity–that is his choice. I personally have qualifying conditions under ADA, but have never sought accommodations or identified as disabled because I view the impact of these conditions as recurring but minor impairments. There is no single “right way” to talk about disability in relation to all people with disabilities because people have preferences that should be respected. If someone chooses, within a particular context, to identify themselves using a disability-first adjective, that is their right. Just as it is your right to be adamant that you are a person first, and not an adjective.

    2. Shut the fuck up.

      I can’t walk properly and every step fucking hurts.

      I am disabled, that is something that is always on my mind. Fuck your colour blind, no labels, child of god bullshit.

      My experiences are real and you need to shut the fuck up and listen to them.

    3. Congratulations on not listening to the absolute DROVES of autistic adults who HATE this mentality.

      Autistic people and quite a lot of disabled people in general prefer you not totally ignore the largest parts of us. Because my autism flavors EVERYTHING I do. My spinal damage affects EVERYTHING I feel. My entire body is on fire for most of the day and that colors the entire world and everything in it.

      Do I want to be seen only as these things? No. But I am these things and I don’t want them erased by people who entirely ignore all of us who BEG you not to use “person first” bullshit. Listen. To. Disabled. People.
      That or shut the fuck up about us.

  4. It was like you wrote exactly what I was thinking. I was born disabled, and I will die disabled. Disability is not something to overcome, it’s something I live with. I don’t exist to inspire others…ugh I hate the whole inspiration crap.

    As an artist, I’m talented in drawing, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that it hurts me to hold a pencil.

    I hate that this is the only kind of representation we get in the media. People aren’t learning about disability, they are only trying to make themselves feel better with all the inspiration porn.

  5. I don’t understand how constantly talking about the issues disabled people face is going to change anything. We’ll all be in our 70’s before any progress is even made on our issues. You can complain about it all you want, but only a few will truly listen to what you have to say. I know it may cause a little ripple effect, but I doubt it’ll be big enough to cause change we so desperately need in this world. Unfortunately, I’m not the only disabled person who feels this way.

    I tried awareness, but felt drowned out by voices that were smarter than me on the subject. So maybe I’m just a little bitter. I’ve been told every voice is needed, but I don’t know.

  6. Look, I know this can be viewed as inspiration porn, but Kodi is talented. More than that, I would hate to get to the point where no Disabled Person wants to compete on AGT or the Voice. Terry Crews is a jerk. Gabrielle Union and the buzzer? Every contestant would like that. However, I think Simon Cowell will judge Kodi fairly.

  7. Anybody else have a problem with his mom pulling him along and posing him like a prize poodle?

    1. His mom was guiding him because he is blind. She didn’t make it about her. The judges did somewhat, but she didn’t.

  8. What also burns me out about the “inspiration porn” narrative is that we as disabled people are expected to sign on to its mindset with no complaints. People I know, even other disabled people, constantly talk of “celebrating” disability. Now, I understand their perspective. They want to celebrate it as an aspect of their identity, just as they would celebrate any other part of their identity. But for me, disability isn’t something to celebrate. I just wish that the societal forces that relentlessly mandate our forced cheeriness would understand that disability is a struggle. It’s something that makes my life concretely more difficult. I don’t “celebrate” disability because I don’t bring cake and balloons to a struggle. Disability is not a celebration and disabled people are not kittens or golden retrievers.

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