Miracle memes and inspiration porn: Internet viral images demean disabled people.

Too Many Celebrities Are Using Social Media to Mock People With Disabilities

Too Many Celebrities Are Using Social Media to Mock People With Disabilities

Health and medicine explained.
Aug. 13 2014 12:58 PM

Despicable Memes

How “miracle” jokes and inspiration porn demean disabled people.


There is an Internet meme I despise. It is a photograph of a woman struggling out of her wheelchair to fetch a bottle from a liquor store shelf. It always appears with a caption calling this a “miracle” and it always attracts a slew of “LMAO!!!!” comments about disabled people “faking” our disabilities. Able-bodied people assure me it’s hilarious.

I despise it for two key reasons. First, many people who use wheelchairs can stand and walk short distances. Second, we are allowed to drink alcohol, and to shop for ourselves, just like any other adult.

The “miracle” meme has been around for a while—long enough to be infamous among those of us who use wheelchairs—but George Takei recently shared the photo several times with his colossal social media audience, and that brought it unprecedented exposure. One response Takei received sums up many responses to the meme. In fact, it sums up the reason it is a meme at all. Someone with the Twitter handle @Andy00778. wrote that the picture shows how “much fraud there is today,” adding “Hope insurance company see it!”


The picture does not show fraud. What it shows is a disabled person using a tool—her wheelchair—to live independently. If any judgement is to be made about the photo at all, it should be celebrated for showing that independence.

We do not know what disability, illness, or injury the woman in the picture has. She may have a long-term illness like mine, which greatly restricts my movement but leaves me able to walk and stand for brief periods. She may have multiple sclerosis. She may be recovering from surgery. She may have a degenerative condition that will eventually kill her, such as Lou Gehrig’s disease, and so she may be exercising her ability to shop for herself for one of the last times in her life. Or she may simply want a drink.

We do know, however, that no miracle has occurred and, in fact, that nothing remarkable has happened at all. This woman reaching for a bottle is something we should never have seen, because disabled people are not freaks to be photographed without our consent for the purpose of Internet LOLZ.

Observation has taught me that whenever a woman talks online about the difficulties of being a woman, a man will emerge to tell her why she is wrong. Experience has taught me that whenever a disabled person talks online about the difficulties of being disabled, an able-bodied person will emerge to explain why they are wrong too.


Since I tweeted my distaste for the “miracle” meme, several able-bodied people have helpfully explained to me why it is, in fact, funny. One explained that it’s a joke and that jokes work because they show us something counter to our expectations. But watching someone stand up from a wheelchair is only counter to our expectations if our expectations are based on an ignorant and ultimately bigoted understanding of what disability is and what wheelchairs do.

All of us who use wheelchairs do so to grant us a range of mobility our physical difficulties deny us. Many disabled people use wheelchairs because they could not move, or even sit upright, without them. But many of us use them as an aid that takes up the slack of our unusually limited bodies. They are a means of transport that allow us to get farther than our front doors. They set us free.

The “miracle” meme plays on the belief that people with legitimate disabilities must be both passive and paralyzed. But this is absurd. You should be no more shocked that someone who uses a wheelchair is not paralyzed than you would be that someone who takes off glasses is not suddenly blind.

The kicker in the meme, the part that really makes people ROFL, is that the woman is reaching for a bottle of booze, not something wholesome such as milk or bread. The sight of her shopping for alcohol is counter to the belief that disabled people can never be wholly adult or wholly human, and that any one of us who enjoys an adult pleasure, or pleasure of any kind, must in some way be a fake.


I don’t seek to unduly demonize George Takei. He did not make the meme, and the first time he posted it I wasn’t even angry at him, only disappointed that the photo was in circulation again and irritated it had received such a powerful signal boost. We all repost things without really examining their implications. I am an inveterate sharer of Internet nonsense and I am sure I have shared something someone else has not liked. But if I posted something that promoted negative stereotypes of an entire community, and that upset hundreds or even thousands of its members, I hope I would apologize and remove the post, or at least explain why I stood by it.

When Takei posted the awful “it’s a miracle!” meme on his Facebook page, where it was shared tens of thousands of times, there was an outcry in the comments. Many disabled people expressed how disgusted they are with the meme and how disgusted they were with Takei for posting it. As is the way of the Web, some were angry and some were abusive, but many just politely explained why they’d like Takei to delete a post that propagates prejudices that make their lives—which are, by nature, more difficult than those of others—even more difficult than they need to be. 

But Takei did not apologize. He did not remove the meme from his page or even justify why it was there. Instead he posted this statement:

Fans get “offended” from time to time by my posts. There hardly is a day where something I put up doesn’t engender controversy. Concerned fans, worried the sky may fall, ask me to “take it down.” 

So I’m also going to ask them also to take it down—a notch, please.

He then posted the meme again on Twitter and Tumblr. This is when I became angry with Takei (or whoever ghostwrites his social media feeds) rather than simply with the meme.

George Takei has often fought against prejudice. He is openly gay and for years has campaigned against bigotry toward LGBTQ people. He is an American of Japanese descent, and, during World War II, the prejudice against his family was so great they were forced into an internment camp. He knows what it is to be looked upon with dehumanizing suspicion by fellow citizens simply for going about his daily business.

I would not equate the discrimination I face as a disabled person with the discrimination Takei has endured, but someone who has been the victim of bigotry so severe that he was confined to a camp simply because of his ethnicity should be more sensitive to the dangers of turning members of a disadvantaged minority into human punch lines. And this is particularly true when that person is a celebrity with an attentive audience of millions. With great social media power comes great social responsibility. Update, Aug. 14, 2014: George Takei has apologized.

This is a lesson others beside Takei need to learn. Too many celebrities are using social media to mock people with disabilities. In December, a girl stood up from her wheelchair to have her photograph taken with the actor Nathan Fillion. Apparently, this was amazing enough to warrant a tweet about it from Fillion, who clearly found it funny.


Perhaps the girl wanted to look her best in a photograph with her hero and heartthrob. Perhaps she is embarrassed by her wheelchair. Perhaps it makes her feel ugly. And perhaps she feels that way partly because of the harmful ignorance fostered by social media posts that casually demean the disabled. 

In April, Shaquille O’Neal posted an Instagram picture of himself distorting his face into a grotesque impression of a man he thought to be comically ugly, with the caption “smile today.” The man, Jahmel Binion, has hypohidrotic ectodermal dysplasia, which can cause facial deformities, and he is now suing O’Neal for the distress that resulted from the picture going viral.

Worse than the individual posts of thoughtless able-bodied celebrities, though, are the attitudes that turn images that demean the disabled into memes. The “miracle” meme would not have been shared tens of thousands of times after George Takei posted it on Facebook unless there were tens of thousands of people who felt they recognized in it a comic truth about disabled people so profound they were compelled to share it with everyone they know online. 

Another anti-disability meme shows a group of well-dressed young men leaping in the air to celebrate something, perhaps their high school graduation. One of the young men, though he is raising his arms and smiling just as enthusiastically as his friends, is not jumping—because he is in a wheelchair. The caption reads, “FAILURE. Nothing has ever failed quite as hard as you just did.” Evidently, while the “miracle” meme is hilarious because some disabled people can stand up from their wheelchairs, the “FAILURE” meme is hilarious because others cannot.


Social media exerts pressure on users to create or share posts that are immediately eye-catching and different, and to present them with the wittiest captions they can compose. Many of us who are disabled will always be eye-catching and different. And perhaps that is why we are increasingly mocked in memes. Other Internet memes do not mock people with disabilities but instead subject us to a peculiar kind of veneration. They are known as “inspiration porn,” and many disabled people, including the activist Stella Young, who gave a TED talk on the subject, strongly object to them for the stereotypes they strengthen. An example of inspiration porn might be a photograph of a child playing wheelchair basketball, or of man with no legs doing pull-ups, with the caption “What’s your excuse?”

As a metaphor, a man with no legs doing pull-ups possibly has some slight value—it could suggest making the best of the talents you have, not mourning those you don’t—but as an image of a human being, it’s shallow and unhelpful. It suggests disability can be overcome by blunt effort. Many disabled people, me included, have conditions that mean we cannot undertake strenuous exercise. I could stand up from my wheelchair and walk a short distance, but I could never manage a pull-up.

The “what’s your excuse?” culture hurts us by suggesting we are making insufficient effort to not be disabled. If we were better motivated, it implies, we wouldn’t be in such difficulties. (Of course, when a disabled person does make an effort to overcome their circumstances, by going shopping and briefly standing up from their wheelchair, for instance, they instantly become meme fodder once again.) Most obnoxiously, inspiration porn suggests that disabled people only exist to inspire the able-bodied, just as memes that mock us suggest we only exist for their amusement.

Internet depictions of people with disabilities are governed by an equivalent of the Madonna/whore complex. We are either inspirational angels, whose purpose is to set your first world problems in context and give you a boost of the kind once found in “Hang in there, Baby” kitten posters, or we are freaks and frauds to be mocked and exposed for crimes we are not committing. The truth is we are neither. We are just people.   

When we go about our lives, whether that involves stepping out of our wheelchairs to buy a bottle of alcohol or going to the gym to do pull-ups, no one needs to take a photograph and put it on Facebook. The sight of disabled people simply being disabled is not a joke. It is not a miracle. And it does not need to be made into a meme.