Transacting Disability – Trading Charity And Compassion For Inspiration And “Warm Glows”?

By Catia Malaquias

This week our Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull described the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) on ABC TV’s Q and A program as “a great national exercise in compassion and love”.  He also thanked the questioner for “showing love and care” for her disabled family member.

Also this week in the context of Western Australia signing up to the national NDIS, the former WA Premier, Mr Colin Barnett, expressed concern at “a shift from a system based on care and compassion to a system of financial entitlement”.

These comments, from political leaders, reflect an entrenched and enduring “charity” based view of disability … no doubt perpetuated by the “heartstrings” approach adopted by many charity fundraisers and the fact that many disability associations largely rely on charitable donations for their survival.

But while politicians speak of “compassion and love”, people with disability are instead seeking respect and rights – the capacity to realise their legal rights – their human rights – on an equal basis to non-disabled people.

Charity, compassion … pity, may soothe the soul of the non-disabled in confronting disability, but for people with disability that type of response, however well-intentioned, serves to reinforce the societal stereotypes – the stigma, the prejudice and low expectations.  It reinforces the societal attitudinal barriers that serve to disable people with disability from participating in, and belonging to, their communities – at educational, social and economic levels.

Charity and compassion clothe an ableist response to disability.

But what in return?


Attend any public ceremony about disability and count the number of times speakers use the words, “inspire”, “inspiring” and “inspirational”.  Is there no other word for “inspire” in the thesaurus?  “Inspiration” is the clichéd flip-side of the disability coin.

Stella Young, the late disability activist and much more, coined her own provocative phrase, inspiration porn.  She argued that, like the objectification of subjects and self-gratification of viewers in pornography, disability too is converted to “inspiration” by the objectification of people with disability for the gratification of the non-disabled. People are seen as ‘inspirational’ for just living and enduring disability – the “low expectations” bar is so low.

But in the context of disability, objectification is not limited to dehumanisation and devaluation – it extends to infantilisation.

A few months ago, a former Education Minister stated in the Western Australian Parliament:

“… I used to go to [segregated] education support centres. If anyone wants to feel a warm glow when they are feeling down, they should go to an ed support centre. Being with the kids is magnificent enough, but being with the workers is wonderful. They are so committed to the cause.”

Is there any other minority group in our society that is described as giving a “warm glow”?

Could we say it about Indigenous people?  The LGBTI community?

Jerry Lewis, through 45 years of telethons that he hosted for the American Muscular Dystrophy association, raised over a billion dollars.  But in the end his failure to appreciate the damage of his “charity” based view of disability and negative language towards disabled people led to his removal from the chairmanship of the association.  In fact, notwithstanding his charitable efforts, his passing was not mourned by much of the  American disability community.

This week the new Greens Senator from Western Australia, Jordon Steele-John, released a short video on the importance of language when political leaders talk about disability.  He makes the point that people with disability don’t need the language of charity, they need their rights to be acknowledged, respected and realised.

We need to talk about disability!

I want to have a conversation about the language we all use when talking about disability, especially when it comes from our supposed leaders…I am sick and tired of patronising and 'inspirational' language used when talking about people from my community, and the very real and life-changing impacts the NDIS will have on many!

Posted by Senator Jordon Steele-John on Thursday, December 14, 2017


There is an obvious need for many of our politicians to be educated on disability, on disability rights and on the social model of disability that underlies the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Recommended viewing:

“We need to talk about disability!” – Video by Senator Jordon Steele-John (14 December 2017)

“I’m Not Your Inspiration, Thank You Very Much”, Stella Young Ted Talk (2014)

“Jerry Lewis speaks about the disabled and ‘Jerry’s Orphans'” – Video Interview (published 2009)

[Cover photo © Stephanie McCabe]

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