We Are More Than 'Inspirational' Props
a photo of my hand on my mouse and my keypad
My Uncle Bastien was the first person who said I should be a published author based on the merits of my writing. I was 18 at the time, showing him fiction I wrote with friends to simply carry on our conversation. I remember feeling mildly embarrassed, like my work wasn’t as good as he thought, as most teenagers would when showing relatives products of their hobbies.
But mostly, I was adamant that I wouldn’t ever, ever have my writing professionally published, because I felt my disability would overshadow it. Too many people had told me I should write to inspire and teach others that “if I could overcome the adversity of my disability, they could overcome their adversities too”. Those people never read my writing. Nonetheless, they implied that I existed, in my disabled state, just to benefit others and make them feel better about themselves. I had no interest in being a figure for “inspiration porn”—a term coined by the late disability activist Stella Young to describe the flattening of how the disabled are perceived through an objectifying, non-disabled lens, so we remain ‘inspirational’ props and nothing else.
Now 24, I owe my Uncle Bastien gratitude and an overdue apology for arguing against his convictions and praise for me. My chapter for Not Without Us, “Virtual Progress,” is a product of writing almost three dozen pieces across six news sites as a columnist and video games journalist for two years. I’ve covered my life with spinal muscular atrophy, disability representation in news and fictional media, and the games industry’s commitment to inclusion of the disabled. I’ve written op-eds, reviews and interviewed people in the games industry whom I look up to.
So what changed? Why pursue a career where my writing is published regularly and contribute to an anthology which includes disabled writers, when I wouldn’t even consider doing so before?
Meeting more people who believed my work held promise in itself and who celebrated disabled people as much more than ‘inspirational’. That’s what changed. And nowhere did I see that celebration more than when I started covering games, the developers behind them and fan communities by gamers.
“Virtual Progress” is many things. It’s a love letter to my favourite games, a critique of the (lack of) disability representation in games media, condemnation of exploitative labour practices, a call for Singaporean games studios to join American and European studios in making inclusive, accessible games, and my hopes for the games industry’s future. But at its heart, as with other chapters in Not Without Us, it is an account of what happens when we see the disabled as human and their disabilities as assets instead of adversities. I hope it makes an impact.
Sherry “Elisa” Toh
Contributor to Not Without Us: Perspectives on Disability and Inclusion in Singapore
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