In Kelly’s Words – The “Inspiration” Conundrum
There is debate and disagreement in the disabled community about how people feel when they are told that they are an inspiration. Some accept it, agree with it, and move on. Most feel annoyed by the idea. “Don’t call me an inspiration just for going to the grocery store.”
I’ve blogged about this before, but it’s worth returning to as the Tokyo Paralympics come to a close and the conversation is renewed. Over the last 3 Paralympics, there has been a “Superhuman” promo video theme that has been both lauded and criticized for trading in this “inspiration porn” genre.
It started in London 2012 when the British TV network broadcasting and promoting the Olympics and Paralympics developed this promo that focused on the credibility of the athletic performances of Paralympians. The “Superhuman” theme continued in the Rio 2016 promo with a greater focus on the day-to-day lives and accomplishments of people with disabilities, attempting a less-serious, more-relatable tone. For this year’s promo, the theme was broken out as “Super. Human”, and abruptly cut between the athletic achievements and the everyday struggles. The intent was to portray Paralympians as just “humans”, with the glass breaking over the word “super” at the end.
Copyright © Channel 4. Reproduced under Fair Use
In this context, I wanted to revisit the topic. I don’t pretend to be the authority, instead I write this as an explanation of my thought process and one more voice in the conversation.
In a simplified way, here is the explanation of the resentment: Having a disability shouldn’t be license to do ordinary things (e.g. go to the grocery store or fill your car with gas) but have people think they are extraordinary. Why is it any different that I go to the grocery store than my husband who is able bodied? Why is it more amazing when I’m skiing in a monoski than when my sister is skiing down the same trails but is able bodied? Many think it comes off as patronizing or proof that people have very low expectations for you.
My thoughts on this subject are mixed and I’m sure some in the disabled community will disagree with what I’m saying.
I don’t get offended when someone calls me an inspiration for a few reasons. First, there are things in my life that are harder than for someone who is able bodied, that’s just the reality. It takes me a lot longer to get dressed, when I get in the car I have to haul my chair in with me (not to mention that I had to learn to drive in a new way), and I have more medical complications simply because I have a spinal cord injury. More importantly though, a stigma DOES exist around disabilities and because of these things that make my life hard, people often expect less of someone who has challenges.
I hope that seeing me live my life in my own adapted way challenges that stigma for the viewer/commenter and, next time they see it, it will look less extraordinary. If half the people in the world lived in a wheelchair, it would be less amazing to see people going to the store or going to work or dropping their kids at school. But since I’m such a minority it is novel to see me doing these things. The more “normal” I can make this seem the more used to seeing someone different people will become. Everyone has differences, some are obvious (like my wheelchair), some are less obvious. We will all benefit if we can recognize and appreciate differences as a positive and not something to be pitied or feared.
The second reason I’m not offended if someone calls me an inspiration is because I hope that, by seeing me live my life the way I want to despite (or because of…) my injury, others will look inside themselves and reflect on themselves and their lives. If they see me doing what I want, what in their life are they repressing or making excuses for that they really should look at differently. If, by living my life, I allow someone to positively reflect on their life, then I am a source of inspiration and I’m OK with them saying so.
The disabled community is not a monolith; the people and personalities are as diverse as the able bodied community. I by no means intend to speak for everyone. In fact, my opinion may be in the minority. At the end of the day, if you’re amazed or inspired by what someone with a disability is doing, whether something small or large, I hope it raises the ceiling of your expectations for people with disabilities. Ultimately the issue that people bristle at is low expectations. They take it this way: “You’re an inspiration for going to the grocery store because I would never expect you to do something that is so easy and routine for me.” So if that’s true, use that experience to change your expectation and know that those with disabilities can do more, sometimes way more, than you may expect.