One of the most pervasive and irritating tropes about disability is the idea that disabled people are inspiring simply for existing. Going out in public or doing the most simple of daily tasks is grounds for being patted on the head (sometimes literally) and told how inspiring you are. How you’re so brave. You touch people with your very existence. Saccharine smiles follow you around no matter what you’re doing and you are used as a posterchild on inspirational fliers to remind nondisabled people that life could be worse: they could be disabled.
When disabled people try to confront this narrative, to pick apart why it’s so frustrating and hurtful to be viewed as inspirational just for being alive, nondisabled people often get extremely defensive. They say we aren’t allowed to tell them what to be inspired by, or that we don’t understand that they’re just amazed how much we overcome, or they throw any number of things at us indicating that they’re not actually listening to anything we’re saying. We don’t critique social attitudes to tell people how to think. We critique social attitudes to talk about how we think, and how their actions impact us. People can choose to listen to and interpret our critique in a variety of ways, and that’s entirely up to them.
But one thing people seem to miss, or willfully misread, is the fact that none of us are saying that disabled people can’t be inspiring. We’re saying that disability alone is not inspiring, and we’re asking people explore what it is, exactly, that they’re finding inspiring when they look at a disabled person doing something.
If you see a disabled CEO running a fortune 500 company and say ‘oh, wow, she’s so inspiring‘ because she’s disabled and you’re amazed that a disabled person can do that, that’s offensive. If you see the same CEO and admire the drive, dedication, and commitment it takes to rise to that kind of position, and you find that inspiring, you’re giving that person credit for having worked hard, paid her dues, and risen to the top. You can even acknowledge that she probably encountered social obstacles, being a disabled woman, as long as you don’t feel tempted to get into an ‘overcoming’ and ‘heroism’ narrative.
I want people to be inspired by what people do, not by aspects of their identity. Some disabled people do awesome things. Not because or in spite of the fact that they’re disabled, but because they feel driven to do amazing things. And they should be celebrated for that just like nondisabled people who do amazing things, because they deserve credit for their hard work. They deserve attention and accolades for creating great works of art, or being catalysts for social change, or whatever else it is they’re doing, and the focus should be on their actions and accomplishments, not what their bodies can and cannot do.
As soon as you start reducing disabled people to their impairments and their accomplishments to something in the background that has to be viewed through the lens of impairment rather than as something that stands alone, you start patronising people with disabilities. You remind us that many people seem to think we exist for your inspiration, not to live our lives. And when you tell people that they’re inspirational just for being alive and performing basic tasks, there’s an implication that you think of them as less than human; you’re bowled over that they, say, buy toilet paper at the store, or roll to the mailbox to pick up the day’s mail.
Disabled people who do fantastic and amazing things do indeed do so over tremendous obstacles, just like nondisabled people. The nature of those obstacles may be very different, and disabled people may face more obstacles, but focusing on an impairment as an obstacle misses the point. The point is not that a disabled person managed to drag herself from some sort of grim half-life, but that a person decided she needed to do something important, something valuable to her, whatever that might be: training as an athlete, becoming a politician, writing an amazing novel, creating fantastic art, or any number of other things. And she set out to do that and accomplished it.
There are many things bound up in the ‘so inspirational’ narrative that are deeply troubling, like the idea that we’re less than human so people should be shocked and surprised when we manage to accomplish grown-up things. And the fact that disabled people who do things that are totally awesome get turned into benchmarks for the rest of us; if Oscar Pistorius can do it, so can you! And the fact that for some of us, it really hurts to be constantly reminded that you are viewed as a freakshow, an object of public property, something placed on earth for the entertainment of others. You are something to be consumed, not a whole, independent person with your own life and dreams.
Being disabled, like being nondisabled, is nothing special. It’s a fact of life. Some people have impairments and other people do not. What people choose to do with their lives varies widely depending on who they are, and we should be focusing on what people are actually doing, which values they embody, how they carry themselves, rather than on an aspect of their identities which comprises only one part of their humanity. Disabled people aren’t inspiring simply because they have impairments, but disabled people who do amazing things most certainly can be inspiring because of what they’re doing.