Disabled People Are Not Your Inspiration

Well-meaning nondisabled people don’t realize what they’re playing into when they talk about how inspiring we are, which is perhaps all the more frustrating.
Publish date:
August 30, 2012
ableism, disability, inspiration, Paralympics, check your attitudes at the door please

Watching the opening ceremonies of the Paralympics last night, I started getting fired up. It’s really hard to explain the feeling you get when you see people who look like you, move like you, flap their arms and hands like you do, walking into a stadium in front of 62,000 people like they own it. Being celebrated with all the glamour and glitz money can buy, complete with smoke, confetti and Bowie. Being shown off on the world stage for being really, really good at what they do.

My throat tightens and I can’t come up with a good excuse for it. For once, I am normal. The organizers paid attention to detail with seamless accommodations, so smooth they are almost invisible. Captions are everywhere, and so are BSL translators. The announcer asks “those who are able” to stand for the national anthem. The choreography integrates disabled dancers and performers, weaving them throughout in stunning visuals that had to take months to perfect.

I’d been watching my friends in the UK on Twitter all day commenting on the Paralympics and the opening ceremonies. For the most part, they’re disabled people too, and they were every bit as excited as I was. A thrilling shared moment unfolded across their feeds as they watched the opening ceremonies and I couldn’t help but feel ferociously jealous that I wasn’t there.

But with the increased visibility of disabled people doing things, my heart also grew heavy with worry. Because any time we do things, you know, people have to say things about it, and those things are usually about how “inspiring” we are. How we’ve “overcome so much.” How we’re “giving it our all.” We’re just so “moving” and “uplifting” and “amazing” to see. A lot of the language used about us is itself disabling; “wheelchair bound,” “suffers from.”

We’re “special.”

I’m not your inspiration, and neither is any other disabled person.

Nondisabled people don’t seem to understand how frustrating and damaging this language is, the heavy burden it creates for us in our interactions with society. They seem to be under the impression that this kind of objectification improves our lot in life, or gives us a reason to live; we may not amount to much, but at least we can be inspiring, you know. We’re making such great accomplishments simply by being alive.

Stella J. Young refers to this as “inspiration porn.” She points out that the whole idea that we’re inspiring is grounded in the “assumption that the people in [disability porn] have terrible lives, and that it takes some extra kind of pluck or courage to live them.”

People seem to think they’re “honoring diversity” or some such when they do this, but there’s a fundamental disconnect between inspiration porn and recognizing the basic humanity of disabled people. People who insist that we’re so inspiring are turning us into objects, not people. There’s no room for disability rights, disability pride or even basic respect in this framework.

And this is on full display with the Paralympics, where commentators, nondisabled viewers, and the media in general are falling all over themselves to talk about how inspiring the athletes are – not because they are elite athletes competing in incredibly demanding and grueling events, but because they’re disabled and overcoming so much just to be there. The lovely Disability Bitch, who apparently wants us all to expire of alcohol poisoning by day two, says: “To clarify drinking game rules 4 next 2 weeks: inspirational, brave, journey, human spirit,& derivatives all require drinking.#Paralympics.”

I asked disabled people on Twitter for some illustrations of why they hate inspiration rhetoric and they came through with bells on:

@vworpvworp: It objectifies the hard work I've done, that my community has done, without challenging the attitudes that make it hard. @corinneduyvis: I live an exceptionally average life. Calling me 'inspiring' is setting the bar very, very low. @JackAndAHat: JackAndAHat: Yes! I point out all the time that AB folk aren't expected to be Usain Bolt, they never seem to get it. And lots of people going in the comments "well it's your fault if it makes you feel bad!" or "I don't hear those comments!" @peebs1701: Because I'm coping like a grown-up, not doing anything spectacular. What did they expect me to be doing, crying 24/7? @sugarandbrine: I am just living my life. @middle_ladle: Would what I'd done be called inspiring in absence of disability? Is less expected of me because of impairment? @Lacrymaria_olor: I stutter. I get lauded for talking/"acting like people". Give me credit for my ideas, not for the mere act of vocalizing. @Katharine_T: I had no choice in the matter, I am just living my life with the defective body I got stuck with. This not inspirational.

Our own Fem Korsten weighed in via email:

I am not that special. I am not. I try to do what everybody does, living my life, and making the most of the talents that I do have. I really don't think that this is special, just because I'm disabled, but telling me that it is, is telling me that someone like me, is not like you, and does not have to live up to the same standards. And that hurts...Truth is, I am proud of what I achieved. I had to work really hard to get this far, but the people calling me “inspirational” have no idea of the work I put in, and I doubt very much that I had to put in more work than anyone else to get here. That is not inspirational, that is just doing your thing.

British comedian Laurence Clark has a great piece on why the word “inspiration” makes so many disabled people grit our teeth.

When you say that we’re inspiring, whether we’re doing ordinary things like getting groceries or taking public transit, or extraordinary things like developing groundbreaking medical technology or competing in elite athletic events, you’re othering us. You’re saying we need to be singled out as remarkable because of our disabilities, and it pushes us further to the margins.

Let the supercripping begin!

When it comes to things like the Paralympics, suddenly athletes at the top of their field become the standard we all need to meet. After all, if they could do it, so should we, right? The supercrip archetype is the stereotype that dogs our footsteps, the thing used to beat us over the heads for not trying harder.

We’re told, as Young points out, that if we just had better attitudes, we’d magically not be disabled; why can’t we be like Oscar Pistorious? Just try harder not to be disabled, won’t you?

Using us as objects to be inspired by, or archetypes to beat people with, allows people to avoid any complicity they have in the way disabled people are treated in their society. As they talk about how “inspiring” we are, few of them make moves for positive changes in our lives, or theirs, for that matter. People read, say, a story about an athlete struggling to buy legs for the Paralympic games and say it’s so inspiring that she’s trying so hard, but they don’t stop to ask themselves why Paralympic athletes don’t get the kind of sponsorship Olympians do. Nor do they lobby sponsors to get them to pick up a talented athlete who can’t afford to get to the games.

It’s a way to neatly fob off responsibility; gosh, that’s inspiring, moving on.

Well-meaning nondisabled people don’t realize what they’re playing into when they talk about how inspiring we are, which is perhaps all the more frustrating. For me, even as I celebrate the Paralympics and get excited about watching events I love, like equestrian, I’m also being reminded of why the fight for basic respect for disabled people isn’t over, and why we still need to fight so hard for even the smallest social gains.

As the Paralympics go on, Atos, the firm responsible for conducting gruesome “Work Capability Assessments” used to deny benefits to disabled Britons, is getting tons of free press because it’s a Paralympic sponsor. Disabled people are taking to the streets to protest, as they have been for months, demanding changes to the policies that are killing them; the Atos Games are taking the company by the horns this week. Meanwhile, the United States refuses to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities over a dispute on, you guessed it, abortion.

These things don’t occur in a vacuum. As uncomfortable as it seems to make people to have their attitudes and beliefs challenged, ideas like “disabled people are inspiring” contribute to the way we’re treated by society at large. And we’re not going to achieve equality without confronting those ideas, deconstructing them and hopefully encouraging people to move beyond them.