Disability Chat: Discussing the Term “Inspirational”

Hi, friends. Today’s post delves into the sticky topic of disabled people being deemed “inspirational.” Keep reading to see my thoughts on when the statement is and isn’t appropriate, how I react to it personally, etc.

I’ve met disabled people all along the spectrum between “bitter” and “happy.” Though some people fall in the extremes, I’d guess the majority of handicapped people are pretty “normal” (whatever that even means). Most days, we can find joy in life if armed with a sense of humor…despite a semi-frequent gritting of the teeth. 😉

That said, I doubt that most disabled people actually hate being called “inspirational.” Some do abhor it–just as they abhor a stranger’s offer of help, their caretakers’ inability to read minds, and/or life in general. But for many of us, it just seems odd and a bit patronizing, especially if we are simply existing in a public space. If seeing an able-bodied person shop at the mall or attend a concert or go on a date isn’t inspirational, does performing those same acts in a wheelchair, with a cane, etc. make them more profound? The implication is that it’s admirable for the disabled to live like ordinary people.

I think there are certain circumstances in which the comment makes more sense. If someone sees me stand up out of my wheelchair and walk around the gym exercising with my trainer’s help, the adjective “inspirational” seems fitting; not only am I going above and beyond most able-bodied people (i.e. going to the gym period), but I’m doing something especially impressive. Other fitting instances might include giving sermons at other churches (which requires courage already and is complicated by planning around accessibility) or persevering through intense mobility struggles to attend college courses back in the day. At least in my mind, these examples illustrate times when I’ve done something legitimately admirable.

Back to the shopping mall example–which is a setting where most of my disabled peers don’t want to be called inspirational–I can see the kind, albeit naive, intention behind the comment. In situations like that, I think the able-bodied person really means, “I admire that you don’t let your handicap stop you from living a normal life. I like that you are normalizing the existence of handicapped people. I wish you all the best.”

Due in particular to my Christian faith, the state of a person’s heart matters to me. If someone calls me “inspirational” just for going out and about, I respond graciously because I know they mean well. This issue has gained traction in the disability community; googling “disabled people inspirational” results in a flood of editorials lecturing people for using the adjective. I feel a bit repulsed by some handicapped people’s overly-defiant reactions to the compliment. Is it ignorant to call a disabled person “inspirational” when they’ve done nothing inspiring? Yes. But does the statement usually come from a genuine place? Also yes. [So is your extreme resentment unwarranted? Yes again!]

So, here’s the moral of the story: Don’t call people “inspirational” unless they do something legitimately admirable. And don’t freak out on people for saying something kinda dumb.

Below is a comical, enlightening TED talk on the subject. It’s less than ten minutes long and well worth the watch.

Thanks for reading! What is your two cents on this topic? Let me know in the comments.

17 comments

  1. For me the thought of you going to an accessible shopping mall would not be inspirational. However, I do believe in common courtesy such as opening a door.

    When you shared your story about going to college and overcoming the lack accommodation, it was inspirational because of the obstacles you overcame to pursue your education.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. To be honest, I wouldn’t say it to a total stranger. I have no idea what they’re going through, or what kind of person they are, or how they feel. But if it was a good friend, I would tell him/her sincerely and privately if I honestly thought so. It’s such a heartfelt thing to say, that it should matter when you say it (IMHO) 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I agree Lily, most people who say it are trying to be nice when it’s somewhat hard to know what to say. I find complements so much better then being ignored……even if they aren’t quite perfect complements. Much love! 🤗

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Some people go thru life complaining too much, not doing their best, having many excuses for poor attitude and less-than-stellar performance. When they see girl in a wheelchair going to school, speaking at church, having fun, eating out, shopping, looking all cute, I think they ARE inspired; inspired to get out of the rut and to ” be all that they can be” . I do NOT think it is patronizing. And who can really say what inspires? If you cause someone to want to do better, and they say ” You inspire me,” believe them!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I so love hearing your perspective. So many things I just did not know. I never thought that inspirational could be viewed in a negative way, but I can see now how it can definitely been insulting. Like somehow your existence is so pitiful that the fact that you are living alone is inspirational. That is a slap in the face. Thanks for opening my eyes!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Wow, this is thought provoking and so very well written/’said’ Lily. That video is great, can’t wait to share it with some people– thanks for sharing it!!

    One of my husband’s friends has been wheelchair bound for years and he (my husband) always tells me that you ‘can’t notice the chair’ — because ‘if you pay attention to the chair you lose sight of Jason and there’s nothing Jason hates worse than to be seen as disabled instead of simply seen as himself.’ Sometimes I think my husband goes a little too far with that though as they have had some ridiculous ‘adventures’ over the years, pushing the limits of that wheelchair, it’s literally been covered in mud before, LOL.

    But I do think that type of thing can be a form of objectification (as was mentioned in the Ted Talk). And I think that in our human nature we tend to objectify people to distance ourselves, both from each other and from truly getting to know the ‘good bad and ugly’ inside of ourselves as well. I also think pride fits in here somewhere too. I mean, just because someone else has a broken leg doesn’t mean your paper cut isn’t going to hurt and to pretend it doesn’t hurt so that you don’t look bad ‘because other people have it so much worse and how dare I complain’, can be a form of ‘false humility’, which is pride-based…and I think that knee-jerk reaction of labeling disabled people as ‘inspiring’ can be a form of false humility (or something).

    You have definitely given me a lot of food for thought. Excellent post.❤️

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Salt! ♥ I hope that I am like your husband’s friends in that people see me before the chair; I think that caring for my appearance and smiling a lot helps with that. But I guess it’s not so bad if people see me and the chair as a package deal, since so much of who I am has been influenced by what I went through in younger years and what I still go through now. The false humility idea in relation to this subject is really interesting; I like your musings, especially that last sentence about it being a knee jerk reaction–great point!

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  7. I think of you as inspirational because of your spiritual and mental/emotional perspective. Many people, whether they have a physical disability or a chronic illness or just a set of really crappy circumstances beyond their control, could easily become bitter, woe-is-me, or some other destructive way over the hand they were dealt. I have no doubt you have your bad days just like we all do, but your overall attitude seems to be one of positivity, and love, hope and determination. Those are qualities that inspire me, whether you’re in a chair or not.

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  8. Hi Lily, thank you for this post. I suffer from multiple disabilities and am regularly called an inspiration. A double edged sword, some people say it because they believe it and others say things just for the sake of it (I think). I have a young friend that lives in France that called me a “cripple” recently. I told her that for most people living with a disability that word is old fashioned and would also find it offensive. She told me there is no other word in France and then said something about my handicaps. I told her that “handicap” should really only be used to describe your golf stroke. Being struck down with multiple disabilities has been the defining moment of my life. I lost the respect of the people closest to me and have been constantly facing disrespect since.
    I also hate it when people compare what I have been through to what they are going through, it feels like – what am I a yardstick for pain and suffering?
    I try and take these sorts of unsolicited compliments with a grain of salt, most people are morons.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your comment, Andy. I totally relate to everything you said. Yes, the term can be a double-edged sword, because it can seem authentic or patronizing depending on the situation. That is interesting in a slightly sad way that French people predominantly use the word cripple. And yesss, totally feel you on the yardstick of pain and suffering idea. People who were going through something rough have said to me, “I still wouldn’t trade places with you.” Uhh, thanks? Oh, well. Stay strong and smart, Andy–people like us will change people’s perceptions little by little.

      Liked by 1 person

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