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.