Don’t call me inspirational

By: Micaela Evans

You don’t get to be called “inspirational” for living your everyday life. Inspirational is climbing Mount Everest, building a school in Africa, writing a novel, earning a degree — not completing everyday tasks such as going to school, brushing your teeth, hanging out with friends, or taking the bus.

Unless, of course, you happen to be disabled.

People with physical and mental disabilities get called inspirational on an almost daily basis, by strangers and friends alike. It’s happened to me countless times. It’s not as though most of these people have done anything remarkable to deserve such high praise — most of the time, they’re just living their lives, doing things that no one would think of calling inspirational were they done by anyone else. The word inspirational, and other words like it, are handed down to people like me in an attempt to congratulate us on how supposedly difficult our lives are on a daily basis. 

What people don’t know when they use terms like this is that they aren’t compliments. People with disabilities don’t need to be congratulated for waking up in the morning or going to university. In fact, more often than not, these comments end up being more insulting than appreciative, because they imply that the disability is the defining factor in these people’s lives. It isn’t.

These comments are insulting, because they imply that the disability is the defining factor in these people’s lives.

Those in wheelchairs, or with other physical or mental disabilities, receive these sorts of “compliments” all the time. People will often pat you on the head and tell you what a wonderful job you’re doing, just for living your life. One time, a teary-eyed woman approached me saying that she “also knows someone in a wheelchair,” and asking, “do you know them too?” Like there’s some secret club we all belong to.

I’m used to being singled out in a crowd — seeing people’s eyes linger, feeling like an anomaly. Despite whatever good intentions people might have, it’s not okay to come up to someone with a disability and tell them how inspiring or courageous they are, especially if you don’t even know them. Though you may not realize it, doing this is just further objectifying people with disabilities, in order to make yourself feel better, not them.

One of the most prominent examples of this is a trend that comedian and disability activist Stella Young has termed “inspiration porn.” I’m referring to the countless photos across the Internet of so-called “inspiring” people with disabilities which end up garnering thousands of likes, comments, and shares. The captions are usually along the lines of: “What’s your excuse?” or my personal favourite: “The only disability in life is a bad attitude.” 

The subtext at play here is that a disability — someone in a wheelchair, with an amputated limb, with a mental illness — is something to overcome, and a means of inspiring people who simply don’t have to deal with these issues. Disabilities here are portrayed as negative, and used by able bodied people to make them feel better about their own lives.

When viewing these images, the message seems to be that, no matter how bad you may feel your life is, at least you aren’t that person. At least you don’t have that form of a disability. At least you’re not one of them.

These images objectify disabled people because they assume that a disability is such a bad thing that anyone living with one is deserving of praise, just for existing and continuing on. But, more often than not, the people in these photos lead regular, fully functional lives. Whether you like it or not, they don’t exist just to inspire you.

It’s almost an expectation at this point that a disabled person’s job is to inspire the people around them. It’s still uncommon for someone in a wheelchair to teach a university class or hold a high position in an office environment — instead, it’s become a stereotype that anyone in the spotlight or the media who’s in a wheelchair is there to inspire. As soon as we see their picture or hear them speak, we expect them to impart their own brand of powerful wisdom upon us.

I’m not saying you can’t admire someone in a wheelchair. Of course you can. Many of them go on to lead lives that impact others, and pave the way for those following in their footsteps, and they deserve all the praise they get. But we need to view these achievements like we would anyone else’s. Disabled people are just as likely to be inspiring as able bodied people; it’s the distinction we draw that shows just how tokenized those with disabilities have become.

You should never let this line of thinking define how you see the people in your life with disabilities. Disabled people are the same as anyone else in terms of our ability to accomplish daily tasks, make an impact, or inspire change; their disability is only one aspect of who they are.

After all, you wouldn’t approach a stranger, pat them on the head, and tell them that seeing them shop in the dollar store inspires you — so what’s the difference if that stranger happens to be on a pair of wheels?