What You're Really Saying When You Call Me 'Inspirational'
One of my favorite pieces of jewelry is a necklace with the words “not your inspiration” stamped on it. It makes me smile and laugh, but inevitably every time I wear it somebody comes up to me and asks, “Why does your necklace say that? Why wouldn’t you want to be an inspiration? What’s so bad about that?” Then I have to explain.
There’s nothing wrong with being an inspiration if what you’re doing is actually inspirational, but as a disabled person I have people come up to me all the time when I’m doing basic everyday things and tell me I’m an inspiration just for existing. I know they mean it as a compliment, just like people do when they tell me I’m brave for being who I am, but the truth is neither one of those things is a compliment. They’re actually quite the opposite. Occasionally when random strangers tells me I’m “so inspiring,” I’ll ask them why they think that. Usually they respond by telling me they just think it’s so inspiring to see someone like me out and about and living their life. Sometimes they even add “I don’t think I could do it if I was in your position. It makes me feel so much better about my life because I know it could be worse.” For someone like me, those words are definitely not complimentary; they actually hurt.
When people — who know nothing about me other than the fact that I’m a visibly disabled woman — tell me I’m inspiring simply for existing and going out in public, it minimizes my accomplishments, and even more, it minimizes my humanity, and turns me into nothing more than a trope whose purpose is to remind non-disabled people that they shouldn’t take their lives for granted because their lives could be worse, they could be just like me.
As a disabled person, I don’t like that my life is viewed as a constant reminder to non-disabled people that it could always be worse, and I don’t like that I’m considered inspirational simply for living the life I’ve been given. Disabled people don’t exist to inspire non-disabled people or to remind them that there are no excuses in life, or that life could always be worse. We don’t exist to be feel-good stories on the 5 o’clock news when we go to football games, get asked to prom or graduate high school. Those are just normal teenage things, and it shouldn’t be any more inspiring because you do them sitting in a wheelchair or with some other disability.
When you call a disabled person inspirational for doing normal everyday things like going on the subway or going to the grocery store, I believe you reinforce the idea that society’s expectations for disabled people are so low that we don’t really expect them to do anything. Furthermore, when you make an “inspiring” human interest story about a disabled person going on a date, becoming prom queen or even simply having friends, I believe you reinforce the idea that disabled people are somehow less human and less desirable than everybody else, and that if we have “normal” life experiences they are seen as inspiring, instead of realizing that we should expect and deserve those things just like everyone else.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing bad about being inspiring. But I want to be inspiring for what I do rather than simply for who I am. I want to be inspiring for doing something truly inspirational. I want to be inspiring for the changes that I make in the world, rather than the fact that I do them sitting down.
Follow this journey on Claiming Crip.
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