Are You Really Inspired by People With Disabilities?


Inspire, the definition:

Fill someone with the urge or ability to do or feel somethingesp. to do something creative.”

How exactly does that work when people encounter someone with a disability — in person, or perhaps in a story on the news or on Facebook?

Many people describe their experience of these as “inspirational.” I’m used to hearing that; people often say that my life on wheels due to paralysis is “inspirational.”

Then they say, “…but I could never do what you do.”

That doesn’t sound right to me; kinda backwards, actually. Instead of being “filled with the urge” to do (or believe they could do) something (like successfully adapt to a disability), they say they can’t.

This seems to fit a different definition; Intimidate:

“Frighten or overawe.”

It begs the question: If you say you’re inspired by a person with a disability, are you really?

There are indeed people with a notable capacity to persevere, not to be stopped by doubts, to endure frustration and setbacks, and to be so driven to reach their potential that they accomplish clearly great things. I confess to being a little intimidated by these kinds of people, myself.

The thing is, it doesn’t take that level of remarkableness to live with a disability. And live well.

The proof of how doable this is apparent if you just look at the number of people with disabilities of all kinds who are out there doing what they do. One reason they can, is that they live in a world that is increasingly free of artificial obstacles.

It used to take an heroic effort to thrive with a disability, but that was because there was so much in the way. I had to be carried up and down stairs in college for five years in the 1970s. I suppose I’m entitled to some bonus points for that one, but frankly, I had to do it, or else I wasn’t going to get my degrees (in architecture, ironically enough).

That was not an option.

Our society really needs to get over the “Inspirational Model” of disability. It causes real trouble.

If you think it takes a rare person to adapt and thrive, then what if it happens to you? That frame is a setup for a lot of unnecessary pressure. “Can I be an inspirational figure?” If that’s what you think it takes, you’re a lot less likely to get to the other side where your life is — or at least take a lot longer to get there.

The same is true in the workplace. If you have to be “inspirational” to be seen as a productive employee, then an interviewer or hiring manager is going to believe you would have to have some extra force of will to be able to perform well on the job. That ends up unrealistically raising the bar for plenty of qualified people. It is, in effect, discriminatory.

When it comes down to it, the Inspirational Model really represents an epidemic of self-doubt. It’s a mass expression of people not believing they have what it takes to cope and adjust to change. They don’t believe it of humanity itself.

We all have the internal wiring to adapt and pursue the possible. People no more special than most have done it many, many times over. Myself included.

The difference is that I got the support and resources I needed. And I had people around me operating on the assumption that I was going to have a full life. These are the things it takes to thrive, not some rare heroic power.

It’s time to get over the inspirational thing when someone is just doing what’s possible and getting on with their lives. When you get the disability frame straight, it becomes clear that we shouldn’t be so surprised to see someone who is well-adapted, contributing in real ways, wrestling with the same effort to make the most of our lives as anyone else. Save the “inspirational” label for people who are actually doing extraordinary things.

Believe that you could do it, too. Believe that this is an inherent capacity of being human that we should invest in for everyone. That’s the challenge I put to you.

The Mighty is asking the following: What’s one thing people might not know about your experience with disability, disease or mental illness, and what would you say to teach them? If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images


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