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When People Call Me an Inspiration Because of My Disability

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I have often been told I am an inspiration because of the way I handle my cerebral palsy. Sometimes that annoys me; sometimes it does not. As I think about our community’s response to inspiration porn and other ways people perceive us, I think we need to distinguish the positive from the negative ways people call us inspirational.

These are situations where I see being called an inspiration as negative:

• When someone is overly excited about small or old accomplishments. I have been able to walk independently since I was 5. It is no longer a big deal to me, though I am still grateful that I can. When someone says how proud they are of my ability to walk, to me that says, “I still see you as a 5-year-old.” Likewise, when people make a big deal over something I can easily do, I wonder how low their expectations are.

• When someone shows little interest in me as a person. Some people seem to only want to talk to me because they want to be nice to the disabled woman. Usually these conversations seem purposefully simple and focused on getting to know me, not us getting to know each other. If everything a person says to me feels forced, I wonder if his or her compliments are genuine or if he or she feels obligated to give them.

• When someone does not give a specific reason. When I get a vague compliment, I ask people to explain themselves. I do this because I think we are often unaware of how we affect each other. I try to let others know when they impact me, so if someone seems to be doing the same, I give them a chance. But when someone cannot give a reason beyond my cerebral palsy, I think either my disability intimidates them or they do not know how to interact with me.

Conversely, these are situations where I see being called an inspiration as positive:

• When I respect or know the person. I made some wonderful friends at college who said the nice things I tend to ignore. But because they knew me and I liked them, I actually listened to them. Their comments built up my self-esteem and helped me be more comfortable with myself.

• When the person invests in a relationship. If the person has taken the time to get to know me, then his or her opinion is based on me, not a stereotype. Like I mentioned before, these comments are more likely to include the reason I am an inspiration.

• When I feel like I have worked hard. I graduated college this year. I often doubted I would make it and I am so proud of myself. A lot of people made a big deal out of it and I did not mind at all. Also, because earning a Bachelor’s degree is an accomplishment for anyone, I did not find other people’s enthusiasm belittling.

Sometimes when my cerebral palsy feels overwhelming, I look up people who also live with disabilities. I find encouragement in how they deal with their difficulties. I think able-bodied people should be able to do the same. The problem is not being an inspiration; the problem is basing expectations on a false scenario.

Originally published: September 4, 2018
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