Why I Don't Mind Being Considered Inspirational as a Teen With Cerebral Palsy
If disabled people have any universal bone to pick with the able-bodied it is: If I see one more meme like “This man can dress himself, and you’re saying you overcome obstacles?” I think I’ll sue Facebook. This is reasonable. Everyone wants to be more person than poster child. I hate it when strangers say I’ve done a great job on something simple, as though they’re surprised that I can, for example, remember instructions.
But then I think of the frustration I went through for years as I tried to improve my handwriting with my occupational therapist, improve my posture with my physical therapist, or put on my shirt with my dad. They are all wonderful and generous people who praised me when I accomplished a goal. And I didn’t mind.
I can’t bring myself to be enraged when a story circulates about a blind person who can ride a bike, or a photo of a woman with atypically short arms tying her shoes appears on Instagram. Not even when the story and the photo are accompanied by cheeky captions suggesting that everyone else is lazy.
If you want to admire how long I tried to dress myself, considering the effort it takes for me to wrestle my arm into a shirtsleeve, be my guest. If you want to tell me you have a more positive attitude now that you know I can conquer the challenge of writing a legible sentence, be my guest. If you want to tell me I am an inspiration because I choose to keep going in spite of my disability, I won’t mind as much as some would.
Anyone in the disabled community is entitled to feel belittled when they encounter inspiration porn; I am in no way minimizing that feeling. But I believe the able-bodied should feel grateful that they are able-bodied. That none of their inner mechanisms break down in mid-task. Leaving aside the positive aspects of disability, such as enhanced perspective and problem-solving skills — those virtues so often shouted to keep “normal” people from feeling sorry for us — life in an insubordinate body or mind is hard. Those who can walk to the bathroom, slide down the banister, attend a crowded event without feeling overwhelmed, who can see, hear, speak, and remember, must strive to appreciate how difficult it sometimes is for someone who can not do all these things to navigate life, and how much they already have if they navigate with ease.
There is a logic, then, to the message of inspiration porn: If they can do that with the disadvantages the universe dealt them, then surely you can muddle through with yours. I take away the poison of this message by seeing it as a reminder that I have a right to acknowledge the obstacles in my daily life, be aggravated by them, and still choose persistence. If I help others choose persistence, too, that, for me, is something to celebrate, not resent.
Getty image by wsfurian