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Why People With Disabilities Do Not Want to Be “Inspirational”

Carola is a disability advocate with many years of experience working in the disability community. She is also a freelance writer.

New York City Marathon participant

New York City Marathon participant

Being an inspiration is not necessarily a bad thing. We all look up to people who are brave, have faced challenges, and have overcome obstacles. However, viewing people as heroes just because they have disabilities can be problematic.

People with disabilities want to be valued for their character and accomplishments, not their physical or mental differences. Most want to have their achievements to be recognized and acknowledged as individuals.

However, they do not want to be applauded because they “suffer” from their differences, are brave for living their lives, or have “overcome” their disability. Yet, every day, I see news headlines about how people with disabilities were “limited” because they had a disability. They supposedly “overcame” their condition, and it is a big enough deal to put in a newspaper or online.

One viral video by the late Stella Young tackled this subject. She was an Australian comedian and journalist who challenged the concept that people with disabled people are “inspirational.” She said that she did not deserve an award for living her life as a person in a wheelchair.

Reasons Why Disabled People Do Not Want to be "inspirational"

They Do Not Want Their Condition to be Considered a Bad Thing

Some non-disabled people think of being disabled as a bad thing that is inferior to living life without disabilities. If disabled people do achieve something, they are exceptional and deserve admiration. They assume that people who are not non-disabled cannot accomplish much. This attitude is condescending.

Most disabled people accept their conditions as a part of how they are. Some may feel pressured to live up to other people’s expectations and the stereotype of them being suffering heroes who are defying the odds.

Disabled People Do Not Want to Measure Success by their Disability

Many stories in the media praise people with disabilities for their achievements, especially in sports. Unfortunately, the underlying message is that disabled people are not usually capable of being good at sports or having a professional career, so this kind of success is rare and special.

This attitude perpetuates the myth that most people with disabilities cannot accomplish the same goals in general as the non-disabled. It assumes that people with disabilities are always limited by their condition.

Some media stories try to show that disabled people are capable of anything such as the Paralympics trailer shown above. Many people were troubled by the video above, including me. It seems to go to the other extreme of portraying people as “superhuman.” This reinforces the idea that people with physical and mental differences are “special.” Unfortunately, some viewers may view this as athletes saying, “Look what I can do! Am I not inspiring?”

Disabled People Do Not Want to be Figures of Pity

Some non-disabled people think that people with disabilities exist so they can feel better about themselves. Whenever these people believe their lives suck, they think about that poor cripple they saw on social media. Then, they think, “My problems are nothing compared to that poor handicapped person!”

Unfortunately, the media perpetuates this attitude by using images and stories of disabled children to raise money for their causes. Those poor kids. They can only have a half-decent life if we cough up lots of money. In reality, many people have a great life despite physical or mental differences. They may have more challenges or limitations, but they have adapted and learned to cope with them.

Tommy Edison, a blind film critic

Tommy Edison, a blind film critic

What Disabled Adults Really Want

Many adults with disabilities feel patronized when people say they are inspirational, even when the comment is meant as a compliment. Some feel that they are being treated like children or lesser human beings. This can become a barrier to developing meaningful relationships with others.

People who enthusiastically go on about how inspired they are by disabled people may have ulterior motives for befriending them. They may be patting themselves on the back for reaching out to the “pour soul.”

Non-disabled people may also be looking for accolades from people around them for taking on a charity case. The other possibility is that people feel obligated to appear politically correct by acting as if they are accepting and caring.

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Why Not All Disabled People Want to be Inspirational

Viewing people with disabilities as “inspirational” tends to dehumanize them. They become either superhumans, child-like, or incapable. Instead, they want to be treated as equals and have the same opportunities to be educated, have great careers, and have meaningful relationships.

References

How To Avoid “Inspiration P-rn,” Forbes, Andrew Pulrang
Why not all disabled people want to be seen as ‘an inspiration,’ Cosmopolitan, Jessica Kellgren-Ford
Stop referring to people with disabilities as ‘inspirational’ – my body does not define me, Metro, Samantha Renkie
'Don't call me an inspiration,' Independent, Christopher Hooton

© 2016 Carola Finch

Comments

Kathy Burton from Florida on March 05, 2018:

The pendulum swings back and forth from patronizing to inspirational. I hope as we open up our communities more (instead of institutionalizing) to persons with disabilities we will come to accept disabilities as a part of life.

Faith Reaper from southern USA on October 22, 2016:

Thanks for sharing this important information, which I never thought about from that perspective, but it makes a lot of sense. I think we do tend to become inspired by others who do overcome such obstacles in this life, simply because here we are without such hardships, which rattles our brains in thinking that we certainly have no reason to complain ...possibly.

Carola Finch (author) from Ontario, Canada on October 15, 2016:

Thank you for your comments. Since the Paralympics, a lot of disability advocates have been speaking out about this subject.

MissCapri on October 15, 2016:

Yes!! Thank you! I'm glad someone out there finally gets it! Someone outside of my family and friends, that is. I feel the media and so many internet memes Aka chain letters use disability as a means of manipulating people's emotions, either to patronizing pity, or patronizing "inspiration" and what everyone really needs is to be valued for their personalities and talents - as friends, as people, and not thought of as a billboard for disability representation. Your page is so great that I'm linking to it in a couple of rants I made about this subject, though you are far more eloquent than I was. You absolutely nailed it! and you got my day started off just right!

Denise W Anderson from Bismarck, North Dakota on October 11, 2016:

This is an interesting dichotomy. It makes we wonder if athletes that go on to be celebrities feel the same way. For some reason, our society as a whole idolizes those who "conquer" or "rise above" the status quo, whether they have done so due to superior ability, or have overcome perceived limitations to rise above others. I think that it is reflective of the innate desire we all have to be "special." If we allow others to be, and praise them for it, that means there is hope for the rest of us.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on October 10, 2016:

Thanks for taking the time to give this explanation. We learn from each other.

Diana L Pierce from Potter County, Pa. on October 09, 2016:

Good hub. A subject most don't want to talk about yet many have been there in one way or another, if not themselves, it could be a witness as family members and friends become victims of disabilities and deadly disease. We all have our own hurdles to get over. Its how we think about these little annoyances which makes a big difference in how we deal with them.

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