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Why Many Disabled People Do Not Want to Be Considered ‘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

A few years ago, I told the story of my journey with breast cancer at an event for cancer patients and survivors, their loved ones, and representatives from various cancer groups. I decided to show how I used humor to survive the ordeal of treatment and all the side effects I now have to endure. I described how chemo brain can in handy as an excuse for memory lapses (sounds more exotic than blaming old age).

I also described the “perks” of having cancer such as how much money I saved on shampoo and shaving products. I could not resist poking a bit of fun at the idea of me being an “inspiration” as a cancer survivor at the end of my talk. I said something like this: “I do not want to be considered an inspiration and be put on a pedestal. It is cold and lonely up there. At my age, I want to have two feet on the ground and be near a washroom.”

I was gratified that people laughed but some did not get the underlying message. They told me afterwards how inspiring I was. I am sure they meant it as a compliment and an expression of admiration, however, neither I nor many other people with disabilities want to be anyone’s inspiration.

They Want To Be People First

People with disabilities want to be valued for their character and accomplishments, not their physical or mental differences. They do not want to be applauded because they “suffer” from their differences or have “overcome” their disability. Yet, every day, I see news headlines about how people with disabilities or chronic illness who were not “limited” because they had a disability. They supposedly “overcame” their disability and it is a big enough deal to put in a newspaper or online.

Frankly, I do not want to be valued because I managed to survive cancer. I am not a hero for undergoing surgery and treatment to save my life. I do not think of myself as special. I think that most people would have made the same choices I did to save their lives. Cancer did not make me some kind of exalted hero.

Jamie Brewer, actress and the first model with Down Syndrome to walk the New York Fashion Week catwalk

Jamie Brewer, actress and the first model with Down Syndrome to walk the New York Fashion Week catwalk

They Do Not Want to Measure Success by their Disability

There are many stories in the media that 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 are not capable of accomplishing the same goals in general as the non-disabled. It assumes that people with disabilities are always limited by their condition.

Some media stories are trying to show that disabled people are capable of anything such as the 2016 Paralympics trailer shown below. Many people were troubled by this video, 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 Are Not Figures of Pity

Some non-disabled people think that people with disabilities exist so that they can feel better about themselves. Whenever these people think 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 in spite of physical or mental differences. They may have more challenges or limitations, but they have adapted and learned to cope with them.

Disabled Adults Want To Be Treated As Adults

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 exuberantly 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 the people around them for taking on a charity case. The other possibility is people feeling obligated to appear to be politically correct by acting as if they are accepting and caring.

Tommy Edison, a blind film critic

Tommy Edison, a blind film critic

Concluding Thoughts

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 meaningful relationships.


Why not all disabled people want to be seen as ‘an inspiration,’ Cosmopolitan, Jessica Kellgren-Ford
The problem with inspirational Paralympic videos, CBC Radio, Channel 4
'Don't call me an inspiration,' Independent, Christopher Hooton
Why people with disabilities are not inspirational, Huffington Post, Ellen Painter Dollar
Disabled People Are Not Your Inspiration,
Stop referring to people with disabilities as ‘inspirational’ – my body does not define me, Metro

© 2016 Carola Finch


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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