Over the last few months, I have been seeing more and more “disability articles” and videos on the internet, including my own. I think this is great! Growing up, I never had articles like these to read and videos were out of the question since we had dial-up internet. There are so many things I can relate to in each one, like, “You know where every lump and bump in the sidewalk is” and/or “You have great friends”. But there is one common thread between these list-style articles or videos that concerns me. Each one seems to point out that, despite popular belief, disabled people are actually not inspirational, and if you’re disabled (guess what?) you’re not inspirational either. Well, why not? I can be just as inspirational as the next guy and so can you!
I understand why these authors say we aren't an inspiration, though. Countless times, people have come up to my mom and me when I’ve been trying to get in or out of my van to go shopping. This situation is awkward to begin with, because I’m probably not in the most flattering position and I don’t know them from a hole (or lump and bump) in the ground. I’ll never forget this one old man who said to mom, (as if I wasn’t there) “What happened to the poor dear?” I was quite young but I’ve always been sarcastic. I wanted to say, “I was born. That’s what happened.” But I knew he meant well.
The one phrase that grinds my gears is the classic, “It’s so nice to see you out and about”. Like, what do you say to that? “Oh man, I know! I was really tired of being a shut-in. Seeing as I’m an invalid, my parents had been keeping me in the attic, but today was the day to go out and about!” We do go outside, people. It happens. We know we are out and about. Thanks for noticing, but keep it to yourself. You could just say, “It’s so nice to see you!” Sometimes people just don’t think. They don’t know what to say, and they can’t imagine living the way you do, so they just throw it out there that you’re inspirational for going outside. That is annoying.
So, when is it okay to use the word “inspirational”? To be honest, I think it’s wrong to tell anyone point blank, regardless of ability that they are, they they're not inspirational. It’s like saying, “you’re not special” or “you don’t matter”. This could be damning to someone who is trying to make a positive impact on the world or even just in their own life. They could give up. They could harm themselves or somebody else. People are just realizing now that words do hurt, so why would you want to put an axe to the idea that someone could be an inspiration to others for the way they live? We need more inspirational people!
“Inspirational” is a strong word like “love” or “hate” so it needs to be used with caution. Don’t just tell a person they’re inspirational, tell them why. Like maybe, “It’s an inspiration to me that you’re outside and enjoying life because I struggle with depression and sometimes I can’t even get out of bed, let-alone go shopping.”
When I was in college, I had a home-care company come in to look after me in the mornings and evenings. The turnover rate was really high, so I got used to meeting strangers in my home-away-from-home, and knowing that I may never see them again. (It’s terrifying to know this person may never come back as a worker, and yet they know where you live and how to get in. Plus, they get to know things about you during your booking and what if you need a shower? Now this stranger has your information and has seen you naked! Yikes!) So it’s best to try not to think about it.
One day, a stranger came to see me and she also worked with another disabled student who lived upstairs. We got talking about things, as you do, to try and keep the booking moving. She told me very personal things about her child who was also in post-secondary school and struggling in their program. The child was seeking professional help and also struggled with prescription drugs. I could tell that the mom inside this personal support worker was very overwhelmed. She sat on my bed and cried. She told me that I was an inspiration and so was the student upstairs, for going to school and getting through it, basically on our own. She had never been to college and she said she probably couldn’t do it if she was disabled. It freaked me right out. All we were doing was going to school like we normally would’ve if we were back in our hometowns and had our parents’ help instead of the workers'. Why was she telling me these things? Who was she? Where did she come from?
But to her we really were inspirational and she was telling me why through the things she said about her child. Although her child was physically better off than us, maybe they weren’t emotionally able to be away at school. Without knowing it, our example of two physically challenged kids going to school and succeeding gave her hope for her own situation. I only saw this woman once more after that, and she wanted to take my laundry home to wash it. Thank God I said no, since she never did come back.
She always said she would bring her child over to visit some day and since I was initially freaked out by this lady, I was always afraid they would show up in the middle of the night. Thankfully they didn’t, and I hope they are both doing well today. I realize now that this situation was only scary because we were new to each other, but if you think about it, every friend you have started out as somebody you didn’t know. I hope she still thinks about us as her inspiration.
As for the authors of these “disability articles” who say you are not an inspiration, I'm saying you are. Thanks to you and the internet, people with disabilities now have a way to connect with your (and our) stories in a way that wouldn’t have been possible before. Kids with disabilities will no longer have to wonder if other kids have gone through the same experiences. They can read these articles online and discover that other people get stared at too or are asked what “happened” to them.
Not only are these lists entertaining and relatable, they’re informational. I recently read one that had clothing tips and information on wheelchair accessories. Not every detail was useful for me, but it’s good that it’s out there. Someone can use that information. Maybe that person will have a better life because they now know there is another way to wear clothes that won’t get caught in their tires and cause an untimely death. (That’s an exaggeration, but hey, scarves can be dangerous!) When people share what works for them, it’s ultimately going to inspire somebody who never thought of doing things that way before. It’s not inspirational in the sense that it will move mountains, but it’s helpful and possibly life-changing.
In conclusion, I would say that I mostly disagree with the authors of the articles I’ve read and the creators of the videos that I’ve seen. Disabled people can be inspirational, although not all of the time. There are always going to be weird people out there who ask disabled people awkward/stupid questions like, “Did you pick out your outfit today?” and add that they did an amazing job. But who is to say that a normal, everyday task for you isn’t going to inspire somebody else? You never know who is watching (not in a creepy way) and taking notes from your book of life. You are an inspiration to somebody. You just may not know it yet. Don’t let anybody make you think otherwise.
Image courtesy Flickr