[Content warning: discusses ableism]
I used to think that it was great that disabled people were inspiring non-disabled people. My reaction was — and I’m wholly ashamed of this — that at least we were good for something, right?
Needless to say, I don’t think that anymore. I haven’t for a long time. After living nearly twenty-three years with cerebral palsy, that “inspiration” doesn’t soothe now. It grates. Like nails on a chalkboard, every headline or tagline I see that mentions disability and inspiration makes me wince, makes my teeth clench. Bitterness usually follows, combined with exasperation. Want to know why?
It’s a reminder that we, as disabled people, are often not thought of as worthy or useful unless we somehow benefit non-disabled people in some way. They don’t bother to think about us as important or significant unless we can provide some sort of “sensationalism”, whether that is upbeat or a sob story — and in some cases, both. And it’s because every time a non-disabled person says “you’re so inspiring!” I have to wonder why they think that. Are they saying it because they genuinely find my disability activism helpful and educational? Or are they saying it to give themselves a pat on the back and reassure themselves that they’ve done a good deed and thank god they’re not disabled too because they could end up like me (and wouldn’t that be awful)?
(Hint: it’s usually the latter.)
Stella Young, a comedian and disability-rights activist, presented a TED talk in which she stated that by viewing disabled people as inspirational, you are in fact objectifying them — they are seen as “inspiration porn” and not actual human beings with lives. And she’s right. When I was younger, up until the age of eleven, I wore splints on my left leg to correct and support my gait. I’ve lost count of the number of people who came up to me and said things like “good on you” or “you’re so brave”. But what exactly was I brave for doing? I was just living my life. It was — and still is — my normal. I don’t have any other experience to compare my physicality to. And I get that people want to support me — but it’s congratulating me for simply trying to live a normal life by non-disabled standards.
Take a step back and think about that statement. Think about how inherently wrong that is. You feel the need to congratulate someone for living a normal life. Why? Why is that a desire? Disabled people do not need your applause and approval for doing non-disabled individuals do every day. We don’t need badges, trophies, or awards. In giving that commendation, you’ve inadvertently revealed something about yourself:
You don’t believe disabled people can live normal lives and habitually do things that you yourself can do.
If the disability magically disappeared or didn’t exist, however, there would be nothing exceptional about it. But with the disability, it’s suddenly an inspiration that disabled people can walk or write or eat or teach. Pick any activity, and I guarantee you that at some point a disabled individual will have been called inspirational for doing it. And that’s both bizarre and wrong. Equally, don’t look at a disabled person and say things like “Oh, I’m not sure you would be able to do that” and then act like it’s inspiring when we are actually able to do the thing. (Chances are we’ll be stubborn enough to prove you wrong, because it’s satisfying as hell — at least for me — when we do so.)
Treat disabled people as we should be treated: as humans. We are normal people. We’re not unusual because of our disabilities. They make us who we are. I have used identity-first language throughout this piece for that very reason and because the public view of disability shapes many disabled lives — particularly when dealing with ableism from non-disabled “supporters”. However, we are people first, and many disabled individuals prefer to be defined by their achievements — and I mean actual achievements, not what non-disabled society would consider an achievement for a disabled person.
We are not your inspiration, society. Don’t view us as such. Celebrate disabled people, by all means — but don’t do so to benefit your non-disabled selves. Celebrate us by treating us like regular individuals. Because that is who we are.
Lily is a non-binary disabled writer, activist, and medievalist. She has a masters’ degree in medieval literature from the University of Edinburgh, and lives in England. You can find her on Twitter or on her Patreon, where she posts medieval non-fiction, poetry, and queer fantasy fiction.