Why Disabled People Shouldn’t Be Your Inspiration
Originally published on minoritymag.com
It’s not an uncommon experience to be shopping or waiting in line for something and to accidentally make eye contact with someone you just don’t want to talk to. You try to look away but they’re already smiling and before you know it, they’re talking. Now, this can happen to anyone. But if you’re anything like me, that’s to say disabled, you probably know what’s coming.
It’s normally somewhere along the lines of ‘I think you’re amazing’, followed by an awkward pause and then, ‘it must be so hard for you, you’re so brave.’ Or even worse, the token, ‘I feel sorry for you.’
I then give the usual uncomfortable response of, ‘for buying my shopping?’ Then I laugh and try my best to remove myself from the situation, because I’m just going about my everyday life. Here’s the thing: we, as a society, have been conditioned to perceive those with disabilities as inspirational.
But, we’re not.
It’s so ingrained that when I turned up to a nursery to complete my work experience, the parents thought I was there to tell they’re children about the merits of hard work and perseverance.
I was there to help them with their lunches and to read Dr Seuss to them.
Society has this notion that those with any type of disability should be praised for doing menial tasks. Or, receiving over the top praise when it’s thought we’ve achieved something extraordinary, like getting a job, or learning how to drive in an un-adapted car.
It’s a form of toxic positivity that is mentally damaging. And it’s everywhere.
Giving this behaviour a name:
Over the last few years, a phrase has been used to encapsulate and project this uncomfortable feeling those of us with disabilities get when we are needlessly praised, or pulled into the spotlight for others gratification:
Stella Young, a disabled rights activist coined the phrase to reference media depictions of those with disabilities. Though, as it’s been referenced more and more in online discussions the phrase has been used to label interactions with non-disabled people that make us feel uncomfortable. Both seen and unseen in the same moment.
It’s amplified and reinforced across social media every single day. You know, like when we watch a video of a disabled person getting asked on a date by an able-bodied person. Or we watch a deaf person get a hearing aid and hear for the first time. Or, and these are my least favourite, images of a disabled person doing something with a corny caption attached. It might be an amputee running with the phrase, ‘what’s your excuse?’ or a woman in a wheelchair at work saying, ‘the only disability in life is a bad attitude.’
What’s the effect?
Like everything, the attitudes about this type of behaviour differ, but it’s generally accepted that the practice of making disabled people inspirational, is overall damaging. It diminishes the person with the disability, almost to the point of making them one-dimensional.
I’m not demonising praise. Praise can do a person the world of good, but the praise needs to mean something to me. Don’t just praise me just for existing, because, to me at least, that diminishes everything else I do. If I’ve hit my peak just for going for a walk, what else do I have to work towards? At that point, no matter how nice the person's intentions were, it comes off as patronising and self-gratifying. I understand that people mean well, but whenever I have one of these interactions, I’m left feeling objectified. People don’t see me. They see the walking sticks then fill in the blanks with what they want to see.
People don’t see me. They see the walking sticks then fill in the blanks with what they want to see.
What can we do about it?
Like everything, the answer to this is subjective. For me, it’s all about seeing the individual and not the disability, acknowledging that, yes, I’m disabled, but that is such a small part of who I am. So, here’s a few things I like to do when I’m feeling objectified.
Start a conversation
This one can be difficult as environments, time constraints and the person themselves will factor into my willingness to have a chat. If I can, though, I'll ask why they think I’m worthy of praise, or why they feel sorry for me. I often find if I challenge a person’s ideas, their perception can shift just enough that they start to see me as an individual.
On the flip side, if you’re the able-bodied person in the scenario, don’t be afraid to ask questions. Not everyone will be comfortable answering them, but a factor in this whole thing is lack of awareness and education.
Tell my own story, my way
Blogging and writing in general is a big one for me. Having my own space to detail my own experiences is key to me feeling seen. It’s a lot easier to be seen as a person if I tell my story over a span of time, because I can give detail and nuance that is lacking in the videos and posts often associated with inspiration porn.
Always have consent to post a story that isn’t yours
It’s a small thing but having fully informed consent from a disabled person means a lot. Make sure we know where the images and story are being posted. Make sure we’re involved with the process. It might seem arbitrary but having that consent means we know and are happy with the way we’re being portrayed.
These few things go a long way to abolish the idea that being disabled is inherently tragic. I’m not saying it’s not hard, because it absolutely can be. That doesn’t mean my condition should be objectified and be made to have meaning, because that reduces me to a caricature that I have no desire in perpetuating.
In the words of Stella Young,
[d]isability doesn’t make you exceptional, but questioning what you think you know about it does.