Why Many Disabled People Do Not Want To Be Considered ‘Inspirational’
I recently 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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
© 2016 Carola Finch