10 December 2023

The problems with being ‘inspirational’

Why the term ‘inspirational’ has become a slap in the face for people with a disability.

Promotional poster showing of a young man in a wheelchair with the caption "I'm somebody who believes I can"

I was once told I was “inspirational” while I was at the gym.

I’m not too sure whether she was impressed that my bulging biceps were protruding through my shirt as I lifted five kilogram dumbells, or because it was 8pm and it was my last-ditch effort to do something productive that day.

I hope it wasn’t because this kind middle-aged female gym-junkie had noticed I had one arm and was using a prosthesis – but somehow I think that was why.

Promotional poster showing of a young man in a wheelchair with the caption "I'm somebody who believes I can"
I see this sign at Richmond station on my way to work and profusely roll my eyes every time I see it because it’s exhibit one in Stella Young’s gallery of what she describes as “Inspiration Porn”.

And there’s also a great irony that the poster has, most likely, unintentionally been put up so you see it after you walk up a set of stairs – something that Nick-wheelchair would have trouble doing.

April is Limb-difference Awareness month. And as someone who has misplaced three right fingers and a thumb, I’m participating by making an extra point of being “inspiration-free”.

Like so many other disabled people, I detest that word. It is patronising more than anything else mainly because those that view disabled people in that way are, just as the kind person at the gym, setting such little attainable standards for them.

In an interview with Australian wheelchair tennis player Keegan Oh-Chee, he told me that he’s been congratulated for playing because it “got him out of the house”. Nationally he ranks third, and is in the top 50 in the world, yet he was so impressive one day because he left his own house.

Vanessa Parekh wrote a timely piece last week in The Establishment on this exact subject. She’s been congratulated for manoeuvring her own wheelchair at a job interview. I mean, although it can be pretty good being able to navigate a custom built wheelchair to a room, I’m sure her job-related skills are far more of an achievement.

And then there are comedians hitting back who congratulate their “inspiring” able-bodies counterparts for remedial tasks. Stella Young is one disabled person that would happily make a point of this in her comedy routine.

Laurence Clark makes a more personal point around London.

Don’t get me wrong, we should idolise our disabled people who have achieved great things.

Stella Young would hate being called inspirational, but she’s definitely someone who has used her comedic talents to consistently challenge the norms, and encouraged us to think differently about disability.

Anita Hollander, who has one leg, landed a role at the Goodman Theatre and will appear in shows without her prosthesis. Then there’s Paralympic gold medalists in Rio later this year who will prove they are the world’s best in their field. Athletes who beat their personal bests have also shown they can beat themselves.

But the greatest hope is we recognise greatness not within the context of their disability, but as a result of talent, training, sacrifice and hard work.

I used to kayak with a complete paraplegic and Sam is remarkable, not because she’s paddling and competing, but because she picked up a new sport within weeks of finishing rehab on her broken back then within a year was training for national meets six times a week and had halved her personal best time. Meanwhile I was complaining about getting up at 6:30am only to run late to my one session with her anyway.

The point is we should seek to understand disabled people as what they value as achievement, and celebrate that with them. That’s inspiration, and not this fake term that’s become a sloppy description of “you did well by disability standards”.

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