If there is one overused sentence I have heard more than any other during my whole life is “you are such an inspiration.”
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I’ve been an amputee since birth, and I have used prosthetic legs for a very long time. Throughout my childhood, I was called “inspirational” so many times that it became completely lacking of meaning. People who I would casually pass here or there have called me inspirational without even asking my name. Just recently, I came out of the public restroom in my gym and this kind lady immediately said “you are so inspiring.” I wanted to point out the ridiculousness of that statement with humor, and respond, “thank you, I just pooped.” But, I decided to be polite and just thanked her.
Apparently, having a visible disability is all it takes to be considered inspirational, which is frankly a pretty low bar.
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As an adult, my patience for that word finally died out. What the heck does inspirational even mean in the context of disability? Let’s explore two reasons why you shouldn’t call disabled people inspirational.
- It can be very insulting.
This argument might raise a few eyebrows. Calling someone inspirational is supposed to be a compliment, right?! Obviously, calling someone inspirational isn’t offensive in itself. However, it can easily become insulting when it’s applied to someone with a disability. When an able-bodied person calls a disabled person inspirational, they’re usually applauding them for existing – and in turn, patting themselves on the back for realizing how difficult disabled life must be. “Go you!”
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Unsurprisingly, these good intentions can quickly create highly unfortunate implications. For example, a man once said to me, “whenever I feel sorry for myself, I think about you! If I were in your situation, I wouldn’t be able to get out of bed!” Please stop. Don’t pity us as a source of self-motivation. Think about it. You just pushed me down to build yourself up.
- It imagines a knowledge of disabled life that you don’t actually have.
Most of the people who call me inspirational are strangers or casual acquaintances. Do they have enough information to make that assessment? Probably not. That’s also why I never understood how anyone could be so quick to assume that all disabled people must be inspirational simply because they’re disabled.
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I know I sound like a broken record, but people with disabilities are just like everybody else. They’re complex, and sometimes flawed. They hide insecurities, struggles and inner demons that they might not want the outside world to see. We are not perfect, angelic human beings by virtue of having a disability. Life just doesn’t work that way, and you can’t stamp us out as brave, permanently optimistic, or whatever harmless stereotype helps you process our disabilities better.
That is why you shouldn’t claim to know anything about disabled life if, to begin with, you don’t even know the person you’re talking to! Instead of claiming disabled people inspire you, appreciate them for their uniqueness and individuality. Avoid the temptation to turn us into abstract symbolism. We might be inspirational to you, but at the end of the day, we’re three-dimensional human beings like everyone else.
My advice to all, when you see someone with a visible disability, don’t say any more than you would to any other stranger that you come across. If you feel the need to say anything at all, just say hi or smile and move on. That person has probably heard that he/she is in an inspiration multiple times before you came along. A simple smile will go a lot further.
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