I Am Not Your Inspiration


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[No, this is not the picture in question. It’s also not Inspiration Porn.]

Earlier today an image crossed my Twitter feed featuring a young man with prosthetic legs, carrying a backpack and waiting at crosswalk for the light to change. Above it read [paraphrased]: “Whenever I feel shitty about my able-bodied life, I’m gonna think about that poor dude with no legs, and stop my bitching. Because if he can do it, what’s my excuse?” No, those weren’t the exact words, but that was the underlying sentiment that I – a disabled person – picked up on.

But What’s Wrong With That Picture, Jess? It’s Inspirational!

Yes, so long as you aren’t the man featured in it. Here’s the thing with pictures, articles, and memes such as these. They’re Inspirational Porn. They take an person with a disability and turn them into an object. It defines the person by their disability and only their disability. It’s something for able-bodied people to use either as “motivators” to get them off their ass [no, thanks] or a type of pitying gratitude. Where they can look at the person in question and feel better about themselves while thinking, “At least my life isn’t that bad.” Who wants to be legless, deaf or in a wheelchair, amiright?

Because nothing could possibly be worse than having a disability. I mean, according to a chunk of media currently afoot, disabled people might as well be dead [see: Me Before You]. Their lives will never be full, active or joyful again. Just pull the plug already!

Or it’s chock full of able-bodied people praising disabled people for existing. Seriously. Just for doing their thing. “Look at this [person who exists outside social norms], they’re so heroic and brave! They’re walking across the street! With a backpack! In daylight! With no shame! Breathing the same air! Like a real human! My Gods let’s give them a medal.”

Can you see how this becomes infuriatingly patronizing when you hear it day in and day out? I know the Tweeter was merely pointing out one disabled person, maybe even the only amputee they’ve ever come across, but it sensationalized an individual who’s simply trying to live their life. Imagine if you changed it to gay man, a black person or someone who is bipolar?

“That black person is walking across the street! That gay man is carrying a backpack! That bipolar person is going about their daily life, just as any other human would!”

It sounds bizarre and ridiculous, doesn’t it? It should. He could have been doing any number of things, heading to class, returning to work, enjoying the weather, or secretly storing his Furry costume in that backpack for all I care.

The Point Is, He’s Not There To Be Your Inspirational Exhibit.

If this happened to any other minority group, people would be losing their shit. Calling racism, discrimination and other such words all over the damn place. And rightfully so. Yet, if it’s wrong to patronize – or in other words, single someone out for [presumed] unwanted exposure – based on their skin color, sexuality or mental illness, why aren’t disabled people granted the same courtesy and respect?

I think it’s because, in general, people with disabilities are viewed as “less than”. Less than physically able, less than mentally competent, less than emotionally stable. And because disability is typically considered to be about loss. Case in point, people often ask how I function without the use of my legs. They also assume – particularly when I was a child – that because I use a chair I’m also automatically deaf, dumb, blind and asexual.

Surprise! I have better vision than two-out-of-three of my able-bodied siblings, I graduated with a 3.4 in high school [math was always the killer, and senior year Spanish, Dios mío! I hated Spanish], I’ve been reading classical lit since I was preteen, I’ve done solo travels to Alaska and Nevada, written several novels, had a relationship that lasted nearly a decade [with sex!], and can outsmart the techies at your local Genius Bar.

Now, I know, this sounds like a massive humble brag – and it is – but it’s a humble brag with a point.  People assume based on what they see, that because I’m in a wheelchair I must be somehow lacking. They are making [bad] estimated guesses based on what they perceive as negative, without bothering to get to know me on an individual level.

This is where Inspiration Porn goes very, very wrong for me. Because rather than get to know me, and learn that I generally enjoy my life, it only sees the picture from the outside. Making the person secondary to their disability. Making them an exhibit for pity, pats on the head and empathetic “atta girl/boy”s from random strangers.

Now, I’m fully aware the the OP did not mean offense by the post, he’s just one person pointing to something he found uplifting. He conversed with me politely and [I believe] read the article on Inspiration Porn that I shared in the thread. The individual Tweeter is not the problem here.

The problem as I see it, is the way abled-bodied society views people with disabilities. We get extra points for going to college, learning to drive, having sex [did I mention I have sex and I like it? Because I do, just FYI], having social lives and even just being outdoors.

I wish I was being hyperbolic about that last one. I’m not.

While traveling solo to visit a dear friend in Nevada several years back, an older gentleman walked past and – I shit you not – said: “It’s good to see you out and about!” Now, the man had to be in his 70s, maybe older. Maybe he still thought all the cripples were hiding in the back bedroom of the Family Estate like it’s 19-bloody-12.

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[The Back Bedroom: Like a speakeasy for those pesky crips you want to keep out of sight. So they don’t ruin your dinner parties and carefully coordinated family photos.]

I’m being sarcastic here, which I hope is obvious. Yes, you may laugh. I won’t be offended. But where the hell else should I have been? At home knitting? Painting watercolors? At the nearest sanitarium in a fancy white coat? [No offense intended towards knitters, water colorists or people who like fancy white coats.]

Now, I smiled and joyfully replied that it was an excellent day for travel [or something like that, this was in 2006ish]. I’m used to older generations not being aware of people like me leading active lives. Because back in their day, I probably wouldn’t have. Unless my family had money, and sometimes not even that could save you. To a degree, they are a product of their era, so I try to take any colorful remarks in stride. But I do not get an extra cookie for walking across the street. I do not want the participation ribbon of life. I want to earn what I get, and that includes your misplaced “inspirational” label.

I’m A Person. Not A Hero And Certainly Not A Saint.

I’m in a wheelchair. I have depression, anxiety and PMDD. Guess what I still do? Bitch. Whine. Moan and groan about life, just like everybody else. Because I’m a person and sharing our collective pity parties about the Human Condition is one of the best parts of being alive. Especially on social media. Ooh boy, is that some good times! Admit it, we all love a good vent, a long whinge, a therapeutic whine. Or a double scoop of Schadenfreude. [cue evil giggle]

I don’t tumble out of bed and float through my day on a cloud of Sparkling Saintliness. Everyone who’s ever known me for more than for a few hours can attest: I’m not an inspiration or a hero merely because I do the things that society already views as standard procedure for the able-bodied populace. I’m a pain in the ass, a night owl, a dork, a brat, a gamer, a weirdo and more.

Don’t believe me? Ask my sisters. I have two, I’m sure they’ll have a plethora of stories. 😉 Or better yet, my mother. She’ll gladly confirm I’ve been a stubborn little shit ever since that time I made my older brother bleed, and then played the “but Mommy I’m tiny and handicapped” card on her.

The man in that photo waiting at the crosswalk isn’t a hero because he’s a double amputee. He might be a hero for serving overseas, or a multitude of other challenges that life can throw at us. But he is not an inspiration for existing. For living his life the same way you do.

Going about my day and calling my base existence an “inspiration” means you are singling me out as “Other”. Different. Special. Less Than. In your attempt to include me by praising my actual normality, you might as well point and proclaim, “THIS PERSON IS LESS THAN THE NORM, BUT LOOK AT THEM GO! WOO! GOOD FEELS ALL AROUND!”

Please, don’t do that. It makes me feel awkward and it’s completely unnecessary. It’s even more unnecessary to tweet it, where hundreds [if not thousands] of able-bodied souls can share in the exceptional joy of my “specialness”.

Trust me, the world can tell me that I don’t fit in without a single word. When I can’t get into the bathroom because the stall is too small, or there is no handicapped stall. Or some lady who doesn’t want to use the purse hook on the back of the damn door for her giant-ass hobo bag, takes the only handicapped stall instead. [Because the purse is disabled or she is? I think it’s a toss up …]

The dicksmacks that park in handicapped spaces without the sticker – or, even better – park their motorcycle in the ramp unloading section as though it’s not connected to the space. The people who – when you do your Disability Due Diligence – on a new venue will swear on their first born that they’re no steps into the building, and then you arrive and it’s like walking into an Escher painting. Because they don’t see the barrier or can’t be bothered to check.

It’s well meant, the inspiration label. I know. And I’m not mad, truly. Yet this is something I face daily when trying to find work, go to school, get a date. So if I can steer people in a better direction by writing a massive blog, that’s what I’m going to do. By pointing out my challenges, it only serves to reinforce the segregation that I – and other disabled people – face every day.

There’s A Lack Of Respect For The Person.

From what’s offered as evidence, I can only assume the photo was taken without the man’s permission. It’s shot from the back and his face is not visible. He might as well be a mannequin, for all the say he has in the image. He’s an object to be looked at, even praised [in a weird, roundabout way] but not interacted with.

Now, extrapolating from my own life in a wheelchair, there’s a strong chance this man gets stared at … a lot. Whether it’s little kids, adults, strangers, the elderly, that darling and well-intended person at the mall who – in all their uninformed wonder – is going to pray that “the good lord heals you”, doctors, physical therapists, insurance people, family, schoolmates, co-workers. In short, most people with disabilities are used to being looked at, questioned, poked and prodded. It’s a part of my life, and for the most part? I’m good with it.

Dare I say, I’m even proud to smile back at you, when you look at me in my chair. Cruising around with my best friend, carrying my nephew on my lap and being a badass aunt [yes, even you, lady who gave me a dirty look about it] and generally being a happy ambassador for Cerebral Palsy.

But to take a photo of a stranger, focus on their disability, and then use that as a springboard for your own self-improvement? It’s actually fairly gross, the more I think about it. If you want to improve your attitude, great! But do it for yourself, do it for the people that love you, don’t use my life – which you know nothing about – for your own motivational purposes.

That’s not okay.

Now, About That Top Picture …

That image I used above is not Inspiration Porn. You want to know why? He’s an active subject in the picture. He is front and center doing what he loves. It’s even captioned: “explosive start of athlete with handicap at the stadium.” Notice the word order there.

He’s not a “disabled athlete”, he is an athlete – first and foremost – and then disabled. It’s not “athlete heroically” – or – “inspirationally” explodes from the block. He just does because it’s about what he does not what he is or the disability he happens to have.

Secondly, because I purchased the picture from Dreamstime that athlete [as well as the photographer] is being compensated for his work as a model. It’s not some random dude taking a photo of him of the street without him knowing. He’s being treated as an individual, a professional, and rewarded accordingly for his work. He’s also had a say in how he is presented.

The man on the street had none of these courtesies given to him. Not respect, not compensation for his image, not even a chance to share his story. The Tweeter could have introduced himself to the man and asked him about his disability. He could have called out, “Hey Dude, nice legs!”, shared a chuckle and opened a discussion about what brought the man there. Instead? He took a photo of an already marginalized minority, slapped a feel good thought onto it, and then posted it on Twitter. All without this person’s permission.

For all the OP knows that man doesn’t see his amputee status as a challenge, something to be overcome, praised or glorified. For all any of us know, he could be happier now then he was before. Or maybe he’s like me, born with a disability and that is his normal. We don’t know anything about him, because no one bothered to ask him. A person. An individual. A human soul. Because “Inspiration Porn” isn’t about the individual. It’s about how the disabled object makes other people feel about themselves.


Categories: Disability, Life, Personal
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