I’m confused. Maybe you can help me.
On the one hand, I really like inspiring stories about people with disabilities ambitiously accomplishing their goals.
- A new Duracell commercial ad features Seattle Seahawks Derrick Coleman, who is deaf.
- Barbie Thomas, who has no arms, competes in body building competitions.
- Diane Rose, who is blind, sews beautiful quilts.
- Nick Vujicic (No Arms No Legs No Worries!) works as a speaker, author, and evangelist.
These videos encourage viewers to be inspired by their subjects, and I don’t want to minimize their accomplishments.
Trouble is, this "inspirational” story line has been repeated so often that it's a stereotype: a man/woman valiantly accomplishes such and such despite the disability. It implies that anyone who lives an ordinary life with a disability must not be living an important life. To illustrate, imagine if a common theme of news stories was this: woman accomplishes such and such, in spite of the fact that she’s a woman. It’s easy to see the prejudice when phrased this way.
But one might argue, being a woman is not a disability, it’s part of her identity. Fair enough. But plenty of people with disabilities consider the disability to be as much a part of their identity as their gender.
So I also read stories by people affected by disability in which they expressly reject the “inspiration” stereotype.
- Rob J. Quinn recently published a book, I’m Not Here to Inspire You: Essays on Disability from a Regular Guy Living with Cerebral Palsy.
- Sarah Sweatt Osborn wants her young daughter to grow up without the burden of being an inspiration, “My Child With a Disability Is Not My Hero.”
Ben Mattlin, who has spinal muscular atrophy, articulates well the typical stereotypes of people with disabilities: “stereotypes ranging from the sad, needy, half-dead, bitter, antisocial, even malicious medical failure to the heroic, inspirational but hopelessly lonely super-achiever.”
So do you understand my confusion? I celebrate the accomplishments of Derrick Coleman and Nick Vujicic and the others, but I want to get to know people on their own terms. I don’t want to paint anyone with stereotypes that have been formed in my mind by media. But how do I do that?