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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?

Any ideas?


Thank you for these words Mark.  These are the type of "stereotypes" that are so prevalent.  It makes our jobs more difficult sometimes.  Our experiiences are so different.  I think talking about it often and creating awareness in our churches are key to making the diffference.  Keep up the good work!

Mark Stephenson on February 5, 2014

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Thanks Harold. You keep up the good work of advocacy too!

Several thoughts come to mind on this topic, Mark.  We are all people first, and persons with gifts/talents and disabilities second.  That applies to both abled persons as well as those with disabilities.  There are "regular people" and those with special talents and gifts among abled persons.  Why should there not be "regular persons" with disabilities as well as those who have special talents and gifts?  In fact, God has often used their disabilities to help them discover what their gifts and talents are.  And isn't that the responsibility of all of us - to discover the talents and gifts God has given us, and to use them for His glory and for the benefit of our neighbours?  

One additional thought:  how many people have discovered their gifts and talents through their association with persons with disabilities?  I'm one of those people.  When I returned to work after being a stay-at-home mom for seven years, I started working in a nursing home as a care aide until I could take a refresher course to get my R.N. registration again.  I worked in this facility for over 23 years learning from my residents with dementia, mental illness and physical disabilities on how best to journey with them and meet their needs.  This led to my becoming involved in the Disability Concerns ministry, with a special interest in advocating for those with dementia and mental illness, which I had time for when I became physically disabled myself and could no longer work.  I have a nephew who is studying to become a neuroscientist partly because of his interest in what is happening to his father's brain and life as a result of drug use.  God has given each of us talents and gifts, and it is our responsibility to discover and use them.  That applies to everyone, both abled and disabled.  And isn't it great when we can discover our gifts through our relationship with each other?

Mark Stephenson on February 6, 2014

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Elly, regarding your second point, God led me to the calling I have today as the Director of Disability Concerns through our oldest daughter, Nicole, who has severe multiple disabilities. Similarly, my wife is now a Special Education teacher after getting trained first as a German teacher. God used her as his instrument, just as we each pray that we'll be used by God to further the kingdom. 

Where I struggle is that when the media talk about people with disabilities they are somehow set apart in the stories either as "inspirations" or as objects of pity. Either way, they are set apart from everyone else as a "them" as opposed to "us." That's why I have mixed feelings about "inspirational" pieces about people with disabilities. On the one hand, inspirational stories help us see that disability does not have to limit people to their stereotypes. (Wow, a woman who is blind can sew beautiful quilts!) On the other hand, these inspirational stories imply that a person with a disability only is valuable if he/she is inspiring. The truth, as you say, is that every one of us has gifts and talents, and every one of us is a "regular person." None of us needs to have our worth measured by whether we inspire others. We all have great value as God's image bearers.

A thought. By trying to set the disabled apart from "the regular" by NOT acknowledging that the media will see the disabled as one extreme or the other in the same way they see "the regular", we actually do set them apart.  The media does not consider  the "pitiable" regulars news either.


Hey Mark.  Another issue that rears its ugly head is when a person with a significant disability engages in inappropriate and destructive behavior that labels them in a way that is not very flattering.  They develop a "reputation.", especially in the church community.  Now it becomes very difficult for them to find a secure haven in the very community that should be providing that safe and secure family.  I can understand why this is, but it does make it difficult. The person with the disability can pick up very easily on this and that in of itself can make it next to impossible to reach out to these people.  Harold.  

Mark Stephenson on February 7, 2014

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Harold, ouch. So true. If only we in the church could practice with each other the rich beauty of the words we sing, "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me."

Another discussion going on the Network right now is about the church's tendency to shut people out if they don't have strong social skills. The author of that article, Jeff McNair, ends his article with the painful and powerful reminder, "We do well to remember that social-skill deficits are not sin, but rejecting someone due to social-skill deficits is sin."

Thanks Mark for raising this important question. We all have views of "normal" that we learn or is imposed on us. Different is emphasized sometimes too often. Having a prosthesis I have learned that folks focus on it, not me. Too often first reactions lean toward pity which is spirit-killing for me. Yet overcoming living barriers (walking, standing, etc.) too often is overlooked, unless I speak up. Sharing my struggles leads to me being treated differently just because I spoke up. It makes me avoid situations and communications about "disabilities." I want greatly to be treated as just another child of God, a man, a father, husband, grandfather and friend. 




Fronse, it sounds like you find yourself with a dilemma. On the one hand, you simply want to be "just another child of God," and speaking up about your disability only causes people to focus on it all the more, resulting (often) in even more pity toward you. On the other hand, instead of pity, you would like people to appreciate that the disability has deepened your resolve and your creativity to overcome the barriers it creates. I read a fine article once (can't find it right now) by two women (one or both have disabilities) who examine the Luke 8 passage about the woman with a flow of blood. In her society, she would have been considered to have a disability. The authors of the article noted that in all the commentaries they read about the passage, no commentator said a word about the woman's courage, her resourcefulness, her determination to go on living in a society that considered her unmarriageable and perpetually unclean. Thanks for taking the risk to speak up here so that those of us who read your post can remember the resourcefulness and determination one needs to keep on keeping on when living with a disability. 

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