When is disability not "inspirational"?
(Episode 1.4)


Have you ever called someone with a disability “inspiring”?

This is not always a good thing – in fact, it can expose the negative way that society sees the potential of people with disabilities.

Let’s find out how.


Being called “inspirational” is not always a compliment

One of the most common experiences that people with disabilities have is being called “inspirational.” While it sounds positive on the surface, it can also have a negative meaning in many situations.

For example, people with disabilities argue that doing everyday tasks is not “inspirational,” even if the task is more difficult to complete due to a disability. By being called “inspirational” in those situations, there is an unspoken assumption that they are not expected to be as independent and capable as people with no disabilities.

In this chapter, we will look into the issue with being called “inspirational,” as well as “inspiration porn” (which has a more family-friendly meaning than it sounds).

Living with a disability is not always “inspirational”

In an online web series called My Gimpy Life, the main character is an actress named Teal (played by Teal Sherer, who uses a wheelchair in real life). We see her waiting to be auditioned for a role. Her name is called, and the casting directors are visibly surprised at seeing someone in a wheelchair. The audition goes badly, but the directors appear thrilled and call her “inspirational” just for auditioning. She is disappointed – but even more, she is uncomfortable with being seen as an inspiration for an obviously uninspiring performance. To her, it is merely a token compliment.

This is not just a fictional situation. During a TED talk in Sydney, comedian Stella Young describes a moment in her teen years when she was to receive a community achievement award, for no other reason than living life with a disability. Her description of the situation is clear: “I wasn’t doing anything that was out of the ordinary.”

These two situations are examples of disability being seen as inspiration for all the wrong reasons. Neither Teal nor Stella were doing anything unusual or extraordinary – in fact, they were just doing what everyone else would do. This is very similar to adults over-complimenting young children for simple tasks. By doing so, it exposes the low expectations that society has on people with disabilities and ultimately it feels like an insult more than a compliment.

When is disability actually “inspirational”?

It is a mistake to say that disability is never inspirational. It all depends on whether the person in question is actually doing something normal or extraordinary.

For example, Paralympic athletes are certainly an unusual part of the disability community because of their amazing athletic abilities – much like Olympic athletes in the non-disability population. Paralympians’ accomplishments can help others see their own potential, hopes and dreams.8 For this reason, those who do extraordinary acts are definitely seen as inspirational to most people.

However, there is also a debate about whether this helps enforce the stereotype of the “supercrip.”

What is a “supercrip”?

The most basic explanation of a “supercrip” is the portrayal of someone with a disability as somehow more heroic, more courageous or stronger simply due to a disability.6 One way of creating a super-crip is to describe someone as succeeding “in spite of” a disability. Instead of treating someone’s accomplishment as earned and deserved, it is somehow linked to the disability, even if it is not relevant.

An example of this is the British scientist Stephen Hawking. He is a very accomplished scientist and has a reputation for being one of the smartest men in the world. However, he is often seen as a scientist who has succeeded “in spite of” being paralyzed by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). In reality, his medical condition and scientific discoveries are not related.

More on this can be found in the chapter called The Supercrip Stereotype.

What is “inspiration porn”?

Another way to show success “in spite of” a disability is through inspiration porn, which refers to how people with disabilities are seen as inspirational simply for having a disability. Examples include images of disability alongside inspirational quotes, with a message of how success is possible “even with a disability.”

Disability rights activists argue that these images use people with disabilities to make those with no disabilities feel better about their own situations – in other words, they show that people with disabilities have a much lower quality of life, in an attempt to put into perspective the positives of having no disability. This creates a stigma towards people with disabilities; it makes their situations look dreadful and negative, with less to look forward to, compared to the lives of those with no disabilities.

Disability as inspiration is part of the medical model

In the What is disability? chapter, we learned about the medical and social model of disability. Disability as inspiration is seen as a medical model approach, because it suggests that a medical condition is something to “overcome” in order to succeed. Compare that to the social model, in which society’s barriers are the biggest challenge.

For example, when you call someone “inspirational” for doing something normal like shopping, you are showing that you expect someone to not be able to shop because of a disabling condition. That expectation can possibly translate to other areas, such as employment, where you may not expect someone to be able to work. It places assumptions on people with disabilities, creating an attitudinal barrier.

Summary

Even though it might be meant as a compliment, it is not good to call people with disabilities “inspirational” for doing everyday things. By doing so, it shows that you have a low expectation of them, to the point where they are not expected to live like everyone else.

However, there are exceptions. For example, if someone with a disability goes above and beyond everyone else, the “inspirational” may apply. This could be true for Paralympic athletes, amazing scientists and those who are able to do something that most people cannot.

It is important to remember that even if someone is “inspirational,” it is not always for a disability-related reason. One notable case is Stephen Hawking. His scientific discoveries are above and beyond most other scientists. In that way, his accomplishments can be seen as “inspirational” but not because he has a disability.


For research sources for all of the information above, please download this lesson This download in in PDF format.

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Overcoming the supercrip stereotype


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