It’s not all about you
Gemma Varnom // 9 July 2014
The Facebook Meme: An unattributed photo of a woman in a wheelchair on the beach. Superimposed on top is written: "Never ignore somebody with a disability. You don’t realise how much they can inspire you!!"
There’s a quote someone or other will decide to share every so often on Facebook – by pure coincidence about 30 seconds before I permanently block them – that goes: “Never ignore somebody with a disability. You don’t realise how much they can inspire you!!”
Mawkish platitudes like this trouble me no end, not only because using more than one exclamation mark is usually a sign the author is about to implement a nefarious scheme to take over Gotham City, but because it unthinkingly implies the only reason not to ignore a disabled person is because their uplifting story of triumph over adversity can enrich your life. Not ignoring disabled people is a decent enough message, but implying they’re worth having around solely to boost your morale and warm your cockles is insulting. Who these disabled people are, what they feel, want or need, seems to be irrelevant.
The word “inspirational” in this context has rankled with me (and many others) for a long time, but the rise of social media and the likes of Buzzfeed and Upworthy means this stuff is everywhere now, right alongside all those videos of plucky three-legged kittens with the tearjerking plinky-plonky soundtracks.
So, to those people taking pictures of triumphant Paralympians and adding the caption, “Excuses: yours is invalid”.
To the people who shared the video of Joanne Milne hearing for the first time with the comment, “This has really made me think about how blessed I am.”
And to whichever overpaid numpty writes those hyperbolic, click-bait headlines like “This Happy Little Girl With A Scrotum For A Face Will Make You Totally Re-Evaluate Your Outlook On Life.”
To all these people, a polite request: can we stop making it all about you, please?
I don’t want to be your inspiration. I don’t want to “put things into perspective” for you or remind you of everything you “take for granted”. I don’t want to prompt you to think long and hard about how ‘lucky’ you are to have a fully functioning body and mind. Frankly, I’m a bit flippin’ busy starting a business, battling the patriarchy, reading ridiculously detailed philosophical analyses of Breaking Bad, fancying inappropriate blokes, eating too many Magnums and generally being a human who does ordinary human-y things. Things, incidentally, which do not automatically become extraordinary just because I am doing them.
It’s not as if anyone’s ever ‘inspired’ enough to actually do anything anyway, other than have a long and indulgent session of counting their blessings. I wouldn’t mind being inspirational quite so much if the result was, “You’ve inspired me to read up on the social model of disability” or, “You’ve inspired me to cancel my standing order to the Conservative Party.” But nope, that never happens. The definition of ‘inspirational’ is twisted here to become, simply, “makes me feel better about myself”.
And making you feel better often ends up making us feel worse. It makes those of us who can’t (or don’t want to) nip up Kilimanjaro every other weekend or win a Paralympic gold look like we’re just not trying hard enough. It makes those of us who don’t particularly feel like smiling every moment we’re out in public appear to be letting down all the non-disableds with our depressing negative attitude. “Focus on what you CAN do, not what you CAN’T!!”, the serial quote-sharers chirp, thinking they’re being all inclusive and encouraging, yet the true meaning behind it always seems to be, “It makes it all so much NICER for US!!”
What all these (probably quite lovely) people are doing, without realising it, is erasing our status as human beings who not only have opinions, passions, desires, kinks, loves, hates and occasional stinkingly foul moods just like everyone else, but who often also have additional requirements that need to be met. We – and in my experience it’s women and girls who seem to bear the brunt of this – are reduced to objects and saintly shining examples, as people with the very best of intentions place us on the very worst kind of pedestal.
It’s raising awareness, yes, but from a wilfully ignorant perspective. It’s making disability more visible, sure, but through a completely warped lens. They mean well, bless their hearts, but we know what the road to hell is paved with.
When you make our disabilities all about you, you take no notice of what they mean for us.
I guarantee anyone who views disabled people as ‘inspirational’ has absolutely no interest in aiding us in advancing our rights or achieving equality. They have no interest in what we have to say, not just about disability-related issues, but about anything. I could give a staggeringly erudite lecture on the development of the women’s rights movement in the 19th century (well, OK, I couldn’t, but that’s beside the point) and this sort of person would just turn round and say – in a tone of voice suggesting several exclamation marks – “Wow, she knows all that despite not being able to see. Amazing!!!”
“Never ignore someone with a disability”? Give over. That’s exactly what you’re doing.