In 2014, disabled Australian disability activist Stella Young gave a TED Talk titled, “I’m not your inspiration, thank you very much.” It has become an essential text of disability culture, and a touchstone for people with disabilities struggling to describe their experiences.
Young’s presentation, and even just the title, put into tart, succinct words something people with disabilities all over the world instinctively feel but often can’t explain. Disabled people have complicated relationships with a lot of words. But the one word other than “disability” itself disabled people feel most intensely about may be the word “inspirational.”
It’s hard to find objective data to know for sure, but it seems likely that most people with disabilities feel at least a little uncomfortable when they or other disabled people are described as “inspirational.” Many simply hate the word, partly because it always seems to crop up whenever disabled people are talked about. It drops with a distinctive clang in everyday comments like, “I can’t believe how capable you are even though you’re in a wheelchair. You are so inspirational to me!” And it induces eye-rolling in social media posts like, “Paraplegic mountain climber inspires us all to achieve,” or news headlines such as, “Inspirational story of football team manager with Down Syndrome restores faith in humanity.” The fact that the intent is almost always positive doesn’t make the “inspiration” cliché any less annoying to disabled people who have to hear it every day.
Yet, there are some disabled people who embrace both the word “inspirational” and the idea of being inspirational to others. Plenty of people with disabilities develop personal mission statements that include goals like “I hope to inspire other disabled people to achieve their dreams.” And many disabled people find it genuinely empowering to interpret their hardships and achievements as motivation for others, as in, “I hope my story will inspire others going through hardships to never give up.”
So is “inspirational” a pernicious habit of thinking about disabled people that should be actively discouraged? Or, is it an essentially positive impulse that just needs to be redirected a bit? Why is the word “inspirational” so divisive in the disability community? Is there a healthy, genuinely empowering place for something like “inspirational” in disability culture?
These and similar questions are explored in numerous videos like Stella Young’s TED Talk, and essays written by and for disabled people, such as this one by Deborah Davis at PUSHliving.com. And it can be helpful to try viewing the discussion from several different angles.
First it’s important to be more specific about exactly why the word “inspirational” is a problem for many disabled people in the first place. It’s not just a matter of fragile sensitivity or overthinking language. There are solid, real-life reasons why many disabled people chafe and cringe at being called “inspirational,” regardless of context or intent. For example:
If “inspirational” is so bad, then why do people continue to use the word? There are good reasons for that, too:
Disabled people themselves sometimes participate in celebrating “inspiration” too, for a variety of reasons. Despite having disabilities themselves, they may still be embedded in non-disabled culture and subject to non-disabled ideas and language habits around disability. They may be more influenced by values that center the idea of “inspiration” than they are by disability culture, which is generally sick of the term and skeptical of its meaning for people with disabilities. Or, they may simply feel the word is applicable in the way they use it, and not care about how it sounds or comes across to other disabled people.
All of this suggests a complex answer to whether there is a positive role for “inspirational” in the disability community. Maybe it’s not wrong to call disabled people “inspirational.” Maybe it’s just unnecessarily annoying and thoughtless to use the term so constantly, and without thinking Here are some suggestions for a more balanced approach to “inspiration” in disability culture.
Instead of calling a disabled person “inspirational,” use more specific adjectives that refer to the person’s unique and positive qualities, not just broad stereotypes of disbaled people in general.
Cite specific ways the disabled person has demonstrated these positive qualities — something more than just appearing minimally healthy and happy in public. Show that you recognize them as a three-dimensional person, not a cardboard cutout.
If the feeling of inspiration comes from how the disabled person has weathered hardship, dig into the hardship and how it might be reduced. Remember that hardship isn’t just a character-building opportunity to demonstrate virtue. It’s also often a symptom of injustice and failure — of bad things that should not have happened. Surviving ableism is admirable and sometimes empowering. But that doesn’t make ableism itself a good thing.
Finally, if you find “inspirational” on the tip of your tongue when discussing people with disabilities, stop and think. You don’t necessarily have to censor yourself. But be aware that rightly or wrongly, the word is at best problematic and at worst toxic for many disabled people.
And then maybe think of something more specific, personal, and orginal to say.
by Andrew Pulrang
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