I should add a tagline to this post title. It really should be called “The Condescending Nature of Calling a Person with a Disability Brave, Courageous or Inspiring: And Why Many in the New Generation Don’t Seem to Care”. While I dislike making generalizations about any group, I see a new trend emerging in many youngsters with disabilities who are starting to come of age. Luckily, not all of the new generation of criptastic crusaders is this way. However, unfortunately, it seems as if a larger majority of my generation are willing to correct societal stigmatization of the disability community, while this new generation, the Millennials, are sitting back and letting it happen (and some are even using it to garner attention for themselves).
Maybe it’s because my generation (Gen X), is not too far removed from the generation before us, the ones who helped to lead the disability rights movement. Perhaps this generation is comfortable with what freedoms we’ve been given thanks to the likes of Ed Roberts and his rolling quads. I wish I could tell them there is still a lot of work to do. As much as we’ve had the start of our own civil rights revolution, we’ve failed to have a movement that has created the same kind of societal breakthrough we’ve seen with the Black community or the LGBT community. Society, as a whole, still looks down on the disability community. Many fail to understand us – who we are, what we represent and what we’re capable of, as a result.
So what is so wrong with being inspiring? There really is nothing wrong with it, but often, when used to describe a person with a disability, it is used in a condescending manner. A person with a disability is “inspiring” not because they have done something awesome (like cure cancer or save a puppy from a burning building). We’re inspiring for showing our faces in public. We’re inspiring for getting out of bed and going to school. We’re inspiring for showing the able-bodied community how lucky they are to not be us! That’s not the kind of inspiring any person should aspire to be.
Don’t get me wrong, getting out of bed takes longer and IS more of a challenge for those of us with physical disabilities, but thanks to technology, it has gotten easier. Getting out of bed is often no big deal. Going to school can be a challenge for anyone. For some of us, we may lack physical prowess, but our brains are quite active. School actually comes quite easily for me. I work my ass off, but just as hard as most of my peers. I am no better or worse than any other film student who wishes to be the best they can. Therefore, I shouldn’t be deemed an inspiration just because I get out of bed and go to school. Say I’m inspiring for the same accomplishments you’d find inspiring if I happened to NOT be in a wheelchair. I’d rather be inspiring to another in a wheelchair – if only to inspire them to live their dreams to the fullest and know they can do anything they truly put their mind to…that is the only way I seek to be inspiring.
Even worse than being inspiring is being brave and courageous. Society sees people with disabilities as less or lacking. We, therefore, are expected to achieve less or offer the world less of ourselves. We are less capable, which is reflected in how the world traps us in a catch-22 when it comes to health care benefits. We obviously cannot or will not work, therefore it’s okay to live in poverty. It’s okay to only qualify for our much needed healthcare IF we have no income. We’re not worthy of working anyway, so what does it matter?
It was Temple Gradin who wrote a book called Different…Not Less. I think that sums up how people with disabilities are. We are different. We get out of bed differently. We move through the world differently. We adapt, and how we adapt to the world is different than how able-bodied people do things. However, we still manage to achieve the exact same things. We are different, but we are not less. We are equal. Using terms like brave and courageous personifies the idea that we are less. We must be so brave to show our faces outside our homes. We are so courageous to be shown in our wheelchairs; to enter the able-bodied world and let our disability-infused selves mingle with the able-bodied populace.
I don’t want to be brave because I went into the hospital and survived a surgery. I want to be brave because I did something worthy of bravery. The definition of brave is, “ready to face and endure danger or pain; showing courage.” I don’t know about you, but I may have physical pain, but so do plenty of other people in this world who have no disability. I have no emotional pain when it comes to my disability. Further, the majority of people with disabilities I know, while they may be thrill-seekers, have no active interest in pursuing or enduring danger.
When I think brave, I think of someone who is in a devastating situation (like a hurricane or other natural disaster) who has persevered and has perhaps even saved 12 kittens and a flock of orphans. I think of soldiers fighting against unjust laws and tyranny. I don’t think of Jimbob, the guy on the corner who goes to college and has Aspergers. I don’t think of Susie who is awesome at playing Tetris, even though she’s in a wheelchair. That is not brave. That is not courageous. It is not even inspiring!
So why do I care if the new generation is not always correcting others? Why do I worry that some are even exploiting their disabilities and encouraging the use of such terms, because it gets them popularity and even money? I care because this kind of thing affects all of the disability community. These people who garner a following hold power in their hands – a power that affects the entire disability community. As such, they have some responsibility for how the greater world views disability.
People in the able-bodied world often have limited exposure to disability and those of us living with a disability. They rely on the media and now on interactions with people with disabilities through the internet, to help them understand our world and our way of life. Sadly, most do not realize one size does not fit all for those of us with disabilities, even those of us with the same disability.
Like all of society we are all individuals. We are all unique and our paths, triumphs, failures, successes, and lives are different from one another. The able-bodied world doesn’t know this. They see us as a collective unit. What happens for one clearly happens for all, right? So, when this new generation does not correct the masses for telling them they are inspiring for taking a shit, courageous for taking a shower, and brave for riding the bus in broad daylight (okay, depending on the area of town, this may be more courageous for anyone to do!), the masses begin to believe this is okay. They can tell anyone with a disability they are courageous, brave and inspiring. They can feel better about themselves for not having to go through such a “traumatic struggle” to go outside or do some other mundane task!
From there, they begin to see us for our differences. We are personified by our disability. We are not people first. We are our disabilities! Then they continue to treat us for the commodities we are! We continue to be objects of pity! Our forefathers/mothers of crippledom – Ed Roberts, Frank Bowe, Judith Heumann – wouldn’t stand for this! They would not want us to go back to being objectified because of our disability! They would want us to continue to fight for acceptance and inclusion! We’ve come so far…so why stop the good fight now?
To the new generation – I know it’s easy to forget how far we’ve come, but the fight isn’t over. You are worth MORE. You deserve MORE. You can be just like anyone else. It might just take a little more hardware, a little more ingenuity and a little more understanding on the part of others. We all want acceptance, but mostly we just seek to be seen as the one thing we all share in being – human. We are humans first, our disabilities are a mere personality quirk that make us more fun to be around. The able-bodied community should never forget that, and hopefully this new generation of people with disabilities will help us old-timers teach them this valuable lesson.