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A woman rises with confidence and inspires herself and others

Thoughts on Inspiration

I don’t want to be an inspiration. I only want to inspire.

If you exhibit visible MS symptoms then someone, somewhere, sometime may have called you an “inspiration.” I've been called worse, but I still don't like it.

Why I'm not a fan of the word "inspiration"

First, I’m not psychologically mature enough to process a compliment like that. Also, I think calling me or anyone else an inspiration may change the focus from the person being helped, where the focus belongs, to the person facilitating the help. While everyone's opinions may differ, I feel calling someone an inspiration can distract from the important work of solving problems and making people’s lives better.

Because I’ve chosen to be a public advocate for people with disabilities, I am called the i-word often. When folks tell me that they’ve read my book or blog, and that they loved it, I think, “Hurry past the part where you call me an inspiration. Get to the part where you tell me how my message made a difference — that I inspired change, if indeed I did.”

That, my friends, is the special sauce.

Objectifying people with disabilities

Stella Young introduced me to the idea of objectification of people with disabilities in her 2014 TED talk. She shared "inspirational" images of people with disabilities using adaptations to accomplish everyday, normal activities. She called it “inspiration porn,” which is “objectifying disabled people for the benefit of non-disabled people.”

She continued, “When they say, ’You’re an inspiration,’ they mean it as a compliment. And I know why it happens. It’s because of the lie, it’s because we’ve been sold this lie that disability makes you exceptional. And honestly it doesn’t.”

That statement struck me as a bit harsh, although others may find it refreshingly honest. Nevertheless, I was skeptical of her whole premise. Let the people use us as inspiration if they like. What’s the harm? In fact, I’m the guy who says, "It is a legitimate coping mechanism to remind yourself that someone is always worse off than you. And, if I can be that someone for you, I’m happy to do it."

Yet, I can understand how some people with disabilities, like Stella, feel objectified by depictions of us as extraordinary while participating in ordinary activities. I think inspiration porn may reduce us to merely tools from which non-disabled people can gain inspiration.

Deciding what's appropriate vs what's not

Some folks think it’s straightforward. “You’ll know it when you see it.” Here’s what I think. It may be inspiration porn if:

  • the person with a disability is portrayed as one-dimensional, if it’s all “never give up” and “you can accomplish anything if you try hard enough”
  • there is no mention of how, despite our best efforts, we sometimes feel sad, lonely, or hopeless
  • nothing is conveyed about how disabled-unfriendly the world remains to us
  • or, disabled people are portrayed as inspirational when we’re doing normal activities

And I feel it probably isn’t inspiration porn if:

  • it’s spontaneous. People can’t help themselves. They love to identify heroes and inspirations, and they interrupt our peaceful restaurant dinners and ask for autographs and selfies and…perhaps I exaggerate. My point is, consider each situation on its own merit. What is the person’s motivation?

Alternatives to the inspiration designation

I love it when the person I am interacting with, rather than fawning over me, becomes so engrossed in the moment that, if only for a moment, they forget I am disabled at all. I can’t tell exactly when this happens, but I’m quite sure it does.

And even better— I love it when I become so engrossed in the moment that, if only for a moment, I forget I am disabled at all.

That, my friends, is a second helping of special sauce.

In the comments section below, I would love to hear your thoughts on being called an “inspiration.” Do you accept it graciously, or does it make you feel awkward? And please share any other thoughts you have on inspiration.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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