(Please note that whenever I say “able-bodied”, that doesn’t include those with mental health issues. As a sufferer of mental health issues myself, I advocate the view that mental illnesses are physical illnesses that just happen to affect mental functions rather than directly physical ones. Both can be incredibly disabling, and certainly I have days where it’s mental rather than physical issues that disable me more.)
It had been months since I worked in my second charity shop, the animal charity, so when I went yesterday, it was pretty much all new people there. Usually it’s young people, often school pupils volunteering for their Duke of Edinburgh Awards, which is an award for young people taking in part in various things, one of which is volunteering. As opposed to the other shop, the homeless charity where I’m pretty much the youngest but one, in the animal charity shop I’m one of the oldest. I get on with all ages, really; I do find it easier to get on with older people, but it’s perfectly fine with the younger ones too. I usually end up asking them about school, haha.
Anyway, at some point the conversation ended up about me being able to get around in some capacity–I had my sticks, but I was mentioning how much easier my chair has made things, except it’s as independent as I would have liked, partly because my upper body is also affected by lupus (oh, how much easier would the chair and sticks be if it was just my hips that were the issue?!) and partly because my lightweight chair is often pulled all sorts of directions with the slightest incline in the pavements! I mentioned by the side that I have lupus when explaining this issue that it’s not just a case of having awesome upper body strength and so getting around pretty easily.
Not too long into the conversation, one of the boys said I deal really well with my health issues and he’s glad I’m so positive about it. I know a lot of disabled people resent when able-bodied people say this to them, for various reasons. There’s the whole issue of “inspiration porn”, where disabled people are put onto pedestals for able-bodied people to say, “Wow, if he can do it, then so can I”. I too somewhat resent the impersonal side of using disabled people as a group as inspiration, but I’m personally happy when someone tells me I deal really well with my condition.
I try to remain upbeat and optimistic, and find the balance between having a “normal” life without sweeping disability under the carpet; actually, I find that my life becomes more normal and disability less invasive when I do have aids like the wheelchair–while it takes a while to get into that mindset of being disabled, having people go out of their way to help, being treated differently, whether positively or negatively, having the chair for example means that I can do on trips out, and so on, and I am in more of a position to help myself and manage more without being hindered by my disability. When people recognize my optimism, it makes me feel pretty good, even though I think they’re often a bit OTT! 😛
I think it is different when it comes from friends rather than strangers. I have had friends give me the whole “you’re so inspiring to me the way you deal with your disease and hardship”, and I don’t feel condescended in the same way as “inspiration porn” makes me feel; I think because on one hand people are genuinely responding to your personal situation whereas in the other, strangers are using you as a prop to make them feel better about their own lives, to use the disabled community to inspire and help themselves rather than us. On one hand, I like the acknowledgment that we go through a lot just to live our everyday lives; I know many disabled people resent the idea that we’re so amazing just for going about normal lives, but actually, I think it’s good for people to realize that living an everyday life is difficult when you’re disabled and can require a lot of strength, physically and mentally. I believe in celebrating what seem like little things to able-bodied people, like having a day out, having a shower, managing to go grocery shopping, all these things that people take for granted. Because for me it is a struggle, and by acting as though we are all on the same level living our normal lives is, I feel, dismissive of the everyday challenges that disabled people face, that able-bodied people take for granted.
As with many things, there’s a right way and a wrong way to say the same thing. I guess it’s hard for me to explain what the differences are, but there is a stark difference between saying to a friend that you admire them for facing challenges that their disability brings, for having determination, and by putting disabled people in general on a pedestal as “brave and heroic” for living normal lives. It may be inspiring that we have the motivation to continually push through tasks that able-bodied take for granted, but certainly it’s rarely brave or heroic! Most of us disabled people are living pretty normal lives, and while as I said above I welcome the acknowledgment that our everyday may involve more struggle, I resent being “othered” all the time by comments like that. I feel accomplished when doing some “little” things, as I also said above, yet I can barely described how patronizing it would be for being told “Congratulations”, “Well done”, or “You’re so inspiring” for having a shower or getting into town for the day. And on the other side, if it’s a big achievement in the eyes of both disabled and non-disabled, then giving a disabled person praise for the “being disabled” part rather than the actual achievement can also be dismissive and othering. Often our talents and achievements have little to nothing to do with disability, and we’re thus at the same level as able-bodied people, yet put on a pedestal for the same achievement.
The best way, in my opinion, to share a small accomplishment with a disabled family member or friend is not to excessively laud us nor to sweep it under the carpet, but simply to listen to us and support us if we say we can’t manage something else, not to be dismissive and think or say, “Is that it? You only went round the shop…” I have pushed myself so far so often for the sake of other people because I worry that if I say no, they judge that based on their own physical condition and think you’re just being lazy or some other cliché. Because they have, so many times. With a big accomplishment, simply acknowledge it for what it is. Congratulate a disabled person the same way you would an able-bodied person. If I get a book published, what difference did my disability introduce to that? We have ideas and thoughts like any other person; we can contribute to many fields without disability being an issue.
As much as I accept the compliment from people that I’m very optimistic about things, I invariably tell them that we don’t really have much choice! It’s either get out a live life or sit in a dark room all day feeling sorry for ourselves. Many people say they wouldn’t cope in my situation, but my guess it that most would. It’s hard to separate what was the grief for the loss of my health and what was depression at the time, but I got lupus at 15, and went through some dark times coping with it. My issues with depression started long before this, but what better than an incurable debilitating disease to trigger an episode, right?! But grief is a process, and you get through it. Seven-eight years later, how could I possibly still be feeling sorry for myself to such an extent every day? How could I be constantly complaining every moment, thinking “Why me?” every day? That’s tiring. It’s demotivating. Eventually you get to a point where you just cope. Disability makes my life harder, yes, but it doesn’t write it off! So the implication that the average non-inspiring, non-heroic disabled person is just wallowing in self-pity and bitterness all the time is insulting.
Of course we all still have days where we do feel sorry for ourselves, feel somewhat cursed and think, “Why me?” But so do able-bodied people! It’s astonishing how the pendulum swings so dramatically both ways concerning disabled people; if we cope, we’re heroic, brave, inspiring; if we don’t, if we complain, often if we merely mention our conditions, symptoms, and so on, we’re pessimists, we have bad attitudes, if we just “thought good things we’d cope so much better”, say the able-bodied people who whine incessantly with a cold. I do find it astonishing that a lot of the time, able-bodied people can complain a lot about relatively minor bodily issues, but disabled people mentioning a more severe issue at any point can be seen as “whining”, “showing off”.
This is probably a bit of a garbled mess! And possibly some able-bodied people are reading what seem like contradictions and thinking now they don’t know what to say to a disabled person at all! Anyone can be inspiring, whether disabled or not, but it’s insulting to consistently “other” disabled person and find them inspiring for the mere fact that they are disabled. If someone’s an athlete, or a top scientist, or a best-selling author, of course you can be inspired by them whether they’re disabled or not; but admire them for their achievements, not for being disabled. Without meaning to denigrate anyone in a similar position, but if someone worked a checkout in a shop, lived a pretty normal life with their family, friends, nothing spectacular, then you might see the issue with suddenly proclaiming such a person a brave and heroic inspiration. What have they inspired you to do, to be? I think this is the issue. You admire a disabled person for cutting-edge scientific research just as you would a non-disabled person, you admire someone for overcoming severe anxiety to follow a dream, you admire an author for their gripping plots, you may admire someone for getting through school with good qualifications in spite of missing many lessons due to health issues. But you shouldn’t admire them for being disabled.
I feel this contribution to the “othering” sets up disabled lives as something so diabolically horrendous that able-bodied people feel they could “never like like that”. Now consider someone saying that about your life; sure, it’s hard at times, whose life isn’t? But to suggest it’s not worth living? To suggest that you are a hero because you do live it–against your will, too; we don’t choose to be disabled–is dismissive and insulting. People say they would “never cope” in this life–actually, as I said, most people would. For people who became disabled rather than being born disabled, we have had to adapt from being able-bodied to being disabled, and we cope just fine, because, although difficult, our lives are not an awful, torturous, dismal existence every day just because we have some more struggles. The main point from this babbling is Listen. Listen to your disabled friends and family when they tell you something is insulting, something is ableist; listen to the voices of disabled people in media and take in their message; read blogs about inspiration porn and try to establish how you can express your inspiration from disabled people in a less-insulted way. If you obstinately stick to your “inspiration porn” and say “But I dooo find it inspiring; I don’t care what these disabled bloggers are saying”, then you’re part of the problem. As long as you’re willing to listen, learn, and change, then you can contribute to changing ableist attitudes in society. If you care enough about disabled people to use them as tools of inspiration, then I would think you’d want to listen to them and stop these attitudes that insult and dismiss us across the board.