by Carrie Baatz
People with disabilities are some of the most resilient people I know. The Independence Center is a hub for the disability community in Colorado Springs; if you come here, you’ll find a wide variety of people, each thriving in their own way.
We are impacted by all kinds of disabilities. Some have survived traumatic injuries and now live with paralysis or brain injuries. People acquire diseases that impair their ability to move or walk. Others were born with blindness, low vision, deafness and hearing loss. Underneath the surface, some of us live with mental health conditions, cognitive or learning disabilities.
To us, disabilities are natural aspects of human experience, part of the context we live in. Disabilities don’t define who we are. In the ordinary ways we live our lives, we are disobeying restrictions imposed on us by society. We learn to compensate for our weaknesses and use our minds and bodies to the best of their abilities.
More profoundly, we are overcoming cultural attitudes that limit us. The same people I know who were told they would never work are the experts who teach and tutor others. They create art. They run marathons after thinking they may never walk. They marry and raise children. They push through physical or communication barriers and become active participants in society. Once written off as incapable, they are now powerful leaders, building communities and organizations that empower other people.
It’s easy to admire people with disabilities and hold us up as inspirations. As a society, we make heroes out of people who live normal lives with disabilities. Oftentimes, when people tell someone that they are an inspiration, they mean it as a sincere compliment. But beneath the surface, the feeling of inspiration can be coming from an attitude of sympathy (feeling sorry for someone), rather than respect, and it can even be objectifying.
Generally, people in the disability community want to be seen as equals, not as special or heroic. While it’s nice to be admired, we don’t want to be put on a pedestal for living our lives with our disabilities. We like to be noticed and appreciated for all of who we are, not just our disabilities.
Heroes can be hard to relate to, because oftentimes we idolize them. Similarly, when people with disabilities are held up on pedestals, we are made into something less than real human beings. There is not enough room on the pedestal for our ordinariness, or the layers that make us unique. We are separated from everyone else.
Sadly, many people carry assumptions which lower their expectations of people with disabilities. It’s commonly believed that we shouldn’t have been able to live a “good” or “normal” life.
When I was in my late teens and early twenties, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I listened to one of my providers tell me that I would never be able to work full-time because bipolar disorder had “handicapped” me. Now, people call me “high-functioning” because I work full-time and maintain a family while managing my mental health conditions.
In reality, I am making the most of my abilities, like we all are. I am not “higher-functioning” than anyone else. If I were, how could I relate to anyone, with or without a disability? The tragedy in making some people with disabilities into heroes is that we miss out on connection, and we lose sight of who people really are. My provider did not see past my disability and could never recognize my love of learning, or my resilience and determination to grow.
The more you get to know us, the more you will pick up on the unspoken standards of disability etiquette. It is perfectly natural and okay to be inspired, but we want to avoid saying or doing things to objectify people with disabilities.
If you are wondering whether there ever is an appropriate time to tell a person with a disability that they inspire you, the answer is yes! People with disabilities appreciate knowing that they have had an impact on you, if you are coming from a place of respect and empathy.
Here are tips that will help you create equal connections with people who have disabilities. If you feel inspired by someone with a disability, take a moment to do a gut check, and ask yourself where your feeling of inspiration is coming from.
Common attitudes that can make us feel inspired:
- Sympathy: “Your life is so hard; I feel sorry for you.”
- The Pedestal: “I couldn’t do what you do.”
- Objectification: “I don’t really see who you are as a person; I am just looking at your disability.”
- Empathy: “I identify with you, and I relate to you in some way.”
- Respect: “I admire what you have done or achieved. You are playing the hand you have been dealt, and you are making it better for all of us.”
Disability Etiquette Tips:
- Get to know the person, if you have the opportunity, before calling them an inspiration.
- Tell the person how they have impacted you, specifically. Have they influenced the way you see yourself, or the way you want to approach your challenges?
- Can you identify with this person’s story? Share how you can relate to them. Maybe you share their values, challenges, or life experiences.
All the time, people with disabilities inspire me. I hear their stories, and I can reach into a part of myself that relates to what they have gone through. An equal relationship forms between me and someone I admire when I see their struggle, and they see mine. No one is on a pedestal. Instead, we identify with each other, and I am left with the feeling that we are in this boat together. If they can overcome, I can overcome, too.
Watch comedian and disability activist Stella Young talk about why she is not your inspiration in this TED Talk.