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Disability and Inspiration

Dunedin student and Local Advisory Committee Member Tom McAlpine (27) wonders whether there’s a middle-ground in perceptions of disabled people as inspirational or, conversely, as passive objects of bystanders’ goodwill.

While it might sound politically correct to say so, I would like to challenge the idea that disabled people, living their everyday lives, are inspirational. That’s not to say that we can’t be, if we achieve genuinely incredible things.

Many people find Stephen Hawking inspirational. I think this is right, because his genius mind of extraordinary power. I, on the other hand, am not inspirational in that I can use stairs. This feat is simply because I have practiced with my physio! People are inspirational when they do great things, not just get on with life.

Catherine Soper, over on the blog site The Mighty explains this idea well.

“We’ve been told that disability is a bad sad thing. Therefore by proxy anybody with a disability is overcoming a cruel fate, and is inspirational simply for living daily life.

Having a disability has its challenges, but it’s not necessarily bad, and it’s certainly not sad. Like the rest of society, we are simply living. Some people with disabilities have done and will do inspiring things, and some of us won’t, and that’s OK. We’re just human after all,” she explains.

At the other end of the scale, but connected to the idea that having an impairment is an inherently bad thing, is the idea that as disabled people living our lives, we’re in constant need of support of others. Sure, many disabled people do need support to do some of that ‘everyday life’ stuff, but unless we ask for it, I think it’s safest for the public to assume that we have it all under control.

Here’s an everyday example. I think that the receptionist at my medical practice should know I can walk and use the stairwell without assistance by now as I have been there a number of times. Ok, I totally understood the first time but I still get asked every time and, for me, it feels like a disempowering exchange that I’d rather not have.

It is similar with the use of an EFTPOS machine. I can use my card and enter my pin number on my own. But it’s virtually impossible to do so without strangers asking if I need help. If my physical condition worsened, I might later decide that I’m comfortable asking for support, but I expect to make this decision myself, not be judged as needy by others based on my appearance. Instead of people offering to rush in with offers of support, I would rather people me, as a disabled person, the time I need to do this on my own

I think the intentions are good and there is no real harm in good intentions. But I would like non-disabled people to have a think about how your attitudes and perceptions are shaping these good intentions and if you think these might match our own ideas about ourselves as disabled people.

What do you think?

6 Responses to “Disability and Inspiration”

  1. Ron Hannken says:

    A very well thought out article

  2. Yes, it can get tiresome when you have to educate non-disabled constantly on how to support you well.

    I agree that disabled people shouldn’t be thought of as inspirational just because they’re doing what every other non-disabled person is doing, however I think dealing with the extra challenges and non-disabled attitudes & barriers takes strength.
    It also takes patience and courage to have to teach non-disabled all the time.
    We also need bit of fortitude to advocate for ourselves at work, home, doctors, specialists, government departments and in the community.

    Tuturu tangata haua!

  3. Tania-Rose MacPherson says:

    I feel discouraged when banks won’t put the talking in their eftpos machines. They make adds we can’t totally understand, but the majority of us aren’t blind or partially sighted. sorry if spelling not good, you see I’m blind and have been this way since birth. I do get help sometimes but I accept it if I want and can be most grateful such as when I ask the bank teller for help to get cash out etc. We all have different thresholds. We and I’m not good at it all the time have to try even harder not to be rude, shame but true. One or to mistakes can lead to forever or a very long time being disliked. Attitude counts, how you handle the situation what you do and what you portray. be careful. Not everyone will be nice nor understand.

  4. Thanks for the insightful reflection for non disabled people like me to consider

  5. Michael Pulman says:

    I totally agree with you Tom – and thanks for writing about this also! For a long time I’ve said there is a major difference between disabled people doing ordinary, everyday things, and actual leadership. Leading our own lives (as disabled people) should be a given, not a privilege. Your point about the bad ideas associated with disability are also correct. Well done!

  6. Sue Sherrard says:

    Yep, agreed Tom. Recent experience was when I paid my bill at the post shop and the customer behind me commented on how well I did pressing the eftpos buttons – good for a laugh with mates but slightly irritating. I say slightly because I don’t let all the patronising get to me – I’d be irritated ALL the time if I did. Thanks!

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