Jono A, ’18 Alumnus
I’m sitting at a table in a restaurant with my whole family, when all of a sudden this lady comes over and says to me, “My family and I have noticed you from across the room and we just wanted to tell you that you are an inspiration to all of us. And I really appreciate you being here.”
I say with a big smile, “Well thank you, that’s kind of you to say.”
She repeats herself, “I just wanted to make sure that you knew that, and I’m sure everybody else in this restaurant thinks the same thing.”
It’s a conversation that I’ve had many times over, and one that I’m skilled at navigating: the old “I will forever be their inspiration” conversation. The interesting thing about it is they never specify what exactly they find inspiring about me. I don’t think it’s my supremely sharp jaw line or effervescent smile that inspires them. People always seem to be too scared to specify what they mean, but I know they always mean the same thing: the fact that I’m in a wheelchair.
There are two types of people who say this sort of thing to me. The first views this conversation as win-win situation for both of us. They think it boosts my extremely fragile soul, which no doubt will crack at the slightest bit of hardship, and it makes them feel like a good Samaritan for talking to a depressed cripple. They think delivering the message that someday it will be okay, and that it will get better from here, is noble. Well, in all likelihood, from a physical stand point, it won’t. The other reason it’s a win-win situation for them is that they don’t think I’ll say anything other than, “Well thank you that’s very kind of you to say,” because they don’t think I have the ability to be quick witted, sarcastic or rude.
The second kind of person who has this interaction with me ultimately could not care less about me or my situation. While their primary goal is to for them to feel better about themselves, the fact is, they do not believe in what they are saying. However, they think I do because they assume I must not have the intellect to see through their thinly veiled disingenuous kindness.
Either way, it is annoying and humiliating. What “you’re an inspiration” means to me is that I have no real reason to live. It means that the fact that I’m even still alive is an inspiration. The person must expect so little of me that they are shocked that I even get out of bed in the morning. I could just respond, “get the fuck out of my face,” but ultimately, if I want them to get the fuck out of my face, the only way to do that is to be kind and polite.
There is a stereotype that all disabled people are resigned to the fact that their life is miserable, and in the face of eternal misery they must act cheery. The fact is, if that stereotype did not exist people would not come up to me and say, “You’re inspiring.” This is the stereotype that people want me to fill, need me to fill, because they’re scared of my situation and they don’t know what else to say. They are afraid of the abnormality that comes with a disability, and it makes them uncomfortable to look at those imperfections. So, they say the opposite of what they feel deep down inside.
I know I’m “abnormal.” I get that message every day. I stick out from a crowd. Whether I like that cold truth or not, that unfortunately is the way it is and the way it’s going to stay. I don’t need you to remind me of the fact that there will always be four wheels attached to me.
There isn’t an inherent “goodness” that is bestowed upon one as soon as they say this to a disabled person. In fact, quite the opposite. It shows very clearly the ignorant, narrow sighted lens that the person views life through.
Your age has something to do with my willingness to engage you in a conversation. No child would have the moral aptitude or intellect to phrase the statement as “you’re an inspiration to me.” Instead, they either do one of two things: they pause and stare at me for an extended period of time and when I look and smile back at them they run away, or they ask me bluntly, “why are you in a wheelchair.” Their bluntness to me is innocent and less entangled in perspectives on moral correctness. They aren’t trying to gain anything from our conversation. They aren’t even trying to make me feel better. They are purely curious.
Usually when somebody says “you’re an inspiration” it implies that you want to be like them. So I guess they want to be like an 18 year old crippled kid who enjoys watching football. Well, if that’s the case go right ahead, be my guest.
I don’t think that I’m alone in finding these words ignorant and hurtful. I think my feelings towards these conversations are universally held throughout the disabled community. It’s a struggle I face because these interactions aren’t going to go away any time soon and I don’t think I am in the right to be rude about it, because, truthfully, people are not saying these things to be condescending or rude. They just don’t know any better. But they should know better. At this point in a person’s life they should be able to realize the awkward reality that people with disabilities face every day and they should not accentuate that. But they do anyways, and they do it in blatant fashion. Kids are taught at a very young age that people with disabilities are not normal, and what comes with being taught that lesson is a shield of disingenuous behavior towards the disabled. It has become a societal pattern.
I don’t want to act as your charity work for the day. Because whatever you think, the message that I’m receiving is, quite simply, not the same message you intend to send. I understand that most of the time your intentions are good, but I also see your ignorance. Whenever you say, “you’re an inspiration to all of us,” it says more about you than it does about me.
“You’re an inspiration to all of us.”
Well, does your inspiration have a return policy?