I’ve been called a lot of things. People who like me have said I’m charming, intelligent, good at writing, unusually good with dogs, and kind. That makes me happy, especially the dog comment. People who don’t like me have said I’m sensitive, childish, “cringey,” dramatic, and basically a small child in an adult body. That makes me sad.
I’ve also been called inspirational. That usually makes me feel kind of weird.
When disabled people are called inspirational
‘You’re so inspiring for doing x’ usually translates to ‘I didn’t think you were capable of doing x and I’m shocked that you are’Carys Llewellyn
People with disabilities have been called inspirational for doing lots of things. We are inspirational when we sing. We are inspirational when we graduate from high school. We are inspirational when we go to dances with people who aren’t disabled.
But the thing is that all these activities are actually pretty normal. Most humans in our culture will do them. It’s ordinary.
So why does an ordinary achievement or fun activity become inspirational when a disabled person does it?
Some people might say it’s because of what we’ve overcome. Let’s talk about that.
On “overcoming” challenges
Excuse my theory of mind, but if I asked some people why they think I’m inspiring, a few of them might say:
Because you’ve gone through and overcome so much! You are breaking down barriers despite suffering from autism!
I mean, I have overcome a few barriers. I had a life-threatening illness at age 18 and I managed to survive. I’m going to graduate college even though it has been difficult to manage the workload sometimes, especially during midterms and finals seasons.
But there are also a lot of barriers that I haven’t overcome. My developmental delays are real and they impact my independence at home. My social life outside the internet is nearly nonexistent. My life is incredibly limited compared to neurotypical standards; there are 14-year-olds who exercise much more independence than I do.
But that’s not as good a story as “Young Woman Overcomes Autism to Write a Contest-Winning Story that People Actually Like.”
It’s a tidy narrative, simple. She faced unusual challenges but she accomplished something, so that means she is cool and the challenges probably weren’t that bad in the end. No need to worry about whether she is receiving enough support or whether people with disabilities are treated fairly. Individuals can overcome the challenges and then the challenges are gone. Such an inspiring personal journey.
Except, of course, for the part where it’s fake.
Yes, I have overcome some things. But there are also a lot of areas where I’m still struggling. The struggle and the success can co-exist. Pretending like one of them is in the past only does me a disservice, especially when I am still in need of help.
How I feel
Teasing out my feelings can be challenging. I have some degree of alexithymia, which makes it hard for me to know what’s in my head.
I also have difficulty understanding concepts like condescension. It’s an idea that seems completely foreign to me. Like, if someone doesn’t understand something and they need extra help… how is anything bad about that? I rarely recognize condescension. If someone tried to condescend to me, I would probably think that they were trying to be nice and maybe they didn’t understand that I’m actually smart.
Maybe it’s condescension when people say I am inspirational for managing to do things “despite” autism. I don’t know. Perhaps one of my savvier friends could tell me. I just know it’s kinda weird and I don’t like it so much.
I do give people the benefit of the doubt, though. Maybe they don’t pity me or have any of the weird feelings. Maybe they just think I’m legitimately awesome, kind of like how I think Greta Thunberg and Jameela Jamil are inspirational because they kick butt so much and that’s cool.
I don’t know if I count as kicking butt, but if you think I do and you admire me for it, that’s pretty neat and it makes me feel happy instead of weird.
On compliments and clear thoughts
So maybe you’re reading this and you think “gee, when I compliment cool disabled people, I want them to feel happy instead of awkward or confused. So what do I say?”
Let’s talk about it.
A really bad compliment would sound something like:
Wow, it is so cool how you manage to do good things despite your horrible tragic disability. So sad that you were born with such a huge disadvantage in life, yet you are actually able to do something positive instead of staying at home crying all day (which is what I would do in your situation). So good for you!
I don’t know what emotions that involves but I don’t really like any of them.
And a good compliment might sound like:
Wow, you are super cool and the work you do is awesome. Your skills are so impressive. I want to be like you because I admire you. You’re my hero!
You don’t have to go overboard or say anything you don’t mean, but I think you get the general idea.
And when you see a story about a disabled person succeeding, stop and consider:
- What have they actually overcome? Were some of those barriers put in place by society? Did they receive adequate support or were they fighting an uphill battle alone? Are other people like them getting enough help?
- Have they really “overcome” a disability, or does that disability still exist? (You can be disabled and cool at the same time!) Are they still in need of support and accommodations?
- Am I praising them for doing something that’s actually awesome, or am I over-praising a stranger for something ordinary?
- It’s not over-praising if you’re congratulating a disabled friend on doing something that was hard for them, like learning to drive. There’s just no need to involve strangers or the news.
- Am I keeping in mind that this is a normal human being whose life isn’t necessarily too different from mine? Am I treating them like a normal person whose needs are just slightly different from average?
I don’t have concrete answers to this social issue.
I hope this post encouraged you to think from new perspectives and evaluate the way you see disability. And maybe, the next time you see an “inspiring” story about disability, you’ll be able to stop yourself and think about whether it’s inspirational or just a sort of sadness in disguise.
I don’t want you to pity me. Help me find the right support. Be happy for me when I succeed. Admire me if I do something awesome. But don’t act like being autistic makes me special. I want autism to be ordinary and I want autistic people living well to be ordinary.
I’m not extraordinary for the DNA I was born with. I’m extraordinary for the choices I make.