“Inspiring” isn’t the compliment you think it is

I’m at the risk of repeating myself. I basically wrote this exact thing a year ago when Stella Young died. But it comes up for me time and again. I hate being called inspirational.

You probably think I should just take the compliment. Maybe you’re right. But being called someone’s inspiration isn’t quite the sweet thing people think it is, even if it’s intended that way.

The key to this is in the dynamic that’s created when an able person says that a person with disabilities is inspiring. That’s the relationship I’m examining here. It’s different if an able person says it to another able person, or a person with disabilities says it to another person with disabilities.

Stella Young, who was the first person I heard talking about this issue, subscribed to a social model of disability – the idea that we’re more disabled by the world we live in than by our bodies. When asked if she was inspired by others with disabilities, she said yes, of course, but; “We are learning from each other strength and endurance, not against our bodies and our diagnoses, but against a world that exceptionalises and objectifies us.”

Look at the narrative that the word “inspirational” reinforces. If an able bodied person is “inspired” by what the person with disabilities is achieving – is it because they are othering that person so much, they’re impressed with them just living their life?

Also, are they letting themselves of the hook? Are they saying, well, they’ve overcome the disabilities in their bodies, and therefore, the world doesn’t need to change and I don’t need to do anything differently?

And if they say a person with disabilities is inspiring – what exactly are they inspired to go and do? Do they think, well, if that person who only has one leg can run a marathon with a prosthetic, then I, in my hugely more privileged two-legged position, can… can what? Run the marathon too? Ok, sure , maybe it’s something you always wanted to do and thought you couldn’t, but an able person running a marathon isn’t exactly world-changing. What I want to know is, if I’m inspiring someone – what are they doing with it?

What I would like to encourage is this: change the word inspirational to the word motivational.

The difference is, if someone inspires you because they have a disability, it’s because you see them as less capable than you.

If someone motivates you, it’s because you see them as MORE capable than you.

I can be motivation. I’d be fucking honoured if someone said that to me. Not inspiration. Not a reductionist clickbait sob story.

When people say they are inspired by me (even though it is othering and frankly patronising), that’s fine. I can accept that they think it’s a kind thing to say. What I want to know is – what are you motivated to do?

What changes are you going to make in your life as a result of me sharing mine?

I’m not inspiring. I’m human and fallible and defensive as fuck. I don’t want people to look at me and see someone who is broken and think; what an inspiring story, she still gets up every day – and then just close the tab. If that happens – what’s the point in me writing any of this?

Here’s a final thing about being “an inspiration.” You’re handing someone a mantle. Do you have any idea of the weight of maintaining it? Sometimes, I am going to feel bad. I’m going to not get out of bed. I’m going to be pissed off about what’s happerned to me, petulant, angry, childish. I’m allowed to. I’m not here to be someone else’s raison d’etre, because all that means is if I fall, they fall too. I’m letting everyone down.

It’s a minor change. It’s a single word, but words have power. Thinking about the way you talk about and to people with disabilities can make a difference.

The choice is yours.

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