"Inspirational" Thoughts

A lot of people still use the word "inspirational" to describe people with disabilities, despite scores of articles and blog posts by disabled people saying, emphatically, "Please stop it!”

I have even seen online articles by disabled people, writing that they can’t stand being called “inspiring”, followed by comments from people who: a) enthusiastically approve of everything the writer has said, and b) telling the writer how “inspiring" they are. Um, what did I just say? WHAT DID I JUST SAY?

Even quite a few disabled people talk about other disabled people being “inspiring”, or claiming that part of their life’s mission is to “inspire” others.

Why is the word so persistent? Is it just a handful of grumpy crips who hate “inspirational”, our voices amplified by free blogging software? Have people heard our arguments for why it’s offensive and just decided we’re wrong?

I think there's something else going on here that has nothing to do with disability.

I think "inspirational" has become a buzzword that represents the opposite of controversy, cynicism, and irony. "Inspirational" things are good news, things that make you happy, things you admire. It is the opposite of more bad news, things that make you angry or hopeless, things that you dislike or ridicule. "Inspirational" also implies simplicity. It's good stuff that has no dark side, no hidden agendas, that can't be deconstructed, turned on its head, or satirized.

A lot of people crave this. They are sick to death of exposés, stories-behind-the-stories, "real truths", ridicule, snark, and fashionable pessimism. So, when something drifts by in the cultural stream that seems just plain awesome, and makes people feel better about the world, a shorthand way to explain its appeal is to call it "inspirational".

Disabled people crave this, too. Many of us are only reluctant advocates. We don't all have the reflex to ferret out hidden ableism … the overt kind is hard enough to deal with. Lots of us love stories of personal achievement, or human kindness, and find them a lot more uplifting than yet another lamentation about why all businesses aren't accessible yet. We want very much to think that individual persistence and a positive outlook can overcome deep systemic barriers against disabled people. We want to be “inspired", too.

I don’t want to deny people the good feeling of being “inspired”. When it comes to disability, I just want them to think a little bit deeper about what, exactly, is inspiring, and stop assuming that our mere presence is some kind of laudable accomplishment. So, here is my two part proposal:

1. We call a truce and in general let people describe us as “inspired”, or include disabled people in the broader pantheon of people and things that are “inspiring”.

2. On a personal level, when someone says that they find us “inspiring”, or calls another disabled person “inspiring” in our presence, we should reply, “That’s nice. Can you be more specific?”

How about it? Is this a workable compromise?