Is it okay to call disabled people inspirational?

One of my Facebook friends put up a post on her wall and shared an article from the BBC website. It read “Food for thought: Is it OK to call people with disability ‘inspirational’? I have always been unsure about this, what do you think?”

Coincidentally, I have been reading in greater detail about this in one of my readings for my international development class and commented on the post by sharing direct chunks of text from an article:

There is another aspect of negative attitudes that is possibly more insidious than outright rejection, because it appears to be benign. It is the phenomenon of hero-worship. Some people surround disability with a kind of halo, which designates the disabled person as a hero or a saint. But both rejection and hero-worship are equally disabling. 

Nawaf Kabbara from Lebanon was paralyzed in a car accident in his twenties. Before his accident, he had what he describes as the ‘normal’ attitudes towards persons with disabilities: pity for their condition and admiration for them if they coped well. For him persons with disabilities were in two classes: beggars or heroes. But after his accident his ideas changed. He did not see himself as a hero: 

“Why is it wrong to regard persons with disabilities as heroes? Because we are not heroes. It just happens that things have changed in the way we do things; we are doing them in a different way. Of course there are challenges. You have to ‘cope’. Some do that better than others. But it is not heroism. It is just a life you have to carry out.” 

Regarding persons with disabilities as heroes or heroines is another form of labeling. Labels disable because they do not present the person for what he or she really is. Being regarded as a hero is ultimately very discouraging if you know perfectly well that you are not; it implies a shallowness, artificiality, and lack of seriousness in the relationship which is profoundly unsatisfying for the disabled person. It also inevitably entails failure when he or she does not live up to the expectations that hero- worship imposes.

(Taken from page 15 from the article “The Experience of Disability” from Dr. Peter Coleridge’s book (2007), Disability, Liberation and Development. London: Oxfam Publishing).

I have frequently had hearing teachers in the past emphasize at times that I was doing extremely well academically for a Deaf person. They have singled me out in front of a classroom of hearing students on several occasions. Their comments while meant to praise me did not make me fully comfortable because they put my deafness first before me as a person.

It makes me think: Have they never stopped for once to consider that deafness has no impact on intelligence and that there are different levels of intelligence, skills and talents among Deaf people? That being Deaf is no barrier to being able to lead a fulfilling life? A Deaf person who is outstanding in a particular area and allows himself or herself to shine, has nothing to do with being Deaf. Just like there are differing levels of capabilities among hearing people there are also varying aptitudes among people with disabilities? People with disabilities can certainly be bestowed with gifts and aptitudes that other hearing people might not possess. It has nothing to do with their disability. Rather, it has everything to do with them as a whole person having their own forte and realizing his or her full potential.

And, my answer to the original question:

No, it is not okay!

However, there are individuals with or without a disability who achieve something for the betterment and benefit of the community and mankind. They also overcome adversity in their lives even though it might have been easier to throw in the towel. Then yes, those people most certainly are what I would call…inspirational. 🙂

The bottomline is that it is not about the disability but rather the person. The disability should NOT be emphasized.

Case closed.

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3 thoughts on “Is it okay to call disabled people inspirational?

  1. The thing that bothers me most about the hero label is the fact that many view D/deaf people and people with disabilities as incapable of much and they act like it is a miracle when someone from the Deaf Community or disability community do the simplest everyday things. That is a problem, They are not impressed because they admire our true talents. They just think it was so brave of us to take a bus, shop on our own, have friends, and other normal activities. People with that way of thinking do not usually see beyond that to discover what each D/deaf person or with person or disability can really accomplish.

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