I don’t want to be ‘inspiring’

One of my most memorable moments in high school came during my freshman year. A motivational speaker was addressing us in a huge assembly. I was seated with one of my best friends at the front of the auditorium, and the whole group was having an amazing time. The speaker was charismatic, exhibited a warm, jovial disposition and a wonderful sense of humor. I was smiling and laughing with the rest of the group. But at the end of the assembly, my friend and I were singled out by the speaker, who said something that people with disabilities hear often — that because I got around on crutches and she with a scooter, we were “inspiring.”


Dadu Shin

John Altmann, The New York Times October 20, 2016

In that moment my personal characteristics, the people I love, the interests I pursue and the beliefs I hold became moot, and the fact that I have cerebral palsy and use crutches to walk became the entirety of who John Altmann is and what he is about.

When I tried expressing my anger to people, I felt disconnected from them. They assured me the speaker was just being nice; some insisted he was just telling the truth. That what I did every day was inspiring. I grew tired trying to convince them that I shouldn’t be a source of inspiration for anyone simply because I live my life as I know it just like everyone else.

The friend who I sat with at the assembly got it. Our frustration, while a foreign language to all of our able-bodied friends, arose from a deeper desire that we shared. We wanted to be more than our disabilities, to overcome them and forge an identity apart from them. But an able-bodied world makes it hard to find this sort of fulfillment. And it often does so with even the best of intentions.

Case in point: In January a story made the rounds about an undefeated wrestler who let his opponent, who happened to have Down syndrome, win a match. Most people praised the athlete for being selfless and a class act. A reporter at CNN wrote, “A high school wrestling star gave up a shot at going undefeated this year, but some people think he had the perfect season.” I didn’t see it that way.

Wrestling is an activity predicated upon a specific kind of athletic acumen and is governed by its own set of rules. When the undefeated wrestler let the opponent with Down syndrome win, the nature of the environment was fundamentally altered. The wrestling mat, which is meant to be a site for athletes to exhibit their physical prowess and to find out in the end who the superior wrestler is, became instead another site of segregation.

I don’t mean to say the wrestler had malicious intent; it’s obvious that his heart was in the right place, but his actions, and more significantly society’s subsequent reaction to them, reinforced the stigma that the disabled body is one in need of our sympathy and charity. In that moment the wrestler’s identity was disregarded and his disability took center stage. However well intentioned, the able-bodied wrestler chose segregation by laying down for his opponent rather than giving him his best. His sympathy became toxic.

This is just a symptom of a much larger problem. Society, on an institutional level, consistently opts for its own more profound types of segregation. In Britain, for instance, welfare reforms caused 14,000 disabled citizens to lose the mobility cars they use to function and to go about their lives. Here in the United States, one of the most common and widespread problems for people with disabilities is unemployment, with only about 40 percent of disabled people employed as of 2010, about half the rate of non-disabled people. These problems can be linked with the inaccessibility disabled students usually encounter in colleges and other spheres of civil society.

Much like the Civil Rights Act for African-Americans, the Americans With Disabilities Act, while a revolutionary piece of legislation at the time of its passage, was not a magic wand we could wave to dismantle these transgressions against disabled people, or reform the system that supports them.

Disabled people cannot be expected to forge an identity beyond their disability or to diminish the impact that their disability has on them personally, psychologically or emotionally when they are deprived of the very extensions of their bodies that allow them to engage in the world, and when this very engagement is faced with exclusion. When a college, a business or any sphere of civil society refuses the expenditure on accommodation of a disabled person, and when a government actively deprives disabled people of what they need to live, they’re effectively saying that what we are outside of our disabilities and what we wish to become in spite of them doesn’t matter.

I want a world that is so accessible, where technology and medicine become so advanced, that all disabled people get the chance to opt out of their disability. I want a world where the social relations I forge with those who are able-bodied are not predicated on my disability.

As the philosopher of disability Joel Michael Reynolds has said, the world is essentially disabled. Deprive a man of an elevator or a flight of stairs, and could he make it from the first floor to the second? He couldn’t, and it would be absurd to accentuate this inability to the point where it became all the man was. So too is it absurd to boil me down to my needing crutches to traverse the world. I am John Altmann, I am not my cerebral palsy. When this becomes common sense to the world, then I will have effectively escaped my disability, even though I will always use my crutches to do so.

John Altmann is a contributor to the Popular Culture and Philosophy book series.
Disability is a weekly series of essays, art and opinion by and about people living with disabilities. The entire series can be found here.
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nytSource The New York Times


Transability or your body is not what you think | Joel Reynolds | TEDxEmory. How does our understanding of disability change ideas about how we should treat others? Joel Michael Reynolds explains how. This talk was given at a local TEDx event, produced independently of the TED Conferences. TEDx Talks. YouTube Jul 7, 2014.
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