(Total aside: I love the word “juggernaut“, defined as “a huge, powerful, and overwhelming force or institution”. I also love the fact that it’s used in Britain to refer to a very large truck. I’m very fond of the word “checkmate“, too, but that’s another story.)
The 2012 Summer Olympics are almost upon us, which means that the Paralympics (the Olympics’ poor cousin) are not far behind. Interested parties will note that a) no part of the Paralympics will be televised in the United States, and b) what little publicity/information does reach the general public will be inspirational in nature. You will be overwhelmed with images and commentary that emphasize the challenges that the athletes have overcome, that fixate on the incredible strength of will required to get out of bed, eat breakfast, strap on prostheses, and get out there and run.
Inspiration is a tricky concept, especially in combination with disability. At its worst, the word is applied to disabled people for merely existing, getting out of bed in the morning, going to work, eating a meal, opening a door. It functions primarily to make the person being “inspired” feel relieved that he or she isn’t as bad off as the object of “inspiration”.
A couple of weeks ago a friend and I, both handcyclists, participated in a community 10 mile fun ride. After the ride, like many other participants, we hung out in the park at the finish, drank beer, and congratulated ourselves and other riders. We fell into conversation with a couple who initially approached us with friendly curiosity about our handcycles.
It turns out that this couple has an adult daughter with physical and intellectual disabilities, and that the family regularly gets together with other families and disabled adults to ride bikes/trikes/whatever once a week. They invited us to join them, saying, “You’d both be such an inspiration to the kids!” I don’t know if something showed in our faces, because the wife then amended her statement, saying, “You’d be great role models!”
“Role model” I can get behind. I’ve met so many people, with and without disabilities, who have no clue that it’s possible for people with disabilities to lift weights, run, hike, bike, ski, swim … and by extension, get out of the house, drive, ride buses, work. Sometimes all that’s needed is a demonstration. A role model. That’s not inspiring, it’s educating. It’s such a joy to see someone realize, “I could do that!” rather than “Thank God I’m not like those people.”
Last week I was in Phoenix for business, and got the chance to visit the new Sports & Fitness Center for People with Disabilities (which deserves its own post). It’s an awesome facility. I went with an able-bodied colleague who marveled at the many beautiful images of people with disabilities playing sports. “What’s that?” he asked, pointing. “Sitting volleyball.” “And that?” “Wheelchair rugby, also called murderball.” “And that?”
As we left, he said, “That’s an incredibly empowering place.” “Empowering”. Not “inspirational”.
Inspiration has its place. I’m inspired by the Paralympic athletes (and all the athletes) I know to get up earlier, work harder, go faster, be better. No tears, no wringing of the heart, just happiness and awareness of potential.
So just say no to inspiration porn. Read more about the subject: