Beware the Inspiration Juggernaut

2012 Paralympic Logo(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.”

SpoFit logoLast 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:



  1. Mitch


    Excellent post! I’ve always had a certain level of discomfort with so many people telling me that I’m an inspiration, but I’ve never woven my thoughts together as coherently as you did, and as your first link did (the second link didn’t work for me). Thank you! You’re a‚Ķnice, smart lady.

  2. Katja (Post author)

    Thanks, Mitch! I’ve fixed the second link, so do check it out.

  3. Jennifer Fitz

    I was able to watch about twenty minutes of the trials for the US swimming team before the commercials sent me running. (No, not actually running. Hiding in my bedroom with a good book.) I hate the genre. Horrid.

    That said, I think what is needed is a rehabilitation of the word “inspiration”. I’m inspired by someone if their example motivates me to take action. Sometimes — only sometimes — another person’s example in dealing with hardship is motivating. [Um, by “hardship” for me that usually means “No money, lots of kids, full-time-job.”] But that’s a small piece of the inspiration pie.

    [“Encouraging” is when someone didn’t spark the action, but does help keep it going. So, I might be inspired to get on my bike based on your good example, or if I was already biking, your example might encourage me to keep at it, or go at it more seriously.]

    And then there’s the trouble of what if you’re an inspiring (or encouraging) person who just happens to be disabled? Because your packing light article was inspiring. You showed me how to pack light, and then I sort of did it. (I’m afraid I’m only moderately inspired by your good sports example. I’m in low-inspiration-sensitivity mode for athletics just now.)

    I think you would be less inspiring if you would just resolve to write about boring things I don’t ever want to do. Like if you converted this to a TV blog, I would totally not be inspired by that. I would watch exactly the same amount of TV before and after. I’m sure of it.

    I tried to think of more uninspiring topics, but that’s the only sure bet.

  4. Katja (Post author)

    Too funny, Jennifer! “Inspiration” does need rehab.

    I’m talking about the kind of thing that essentially makes the person with a disability a victim (“the only thing between you and your dreams is attitude!”) or that makes a non-disabled/less-disabled person feel guilty and at the same time thankful for his/her perceived normality (“look, this quadruple amputee can leap tall buildings with a single bound, what’s your excuse?”). Motivation, inspiration and empowerment are all real and legitimate feelings, but they’re being abused by this kind of lousy trope.

    And no, I won’t convert this to a TV blog in order to become uninspiring, although I suspect there’s an entry about Push Girls simmering somewhere.

  5. Kathryn | Alpacamundo

    The Juggernaut has already started… saw a story on Channel 9 today.

    I do love this post. :-) I was having a similar conversation with Hubba a couple of days ago, but I was not nearly as eloquent. lol.

    One of the reasons I want to share the Lovely Blog award with you. :-)

  6. Katja

    Thank you! I’ll try to live up to the great responsibility involved in accepting this award :-).


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