Whenever anyone tells me how inspirational I am, I think back to Nike’s famous 1993 commercial featuring NBA-legend Charles Barkley.
With the camera zoomed in on his right eye and nothing but the sound of the basketball bouncing in the background, Barkley told the audience, “I am not a role model. I am not paid to be a role model. I’m paid to wreak havoc on the basketball court. Parents should be role models. Just because I dunk a basketball doesn’t mean I should raise your kids.”
Over the years, and the many instances of people patting me on the shoulder or giving me the thumbs up as they told me how inspiring I was, I came up with my own play on Barkley’s words.
In my dream scenario, the sound of my power chair cuts out as I tell the audience, “I am not your inspiration. I am not paid to be your inspiration. Just because I use a wheelchair doesn’t mean I should motivate you to live your life.”
I’ve never actually said this to anyone, but just thinking about saying it, and picturing the look on the face of the person I said it to always gives me a brief moment of satisfaction.
If you use any sort of mobility device or live with any kind of noticeable disability, chances are someone has told you how inspiring you are. Actually, chances are pretty good lots of someones have told you that. And chances are you know how frustrating it can be.
It’s not that there is anything wrong with being inspirational – people need inspiration, and there are countless stories of people doing amazing and heroic things that are ripe for the picking – but when that inspiration is grounded in ignorance its benefits are suboptimal.
Until our society can get past the notion that life in a wheelchair is a burden and that all of us “wheelchair-bound” people are doing yeoman’s work just by existing, we will be exploited for the inspiration of others.
You may ask, is inspiring someone else really harmful?
I’d say yes. When the bar is set so low — simply existing with a disability — it reinforces uneducated stereotypes and misperceptions about living with a disability. As Emily Ladau points out in her excellent essay on inspiration porn in this issue, the mischaracterization and labeling can lead to identity crises for people with disabilities.
When others see your day-to-day existence as a Herculean achievement, how are you supposed to feel when you accomplish a long sought-after goal you really had to fight for?
For a long time, when people told me I was inspirational, I’d look in the mirror. Where they saw inspiration, I just saw a guy trying to get through the day and live my life.
Today, I’m more likely to smile and start a discussion to see exactly what they find so inspiring. If the results are predictably disappointing, I take solace in knowing I’ve got the perfect thing to say. “I am not your inspiration …”