As I launch what I unabashedly hope will actually be an inspirational speaking tour, it’s important to take a minute to reflect on the type of inspiration that I actually want to be. I don’t want to be the false, objectifying, pity masquerading as inspiration so often applied to people with disabilities. Instead, I want to inspire you with my ideas, not my wheelchair or my life. Let’s explore this.
The word inspiration has earned a bad reputation in disability circles, often receiving reactions that range from discomfort to disgust. Immediately brought to mind are the genre of stories derisively referred to as inspiration porn, which can range from the abject pity parties of the Jerry Lewis telethon to seemingly more innocuous images which appear to be celebratory of the accomplishments of the person with a disability.
Though those celebratory images are well-intentioned, often they are celebrating something that is only celebrated because it was accomplished by a person with a disability.
The late, great, Stella Young explained it better than I ever could in a TED talk a few years ago. Said Young, they
“objectify … disabled people for the benefit of nondisabled people. The purpose of these images is to inspire you, to motivate you, so that we can look at them and think, ‘Well, however bad my life is, it could be worse. I could be that person’”
Young recounts being routinely “approached by strangers wanting to tell me that they think I'm brave or inspirational, and this was long before my work had any kind of public profile. They were just kind of congratulating me for managing to get up in the morning and remember my own name.”
She teaches “those images objectify disabled people for the benefit of nondisabled people. They are there so that you can look at them and think that things aren't so bad for you, to put your worries into perspective.”
Now, I believe Stella to be right. This type of inspiration objectifies people, engulfs us in a wave of pity for how terrible our lives are believed to be, or at least how difficult, and congratulates us for the active living anyway, while guilting the audience with some notion that they should abandon complaining about their own problems, because at least they’re not us.
This is really horrible for everyone. It’s horrible for the person with a disability who has become an object of pity rather than a fully realized human being, and it’s horrible for the audience member. Just because I can't walk doesn’t mean that you don’t have your own struggle, and pushing you because someone has judged your problems to be less severe than mine is unfair to both of us. I have no intention of playing this game.
But I do want to inspire you.
I am devoting my life to speaking and teaching and working with people on inclusion, precisely because I believe that I can inspire you. I can inspire you with my ideas. I can inspire you with my vision of a radical, universal inclusion. I can inspire you by encouraging you to think about issues completely new to you, or to evaluate issues with which you already wrestle in a completely different light.
And yes, my ideas and my abilities to see things in this way grew from my life as a person with a disability. In all other regards, however, I want my ability to inspire you to have absolutely nothing to do with the fact that I have a disability. I want the inspiration to be in the substance and the power of what I can teach you, and have nothing to do with the fact that I’m teaching it while sitting in a wheelchair.
I would also like to inspire you by forcing you to confront issues. To do this, I need you to see me as a person with a disability, but also as a beneficiary of privilege rather than as an object of pity.
I want you to look at the fulfilling life that I lead and the opportunity to do the things that I want to do. I want you to realize the degree to the ability to live that life is the direct result of benefits that I receive from the state of Massachusetts, which, in their current form, are available in no other states. I want you to think about how my access to medical care and education, to vocational rehabilitation and economic opportunity have been critical to their life.
Then I want you to realize how few people with disabilities have access to those opportunities. I want you to look at my life, including the value of the ideas that I share with you, and realize that they may not have the same opportunity to share their ideas because they don’t have what I have. I want you to see that, and then I want you to be inspired to fight for it for all people with disabilities. I am always happy to inspire people to action for justice.
So, I want to rehabilitate inspiration so that I can inspire you. I want to teach you and ignite you the fire of change, and never, ever be smothered with a wave of pity. I want to be an inspiration because I have found something worthy to share with you. This is the type of inspiration for which I think you should be looking, and to which, I think everyone, disability or no, can aspire.
If you want to help enable the right kind of inspiration, visit www.gofundme.org/Matanignites. You could also talk to your employer, your place of worship, or your social organization to see if they are interested in booking me to spread my kind of inspiration.