Thrown around loosely, this term can not only be offensive but hurtful in ways unknown to most strangers. Before I go into this mini rant (quite a topic for my first post!), I would like to include that the majority of people who use this term genuinely mean it out of the kindness in their hearts. But what they don’t realize is that their naivety to the connotations of that specific word sometimes does more bad than good. An example that immediately comes to mind happened only a few weeks ago when my team and I were in Peoria for a marathon. One of my awesome teammates, Josh (you can find his blog here…http://joshgeorgeracing.com/blog/), was being recognized by a great group of people who run to raise money so a group of kids with disabilities can attend therapy. Everyone at this event was extremely friendly, but when one young woman stood at the podium and said these words, my heart dropped.
“I just want to say that these kids are my inspiration, and I’m running this race for them, because they’ll never be able to.”
This is probably not something you should say to a room full of athletes with disabilities…
I felt a very strong urge to inform this woman that just because someone has a disability, doesn’t mean shit. Was she seriously going to victimize these children right in front of us? Not too long ago those kids were us, and if someone told me when I was little that they were going to run a race because I couldn’t, where would I be today? Probably not completing marathons and training with world class athletes, that’s for sure.
I was furious! I wanted to grab this woman by the shoulders and shake this awful idea out of her. Of course, I kept my mouth shut, but it really got me thinking. How can I change the stigma that is placed on so many people with disabilities? I mean it’s practically engraved in the word itself that we are not good enough, not sufficient. “Dis” is a Latin root meaning “apart”, so literally it translates to “apart from the abled”. This is something I now realize I’ve been trying to deconstruct ever since my accident ten years ago. Everybody wants to fit in, everybody wants to be loved, so why does society make it so difficult to accomplish these things just because you’re different, because you’re “apart” from the rest.
What I believe to be one of the most effective efforts to slowly adjust the public’s eye of those with disabilities is wheelchair athletics or adaptive sports in general. Through sports I was able to change my identity from, “that one chick in the wheelchair” to, “that one chick in the wheelchair that runs marathons!” which sounds a hell of a lot better to me. Does the wheelchair go away? No, physically it is a big part of me and kind of essential to my mobility. But mentally, the wheelchair is NO part of me, and I wish that’s how the world would see it too.
Whenever someone comes up and tells me I’m an inspiration, a part of me is sometimes irked because are you, like that young woman, completely categorizing and labeling me initially as someone who is disabled and therefore not as good… Then “inspired” because I broke this stereotype and accomplished something you thought I couldn’t? Or are you just impressed by my dedication and fortitude NOT as someone in a wheelchair, but as a human being? Inspiration is a tricky thing my friend.
I would like to hope that most people see me for my own achievements and not for my disability, but when you hear comments at least once a week like, “Wow! It’s great to see you out!” at places like the park or movie theater… it can really bog you down. My latest response is now to just reply “It’s great to see you out too, sir!”, and give ‘em a big ole grin. Maybe that will get them thinking. Last week I was literally hugged at the grocery store. I was in the frozen food aisle at my favorite health store, just minding my own business looking for my favorite Ezekiel bread, when this lady just freakin’ hugged me out of nowhere and said thank you for inspiring her.
I. Was. Looking. For. Bread.
This is not to say that it is bad to find people in wheelchairs or people with any type of disability inspiring, this is just me saying I really hope you’re inspired by what they can do, rather than how they look, or what they have “overcome”. Despite my disability, I wake up every morning just like you, ready to face the day (well except for a few extra cups of coffee than is probably recommended). I genuinely have a positive outlook on life, and even though I have no idea what the future holds, I’m not going to sit inside all day and wait for something to happen. I do, in fact, have a life outside not being able to walk. I have hopes and dreams and goals just like everybody else out there, and THAT is what I want to define me, not a piece of metal with some upholstery and wheels.
I really hope that this post doesn’t discourage anyone from seeing somebody as an inspiration (that’s not what I’m trying to do at all!!), but just maybe opens their eyes to a new perspective. A perspective of someone a little different from themselves, but essentially equal. Equal in heart, equal in strength, and equal in ability, because I am and always will be a firm believer of anything is possible.