Disability has some centuries-long stereotypes, tropes, and baggage attached, thanks to the ways abled people view us. In film, television, books, and plays, we are relegated to sexless saintly invalids, evil people getting what we deserve, and of course, objects of inspiration. From Little Nell and Tiny Tim to the Hunchback of Notre Dame, we exist in stories to teach abled characters valuable lessons.
The idea that disabled people exist to “overcome adversity” and inspire abled people with our triumphs has been called “disability inspiration porn”, a phrase coined by now-deceased disability rights activist Stella Young. Disability as a source of inspiration makes success in an ableist world a matter of individual achievement. Structural inequalities in access are ignored in favor of focusing on the few success stories.
It also creates an additional uncompensated job for people chronically underpaid and over exhausted, inspiring others. When this is the main lens abled people use to view disability, then disabled people who aren’t “overcoming” their disabilities to run a 10K on prosthetic running blades are failing. We are letting those abled folks down, and they are so disappointed in us.
Disability advocates have long rejected this inspirational framework as dehumanizing, objectifying, and excusing the perpetuation of an ableist world. We don’t want to be your inspiration; we want to live our lives, preferably without so many artificially imposed barriers. Yet we need ways to discuss disabled achievements, we need ways to honor accomplishments.
I propose the concept of admiration. I admire the strength, determination, and stubborn refusal to quit found in so many of my disabled siblings. I am in awe when one of us breaks through the ableism to do something impressive, something most people cannot do. I admire our resilience, while trying to change the word to not expect such unreasonable efforts on our parts.
The phrase “You inspire me” makes your achievements all about my feelings. “I admire you” puts the focus on you and your good qualities. The inspiration view of disability ignores the ableism of abled society. It praises, as an object, disabled who “rise above” the barriers it refuses to acknowledge or address.
Admiration can include recognition of ableist barriers, the ways society excludes and disadvantages disabled people. When you admire someone, you recognize them as fully human, not a feel-good news story or object of pity, but a person. Disabled people’s need more admiration and more access, not your “inspiration”.