I’m not here for your inspiration

I think I upset one of the newer employees at my favourite tea shop today. Most of the staff are used to my cynical reactions to newspaper discussions of how inspiiiiiiiiiiring people with disabilities are at this point.

But let me begin at the beginning.

Actually, no, let me begin with something important, since recent events have told me one cannot be too careful.

There is a certain way news media prefers to talk about people with disabilities. They like to tell our stories in a way that’s “inspiring”, that’s about making non-disabled people feel better about stuff. “Oh, look at how brave that person is, being all alive and stuff despite having a disability! I would rather be dead! That person/their parents/their loved ones are so brave and inspiring! I will now put issues of accessibility and disability out of my mind, because I have been inspired!”

These stories aren’t really about people with disabilities. They’re about making currently non-disabled people feel they know something, that they’ve been touched, that their lives could be suffering and badness, but look how lucky we all are. Look at the plucky crippled person, and be inspired. [This is, of course, why Helen Keller is reduced to “hand in water” stories.]

There are, of course, reasons why people with disabilities and their families participate in these stories, and I certainly don’t blame them. I know if someone offered to interview… wait, I’ve been interviewed a few times now about disability, and I did leap at the chance. I don’t think that people who are interviewed for these stories are doing anything wrong. They’re talking about their lives, and describing their experiences. No, it’s the way that these things are spun, the words being used by the reporters to fill in the gaps, that is the problem.

The tendency is so very very wide spread that Haddayr (with the help of Codeman) made a bingo card for us all:

Description follows

Description written by Haddayr:
Are you writing an article that profiles or even tangentially involves a disabled person? Make it easy on yourself: string together these words and phrases with a few voyeuristic references to the person’s body parts, and call it a day!

She didn’t let her disability stop her!
Differently Abled/Handi-capable/Challenged/Some other twee or awkward phrase
Forced to use [mobility device]
Thought she would never get to [some activity most of us never get to do]
Courageous battle
He relies on [friends/a guide dog. No fair using electricity!]
Confined to a wheelchair
Then tragedy struck/her dreams were shattered/the unimaginable happened
. . . wants to help others [the ‘bless him’ is inferred]
Will never again see his childrens’ faces/hear them say ‘I love you’ canoe the boundary waters/run a marathon
Can only communicate through [communication device]
Cheerful/ Never let it get her down/ Positive attitude
Free Space:
BRAVE & INSPIRATIONAL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Through the miraculous assistance of [something completely non-miraculous]
She refused to give up/give in/succumb
Defying overwhelming odds
She ‘suffers from’ [impairment]
If you saw her sitting down/lying still/riding the bus, you would never know that she has a disability…
[insert some pseudoscience]
Determination
Most of us could never imagine [horrific impairment] happening to us, but…
Every day she has to [take some medication/do some physical therapy]
Special
He has overcome his disability!
. . . proving you can achieve anything if you really try!

So, let’s go back to my story.

I haven’t been following anything to do with the Olympics for reasons I won’t go into here, but I knew exactly what was going on when I glanced at Saturday’s Globe & Mail and saw this splashed across the front:

A Different Victory: When Alex Bilodeau’s brother cheered his gold, the triumph went more than one way. The skier and the painter find inspiration in each other – and neither one accepts limits. Ian Brown travels to the intimate heart of a family.

“Oh gosh!” I said to Don, in my overly chirpy sarcastic voice. “It’s going to be an inspiring crip story, I just know it! Quick, let us purchase this fine newspaper so we can be inspired!”

Poor dude behind the counter proceeded to tell me how inspiiiiiiiirng he found “the brother of the guy who won gold”, to which my response was… less so. “Inspiring crip stories irritate the fuck out of me.”

You know what would inspire me, gentle readers? Curb cuts being cleared of snow so Don & I could get across the street without having to go three blocks out of way first. But I guess when you’re a bitter, cynical, angry person who just hates fun, that’s what you get.

Sadly for all of us, Ian Brown’s articles don’t seem to appear on the Globe & Mail’s website (except perhaps behind the paywall), so I can’t let you read the inspiriiiiiiing story of Frédéric Bilodeau, but I can show you a BINGO card that Don & I filled out while we read it.

Description follows

Description: As above, but with the following squares circled:
Differently Abled/Handi-capable/Challenged/Some other twee or awkward phrase
Forced to use [mobility device]
Then tragedy struck/her dreams were shattered/the unimaginable happened
Will never again see his childrens’ faces/hear them say ‘I love you’ canoe the boundary waters/run a marathon
Cheerful/ Never let it get her down/ Positive attitude
Free Space: BRAVE & INSPIRATIONAL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
She refused to give up/give in/succumb
If you saw her sitting down/lying still/riding the bus, you would never know that she has a disability…
Determination
Special
He has overcome his disability!

Of course, what Frédéric Bilodeau’s story has actually managed to inspire is awesome comments at the Globe & Mail like this one:

Proud for so many reasons

Alexandre Bilodeau has provided something more than his magnificent gold performance (Gold Comes Home – Feb. 15). He has provided an example of the role that individuals with a disability play inspiring us as they overcome their challenges.

Thank you, Alex and Frédéric.

Brian Smith, Toronto

Mr Smith, with all due respect, we are not here to be your thrice-damned inspirations thank you very much. Be inspired! Lobby the Canadian government to provide funding for all universities to be fully accessible to people with disabilities! That would help lots of people with disabilities overcome their challenges!

The point of this post isn’t “here I am, talking about an article you can’t read, and being as sarcastic as possible, aren’t I witty?”. It’s actually to talk seriously about the way disabled people are written about. We’re allowed to be inspiring stories of overcoming adversity – and often those stories focus on the difficulties our loved ones have, and how hard it can be to have a disabled person in your life – or we can be a passive victim of crime. That’s it.

If new media actually presented people with disabilities as we actually are… well, that, gentle readers, would be actual news.

ETA: facesofcathy found that Ian Brown’s article’s up over at CTV. (Why? I don’t know.) Check it out: The Bilodeaus: Elusive truths from an unforgettable family. I haven’t done a side-by-side comparison of the text (I think the headings are different?) but it look pretty close.

Check out the comments if you like to headdesk over how inspiiiiiiiired people find these types of stories.

23 Comments

  1. Great post. I saw the NBC coverage (in the U.S.) of the Bilodeau brothers and was disgusted by it–no doubt it scored well on this bingo card.

    I understand your point about family members, but I do think that sometimes family members say stuff that just plays into this kind of narrative. I heard Alex Bilodeau talk about how “inspiring” his brother is to him, how every time he wanted to give up in ski practice he thought of his brother, yada yada. I find that problematic, no matter how well-intentioned. Of course a lot of this is just family members utilizing the stock narratives they’ve been told about disability, because this shit just gets to be so ingrained. But many able-bodied family members need to examine their attitudes about disabled family members.

  2. Is this the same piece?

    http://www.ctvolympics.ca/news-centre/newsid=46948.html

    I noticed his stuff is hidden over on CTVs site.

  3. Thank you for posting this. I just recently subscribed to your blog and find it so inspiiiiiiiiiiiiiiring—just kidding. I do love it, though. Those articles always bothered me, but I never really could articulate why. Thank you for helping me to understand through your perspective.

  4. I had a very similar reaction to this story when I saw the tv version during the Olympics.

    Another bad example was the interview NBC did with a snowboarder’s family; a while ago this snowboarder had an accident and became disabled. During the interview the brother mentions that the snowboarder’s response to hearing they were doing the interview was, “why isn’t he asking me questions?”. Good point, snowboarder! But everyone had just laughed at that comment, like, why would anyone want to talk to the person the story was about? (maybe because the story was really about the brave family?!)

  5. Great; I am sharing this bingo card with people. I also know a lot of parents of small children with disabilities, and I will be sending this to them. Many of them have been or will be interviewed by the media during fundraising efforts.

  6. I hate this meme. What is worse is I work at an agency that serves adults with developmental disabilities and I could fill out one of those bingo cards at every single staff meeting. And my agency is one of the better ones in the area.

  7. Oh, facesofcathy, that is it! When I get a chance, I shall edit the article. Thank you!

    I love how the comments over there are also about how inspiiired they are, including someone who said that they must write an inspiring book about this family while Frédéric is still alive. There’s nothing I read in the article indicating he was going to die any time soon, but dude’s disabled! He’s probably going to drop dead in a suitably dramatic fashion!

    Sarah, I can see your point re: Alex’s comments.

  8. I actually sent the link to that article to myself, because it was chock-full of problematic language, and I was inspired to use it for my class on language of exclusion/language of inclusion.

    IIRC (I can’t get at the article here), Ian Brown also called Fréderéic “broken” or some such.

    (Some of his language about Béatrice, the Bilodeau sister, was also obnoxiously patronizing—I’m paraphrasing here but she was apparently beside herself as only a sixteen-year-old girl can be beside herself.)

    You know, it makes perfect sense for Alex to be inspired by his brother, and for Frédéric to be inspired by his brother. They both sound like remarkable people, and they’re family—they have a relationship that is about far more than Alex’s skiiing or Frédéric’s cerebral palsy, or a shopworn narrative that makes people feel better about people with disabilities.

    I’m really grateful that you and the rest of the FWD/Forward crew are shining a spotlight on other stories.

  9. My brother was in the Special Olympics when we were kids, and I was inspired… because he could run really fucking fast. Inspiring!

    I totally get wanting to share something with a loved one, and particularly if you’re in a place that most people in the world don’t ever get to be (the Olympic podium), I can imagine the impulse to share that with a specific loved one might be stronger if that person is routinely subjected to discrimination/oppression. But that is definitively not the same as the “omg PWD are magical inspiration angels” concept that is beautifully outlined in this post and the bingo card.

  10. Argh, I wasn’t as clear as I meant to be. When I wrote “I can imagine the impulse to share that with a specific loved one might be stronger if that person is routinely subjected to discrimination/oppression,” I meant in an “Eat it, world!” sort of way, not a “let me raise you up where you cannot possibly hope to be” sort of way.

  11. Ian Brown writes about disability in that way all the time. His son has a genetic disorder, and he wrote a whole series of articles and a book full of that sort of language. He calls his son “the boy in the moon”.

    Here is the link to the articles – http://v1.theglobeandmail.com/boyinthemoon/
    Warning – the language even on the first page is quite offensive, talking about how the son is a disruptive presence for the writer and his family, as if the son is not a part of the family. The article could fill up a dozen bingo cards.

    I’m not saying the writer is a bad guy. (A friend who has worked with him and says he’s a friendly, helpful and decent individual.) But boy does he have some outdated attitudes about disability.

    It seems impossible for reporters and writers to see people with disabilities as people. I am at a loss as to how to teach them.

    Actually, I don’t want to teach them. I want them to LEARN.

  12. Here in Salt Lake, we had a story like this on the news the other day, and I cringed the entire time. I really really fucking hate this inspirational bullshit.

    I also find it interesting how much these “inspirational” pieces say about the kinds of disabilities (dis)ableist society finds acceptable and unacceptable. For example: I have never seen such a story where the inspirational person had bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, generalized anxiety disorder or borderline personality disorder that they “overcame” to win a gold medal, drive a race car, travel the world or complete college. I suspect this is because (dis)ableism casts people with mental illnesses as violent and dangerous, incurable or just big, lazy fakers. Or, perhaps, that we’re just not seen as having any real barriers to just doing whatever we want because our disabilities don’t involve wheelchairs, canes or service animals and are not generally visible (after all, when I’m too depressed to brush my teeth or take a shower that’s just me being lazy and childish, that’s not me having a physical fucking symptom!)

    On the other hand, I’m kind of glad

  13. Recently at a staff party someone started going on about the many “inspiring” stories about the Olympians. I braced myself, because this particular story had me screaming at the screen (and yes, rather pleased to get a bingo right out of the gate on my brand-new card).

    Sure enough, one of them said: “His brother had . . . I don’t know. Something?”

    And I just turned my back on them and walked away; I did not feel like being an unpaid disability ambassador that day.

    Well, I stumbled away because I’d tucked my crutches into a booth, but you get the idea.

  14. Those of you who remember, or know where to look to find out – when did this nonsense start? (Related to sports, but hey when did we become inspiring tools? I mostly annoy my sister, not inspire her. No Olympics for us.)

    The “Miracle on Ice” in 1980 was brought up (because we’re at war with Canada now?) and that got me wondering. Back when the channels turned off with the national anthem, did they run inspiring stories like this, or just stories about the athletes? (“She’d never seen snow or ice before college and now she has 5 gold medals!”)

    Stephen Colbert’s (Van)co(u)verage was pretty clear of inspiring BS. That and the Americans skating to Bollywood is the only reason I noticed.

  15. Kaitlyn, the inspiring crip stuff goes back to the Victorian era at least. If you have time/inclination, Mary Klages has a book called Woeful Afflictions that talks about it. (Plus she has a really good disability studies analysis.)

  16. WOEFUL AFFLICTIONS. That is an awesome book title. I want to read that just for the title. (The content also sounds interesting, but WOEFUL AFFLICTIONS.)

  17. Hi Anna:

    I don’t have a disability and I found that whole Alexandre Bilodeau story offensive. He shared his triumph with a beloved brother. End of story. I couldn’t understand why it was all so inspiiiiring, as you put it. I’m glad to know I wasn’t alone in my reaction.

  18. I have been coming to understand a lot more about able-ism over the last 6 months (hopefully) but it is posts like this that really cement the ideas for me. Get it, get it, get it. Thank you.

  19. Alexandre is “inspired” by his brother because, as he has said in several interviews, his brother has never listened to the cynicism and skepticism that has been prevalent throughout his life. Doctor’s told Frederick he would not walk after the age of 10, instead of giving in to that judgment, Frederick surpassed simple walking and was skiing well into his adulthood. Not only the heroic capacity to overcome such adversity, but the simple character assessment of stoicism that Alexandre attributes to his brother, is why he is an inspiration. Not to make Alexandre “grateful that he’s not a cripple.” Which is what it seems like you are insinuating in this post. It is a tragedy and I’m sure a reminder of the need for gratitude that Frederick is now finally succumbing to a more severe stage of C.P. but that is not what about him that “inspired” (and these are Alexandre’s word’s not the media’s) his Mogul champion brother.

  20. Shona Allison, what I’ve written isn’t about what Alexandre Bilodeau thinks of Frédéric, or whether or not individual members of families are inspired to do better or try harder at things because of disabled family members. It’s about how the news media has chosen to present Frédéric.

  21. I found an article today about a blind man who wrote a knitting book for beginners, because he had a hard time learning to knit himself. Here it is:
    http://www.statesmanjournal.com/article/20100307/COLUMN0807/3070357/1126/COLUMN

    As I was reading it, I was thinking about this blog post. I really liked the article and felt it was written in a good way, focusing on the person and not on his disability. I was wondering if you could share your perspective on how the article is written?

  22. At first glance at least, I really like that article, Isis. I’d have to take another look at it before I can really comment on it, but the thing I like most is that it’s your very “basic” human interest story: Person finds something difficult, so they design a way of making it easier for themselves and others. That Davey Hulse is blind is just part of that narrative, rather than the OMG! LOOK AT HOW INSPIRING HE IS.

  23. Thanks for your reply! I felt the same way, that it’s a basic human interest story, I mean.

    I’ll admit, I am a temporarily-able-bodied person who is just beginning to learn about ablism, and in my privilege I never noticed before about these cliched stories. I really wanted to thank you for teaching me with this post, and, not to be cheesy =), but this is a lesson that has really changed my perspective for life.