I attended one of Mumbai’s best schools between the ages of 3 and 15. It was girls-only, it stressed learning over studying (no homework until fourth grade), and we had some really imaginative and unconventional teachers. My mother still reminisces about my first day at school, when the kindergarten teacher sat down 30 excitable 3-year-old girls and introduced me to them. She pointed out that I had some physical problems, so I wore leg braces and I needed help, and she told them that they should be helpful, but welcoming and friendly.
I spent the next 12 years with more or less those same classmates. We grew up together, learning about Shakespeare, the names of all the layers of the Earth, and long division. I met my best friends there. I first giggled over sex huddled in a tiny group during a free period. In 10th grade, a few students were selected to be prefects. This remnant from the time the school was run by an Englishwoman bestowed upon these students additional responsibilities to help teachers enforce discipline. They would herd younger students to and from school assemblies and monitor classrooms in case of absent teachers. To my absolute glee, I was nominated too, and a daily responsibility assigned to me. In a country where “reasonable adjustments” was—and in some circles still is—an unknown phrase, the teachers and students seemingly effortlessly included me in everything.
Our time at the school ended when we were 15. We were moving on to high school—junior college in India—and there was a little award ceremony to mark our graduation. Certificates were handed out to students who’d scored the highest in any subject in the recent exams, congratulating them for their performances in English or Physics. I too was given an award—but it commended my “inspiring performance.”
I remember being uncomfortable when I was told about the award a few days in advance, but I dismissed my doubts as stage fright. To be inspiring is positive, noble even; it was a compliment, right? My teenage self couldn’t even begin to fathom why this could be an insult. I remember coming home and stuffing the certificate under a stack of school documents, uninterested in showing it off. (I actually looked for it last week to accurately quote the commendation, but couldn’t find it. Guess I did a good job hiding it.) I couldn’t explain the red-hot ball in my stomach, but there it remained for years.
I can tell you now—a decade later—that the flutter in my tummy was shame. I’ve experienced it several times since, during job interviews where my ability to guide an electric wheelchair was praised more than my previous experience, and at the hands of overly cheerful mothers teaching their kids how to react to the obviously disabled lady, for example. When I walked across the auditorium to collect an award congratulating my fairly normal academic performance, it felt like the equivalent of receiving a patronizing pat on my head. It was as if the very people who’d shown me I could be anything I wanted were telling me they were actually quite surprised I’d managed to pass the same exam that almost every 15-year-old in the city had conquered. You did well, I could almost hear them say, for a disabled girl.
Does it sound like I’m nitpicking? I feel like I am. I feel wretched for criticizing a single moment set within years of support, especially since I’m sure the idea was borne of love and thoughtfulness. But I guess that’s my point here: When you start to say something well-meaning or congratulatory to a person with disabilities, something like “you’re so brave” or “I’m so inspired by your determination,” stop. Think about it. Would you say something like that to a non-disabled person? Has the recipient of your keen applause truly achieved something remarkable: Did they save a child from a hungry tiger or survive three forsaken days on a stormy mountain? Or are they out doing their shopping or learning to navigate life in their own way, just like you are?
Morally responsible adults recognize the standard ways of isolating a person who looks different than them. They watch themselves for bullying or discriminatory behavior. They bring their children up to be understanding of their disabled friends’ needs, to plan accessible outings, to not imitate a limp or speech impairment. But what they don’t realize, what their disabled acquaintances and friends may not express dissatisfaction about—probably because people with disabilities are afraid it may sound ungrateful—is that alienating comments can just as easily be delivered with a smile.
Journalist and comedian Stella Young spoke about this in her TED talk in 2014. “We’ve been told that disability is a Bad Thing, capital B, capital T,” she said to her audience. “And to live with disability makes you exceptional. It’s not a Bad Thing and it doesn’t make you exceptional.” Young went on to talk about what she calls inspiration porn, motivational pictures and slogans featuring people with disabilities, aimed at making able-bodied persons feel good about their own lives.
The Establishment recently published an excellent piece about inspiration porn and the many ways in which disabled people are silenced when the able-bodied talk about them as cookie-cutter supporting characters in a motivational story. In such reporting, the writer commented: “[D]isabled individuals are rendered passive. They rarely get to speak for themselves, to communicate how they feel . . . ”
Here’s how I feel: When I’m out for a walk in the park, and the man jogging past me shouts out, “you’re awesome!” that doesn’t feel like encouragement. It exasperates me that society expects me to not limp about the park with a friend, but to sit there with a blanket on my knees, watching kids play.
When I’m getting into the bus—usually in a little panic because I’m running late—and the kindly woman sitting by the door nods vigorously and smiles “well done” at me, it doesn’t brighten my day. This wasn’t a trapeze act; I just wheeled up a pretty solid ramp, extended by a flick of the kindly bus driver’s finger, and into an empty space. In this video, comedian Laurence Clark goes around hailing able-bodied folks who climb down stairs or use the public loos by themselves as “inspiring.” The subjects of his experiment look baffled. Imagine being disabled and going through your day, with people greeting you like that multiple times a week. Bafflement soon sours into frustration.
Congratulating a disabled person for being out in public or remembering their own name may make you feel real sensitive—but more often than not, it makes the disabled person feel worthless. It makes me wonder how low the standards are set for me, how often people expect me to fail. It reminds me that I’m not just another teenager amongst hundreds at an educational milestone, or just another shopper confused about cereal brands in a busy supermarket. No, I’m an “object of inspiration.” It tells me that no matter what I achieve or how well I perform, I’ll always be judged as a disabled marvel, not as a person.
At the same time, being called “inspiring” feels a bit dismissive. It’s a handy adjective, used by mainstream media in any situation involving differently abled people, and pulling it out is an easy way for able-bodied people to feel as if they have acknowledged the disability. It’s simpler to just drop the I-word and move on than it is to engage with the disability and the ways in which it may influence another person’s real life.
When I’m called “inspiring,” I don’t feel lonely in the same way I would’ve if a table of people had openly pointed and laughed at me. I feel isolated because each of the above examples tells me that I’m not someone with whom people can identify intelligently, that I’m an “example” of some sort.
Even after two decades of this, I haven’t come up with a good defense against being called inspiring. When people stare, I can stare back and shame them into looking away. When they overlook me, I can remember I have a fantastic family and friends who depend upon me as I do them. I can fight bigotry and discrimination with their support and on the back of years of disability rights activism.
But being hailed as inspiring, especially when it’s in the context of little everyday activities, feels insulting in a different way. It surreptitiously makes me doubt my achievements because I don’t know whether I’m really a good writer or student or singer (as people tell me I am), or whether I’m being complimented simply because it’s a convenient way to approach my disability. (Tales of my imposter syndrome belong in another essay.) The gushing “you’re soooo inspiring!” is so often accompanied by a sweet smile that makes me question my right to feel uncomfortable about my experience. It’s an other-ing that looks benign, but hurts more. And yet all I can do is smile tightly and look away and wish I wasn’t being objectified just to improve someone else’s day.
And so, I’m writing this as a plea to all those who call me inspiring. Please, I ask of you, stop.