Why My Disability is Not Your Feel Good Story

Throughout my life, I have been called inspirational, brave, and courageous because I live life with a disability. Many people have expressed how much they admire me. I used to just accept it. However, over the last few years, those kind of comments have really started to frustrate me, and here’s why.

Admiring me because I live with a disability and have scars and wake up each morning with chronic pain to simply live my life…it’s pity in disguise. This kind of admiration says to me: “Wow. If I had experiences like yours or lived with some kind of impairment, I don’t know if I could face that.” And what, I’m some kind of construct to measure against so you can say to yourself, “Thank goodness I don’t live like that.” Within the disability community, this concept is known as inspiration porn. As was stated in the hit-show Speechless, “It’s a portrayal of people with disabilities as one-dimensional saints who only exist to warm the hearts and open the minds of able-bodied people.”

Other examples of inspiration porn include stories such as the star athlete at a local school taking a girl with Down Syndrome to prom or images of athletes competing in the Paralympics with the caption, “The only disability in life is a bad attitude.” Seriously? Give me a freaking break.

I’ve had my fair share of these kind of experiences as well. When I was in middle school, every year there was a beauty pageant, and each grade was allowed 3 or 4 contestants. The contestants were chosen based on nominations and votes made by each grade, and when I was in 4th grade, I nominated myself but then changed my mind and stated, “Nevermind, no one is going to vote for me anyway.” Even now, I don’t know why I said it. Maybe it was rooted in my strong desire to be liked and have friends, but as you might imagine, my entire class heard the statement. And lo and behold, I was chosen to take part in the beauty pageant that year. While at the time I enjoyed the experience, now it simply fills me with disgust, and I wonder, “Did my classmates or school ever realize that by providing me with this experience, they were simply using it so they could feel good about themselves for doing a ‘good deed’?”

Years later, when I was in college, my dad and I were walking around downtown Asheville and trying to kill time before going to a concert at The Orange Peel, and an older gentleman came up beside me and started clapping and stated, “God bless you, sweetheart. Way to go.” I was floored. I stared at the man in disbelief and didn’t even respond. Looking back on it now, I wish I had said, “Honestly, saying something like that is incredibly demeaning. I don’t exist to provide you with warm and fuzzy feelings, and I am not here for your pity.”

Don’t admire me for simply living, for doing every day things you can accomplish without even batting an eye. Because to be honest, I haven’t done anything extraordinary. I have a college degree, I recently got my master’s degree, I have a full-time job, I drive a car, and I pay all my bills. But so have thousands of other people in the world. But are you going to walk up to them with a huge smile on your face a say, “Wow, you inspire me so much. I really admire you?” I highly doubt it. Just because I have accomplished those things while also having a disability does not make me admirable or courageous or brave. I am not your charity case or your feel good story. I don’t exist so you can put your life and obstacles into perspective. I am not here so you can pat yourself on the back and check off “do a good deed” on your list of life goals. I am simply doing the exact same thing every single other person in this world is doing: existing.

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On The Right Road

This past Saturday, I graduated from college with a Bachelors in Psychology. As I sat in the third row among my classmates, barely viewable among a sea of blue, I was happy. I wasn’t the girl a few seats over who kept having to wipe away her tears. I wasn’t the guy one row in front of me who looked bored, as if he’d rather be any other place than seated among his classmates. I was the girl in the third row whose gaze kept moving back and forth between the keynote speaker and section 4 of the arena where my friends and family were sitting. I was the girl who was soaking up every moment.

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Author and higher education expert, Arthur Levine, was the keynote speaker at my graduation ceremony. At first, when he began discussing the current state of our economy and the degree of technological change within our society, I became bored. These were things I had heard countless times, especially within the bubble of a liberal arts university. However, what he said later made me perk up my ears.

“We need your help as part of the most diverse generation in U.S. history – we need your help to knit together a deeply divided nation,” said Levine. “We need your help in dreaming, designing and developing a new world tied together by technology. … We need your abilities and imaginations to create the first global society in history. … Tomorrow’s going to require leaders who want to help heal a pained nation and a troubled world – you can make a difference. … Making a difference is your birthright.” (courtesy of the UNC Asheville website)

Specifically, the last part of this passage touched me, most importantly the idea of helping to heal and make a difference. In many ways, since I have chosen to pursue my master’s degree in social work beginning in August, I felt as if Arthur Levine was speaking only to me. There were moments in which it felt like he was looking right at me. It was as if he was simply reassuring me that I am moving into the right field, while also moving into a profession that I have a true passion for. Receiving this kind of reassurance, which I assume was not his intention, was one of the greatest graduation gifts I could hope to have been given. It was as if the universe was saying, Yep, you’re doing exactly what you need to be doing, so keep going.

Therefore, rather than processing out of my graduation ceremony with a sense of worry and dread, I held my head high. I smiled because for the first time in my life, I truly felt like I was on the right road to start doing what I’m meant to do. What I also realized was that I’ve been doing just that for the past few years. I have been following my passion of helping others ever since I decided to open up about my experiences with Cerebral Palsy in January of 2012, and that passion has only increased since I have started speaking to elementary and middle schools on the topic of bullying as it relates to my CP experiences. So, though I haven’t started my master’s program yet, I do feel like I have been on the right road for a while now. Truthfully, I think I knew that the first time someone contacted me after reading a blog post of mine to tell me how opening up about my experiences has helped them to better understand what their son, their daughter, or they themselves are going through.

As I continue to enjoy my summer, and specifically focus more strongly on writing my memoir, I’ll push myself forward by knowing that I am helping others. Even if it’s just one person, I am helping that person to become more aware of disabilities. I am helping them to see the one thing that I myself still struggle to see sometimes: Different is beautiful.