Along with being asked why I’m so angry and negative, I’m also advised, by disabled and nondisabled alike, to be more positive. Sure, I’m allowed to write about exploitation and discrimination, but why am I not serving up more feel-good, inspirational content? Where’s the comfort food? Where’s the acknowledgement that the world is, at its core, full of decent people who just don’t understand me? Where?!
I know what so many people want: they want chicken soup. They want brief, digestible, guilt-assuaging content that reminds them that life is essentially good, no matter what. People certainly enjoy rage-fuel, and my passionate posts receive far more attention than my sweet little gratitude pieces, but there is still, it seems, a demand for what we in the disabled community lovingly call “inspiration porn.” You know the stuff—content that portrays disabled people in a light most pleasing to the nondisabled eye.
In these pieces, we are courageous, steely individuals with more guts and gumption than anyone else would ever need (and the drive to use them). These pieces highlight inspiring people who have achieved ambitious heights, shattering expectations with an appealingly musical crash. They are high-powered athletes, successful entrepreneurs, survivors of devastating illness and injury, or astonishingly talented superstars. They have “overcome.” They have “transcended.” They have “made it.” Life as an everyday (boring, tragic) disabled person is a battle, and these unicorns have “won.”
The rest of us? Well, nobody really wants to hear about us unless we’ve been thrown out of a restaurant for having a service dog, or been paid less than minimum wage by Goodwill. The stories the public seems most attached to are the ones where a disabled person is either beating the odds in the face of adversity, or standing proud and unflappable after shameful treatment.
These reassuring bowls of chicken soup are not just favourites of those with no disabilities. They’re also beloved by many in the disabled community, who are convinced that the only right way to be disabled is to reach newsworthy goals. There’s only one acceptable narrative, and if we don’t fit neatly into it, we’re doing life wrong. We’re “surrendering.”
The only way to get the world to care about how we are mistreated is to uplift them. Make them admire us, and after that, maybe they’ll come around to respecting us as well. You know, eventually.
I like a good story as much as the next person. I’m proud of my disabled peers, who work hard and weather fierce storms along the way. I admire and respect their strength, knowing they wouldn’t have to be so strong in a different, more accessible world. I laugh and cry with them, exulting when they succeed and commiserating when they fail. I celebrate with them when they win big, and hold space for their anger when society fails to recognize who they are outside the default disability narrative of struggle. I share empowering stories when they do particularly well, so that others will know they are more capable than many might imagine. Inspiration is not, in itself, toxic, and positivity in moderation is indeed excellent nourishment for anyone’s soul, disabled or otherwise. The blog has been, I hope, a vehicle for empathy and understanding as often as advocacy and education.
We need to be vigilant, though, because it’s so tempting to conform to the expectation that demands we remain brave and heroic at all times. Living our lives does not necessarily require heroism, and we deal with disability because there’s no alternative, not because we’re superhumanly strong. The public doesn’t know that all the way down, though, not yet. If we don’t pay attention to how we are portrayed by popular media (and judged by each other), we will inadvertently place strain on ordinary disabled people simply trying to live their lives.
Not every disabled person is brave at all times. Not every disabled person will soar to new, hitherto unexpected places. Many of us will stumble, and fail, and give up, at least temporarily. Many of us will live quietly and contentedly, just like the majority of nondisabled people. We need to remember that it’s okay to stumble. It’s okay to falter. It’s okay to break away from the inspirational mantras circling in your head long enough to remember that you are not obligated to feature in the Huffington Post. Your life is meaningful because it is yours, and is not made less meaningful if you never break a glass ceiling or awe the masses. Plenty of people go through their whole lives without doing anything of note (I expect that will be my own lot, and I’m okay with that) and they’re still perfectly happy. You deserve an accessible, welcoming environment whether you’re “making a difference” or going quietly about your business. Our deeds do not render us eligible or ineligible for decent treatment. Having a disability or illness does not have to shape your personality or desires. Being brave and strong should not determine whether you deserve the struggles you’re up against.
Reach for the stars, if that is what you believe you should do. Don’t succumb to the doubts and misgivings of others. I’m the last person to limit you. While you’re aspiring, just keep in mind that you don’t have to function as living chicken soup. If you want to be ordinary, if you feel too exhausted to be strong at all times, or if you fail spectacularly, know that it’s an acceptable circumstance and, while you can always get back on the horse, you don’t need to be inspiring while you do it.
If you need to cry, to rage, to crumple, please do. Gather your support system close and let them carry you for a moment. You’re allowed.
In short, you do you.
Looking for chicken soup? Sorry, I’m fresh out.