We all draw inspiration from different places and different people. Although, if we are being totally honest, it mostly comes from Pinterest. However, I feel lucky in the sense that I have a lot of screen-free inspiration in my life. I’m surrounded by numerous people who motivate me to be better: a better mom, a better wife, a better friend, a better daughter, a better writer, and a better version of myself. And over the last year I have packed my newsfeeds with people who inspire me to continue this journey in life despite my physical limitations.
You would think that being called an inspiration would always be flattering. Clearly, it means you have done something that stood out to someone and really moved them in some way. But the term can sometimes lose its significance. The spinal cord injury (SCI) community continually battles with this description; one that balances precariously between complimentary and trite.
Since the very early days of my injury there were people who called me an inspiration. Initially I found it encouraging and, yes, flattering that I was seen in this particular way. As the months went on it became a description that I began to find somewhat demeaning. I think this happened for two reasons. One was because as I delved deeper into the spinal cord injury community I learned that it really was an overused term that many learned to dismiss. And two, because it felt as though I could never be acknowledged for any real accomplishments seeing as even just ‘not dying’ earned me this coveted title. I started to become bitter over something that was meant to be complimentary. This began an internal debate for me that I have struggled with for many months. It is more complicated than one might think. And while I have been called ‘inspirational’ by many, there is a difference when it comes from someone who is able-bodied versus someone who is living life with an injury.
A few weeks ago, I read something by Alan Rasof that really resonated with me. “People with disabilities don’t exist for the rest of us to feel inspired.” This is very true. My purpose in life did not shift with my injury and I don’t exist solely for the purpose of inspiring others. But is it so bad if the way I live my life motivates someone else? Maybe it’s not why I exist, but if it happens in the process I’m not sure I think that is a bad thing.
There is a big goal in the disabled community and that goal is to normalize disabilities in the world. We want the world to change so that an achievement is no more impressive when accomplished by someone with a disability than someone without a disability. I understand that the objective in this is to prove that we are capable individuals; we are still people with ideas, talents and know-how. I also understand the desire to want to prove all of our abilities to the world and how important it is for people to know. However, while I don’t think there needs to be a big production about achievements by those with disabilities (I know we are just as capable). I do think we, as a community, need to recognize that there has been adversity in our life that a lot of people cannot imagine. And while it may be just part of our day-to-day, it is full of obstacles that seem far from ordinary to a lot of people.
I truly believe that every person out there is capable of overcoming obstacles that they can’t even fathom. I believe that everyone has a resilience in them that they don’t know they possess (and will never know they possess) unless life throws them a reason to uncover it. A year ago, I never thought I would move on like I have but, turns out, I was wrong (phew!). However, no matter how sure I am that resilience exists in everyone, it doesn’t mean that everyone, when faced with a difficult situation, chooses to execute it. It doesn’t take away from the fact that I’m utilizing it. It doesn’t mean that it isn’t a quality to be admired.
Admiration can sometimes get a little out of hand and that is where I struggle. I struggle when someone sees me for all of one minute and because I am out in the world while in a wheelchair, I am an ‘inspiration’. I could be a terrible mother. I could be a terrible person. In these scenarios, there is generally no basis to be called ‘inspiring’ and I believe this is where the compliment becomes cliché and where the meaning of it loses its significance.
I understand that the general population is not intimately knowledgeable about life with a disability. It would be great if everyone easily understood that the different ways I accomplish things are what is required for me to get on with my day; I’m doing what is required for me to live my life. But it takes time for the world to understand something like that. Disabled people living in such a functional capacity amongst society is a somewhat recent development in human history and an entire minority doesn’t just integrate with the population overnight. It takes time. It takes decades, maybe longer. It certainly takes interest, education, and understanding. It takes the thoughts of “I could never do what she does and I want to know more about how she does it.” It takes patience.
There will never come a time that someone will hear the words “you are never going to walk again” and not be shattered. There will never come a time (until there comes a cure) that the changes a spinal cord injury brings to daily life regarding mobility, bladder control, bowel function and sexual function will not significantly alter a person’s mindset and expectations for their life. I don’t think it would be fair to change the world’s view in such a way that their expectations of a newly injured person are too great. The road to understanding shouldn’t undermine the emotionally charged and difficult journey that the trauma of a spinal cord injury brings.
When I was newly injured, I began searching online for inspiration. But what if nobody had been there for me to find? What if everyone living successfully with a spinal cord injury was considered status-quo and I was left to just fall in line because that was what was expected? I’m fairly certain I wouldn’t have had the same drive to recover without the honesty, transparency and inspiration of other wheelchair users. Wheelchair users such as Chelsie Hill, Rachelle Chapman, Ali Stroker and Claire Freeman (Instagram @chelsiehill, @rachelles_wheels, @alistroker @meesa_claire) just to name a few. I have a lot of gratitude for the motivation that I drew from others (and continue to draw from others) during my recovery. There were many days I needed to see veteran wheelchair users living their lives in order to get up and keep working towards living my life.
And that’s what I’m doing: living my life. I may not think that I’m inspiring or doing anything out of the ordinary, but I understand why some people may view that differently. I will no longer be bothered when I’m called an inspiration as it really is always said with good intentions. I definitely have hope that as time goes on there will be less mystery surrounding disabilities, but I don’t believe that there should ever come a time where overcoming a difficult situation is not commendable. However, I do urge anyone to think twice before calling someone an inspiration. Think about what it is they are inspiring in you or how you would back up your observation because it is a lot more meaningful when said with purpose and understanding.