Emphasizing humanity as a common experience
“You’re an inspiration to me” is a phrase that is supportive and encouraging on the surface. For people with disabilities, however, it’s problematic. Turning people with disabilities into heroes for performing everyday activities sets them apart from a society in which they may already feel excluded.
“I think the hero is someone who makes sacrifices for others and goes out of his or her way to do good,” Rose B. Fischer, a blogger and fiction writer who often writes about disability issues, said. “When we heroize people for just living their lives, we devalue real heroism, and we send the message that people with disabilities are somehow a ‘different class’ of human being.”
Paul Feuerstein is the founder, president and CEO of Barrier Free Living, an agency in New York City that works with people with disabilities who are homeless and/or victims of domestic violence. He said he also sees the alienation that heroizing causes.
“Heroes by definition are set aside,” he said. “There’s still a lot of objectification language, and heroizing is very much a reflection of that.”
Heroizing people who have disabilities is reductive, Fischer said, “because it focuses on one small aspect of who we are and doesn’t allow us to be people first.”
“It also reinforces the social constructs of disability as always something that is negative,” she said, “rather than allowing disability to simply be a characteristic of an individual’s life and part of that person’s experience of the world.”
Isolating disability as just one part of a person’s identity is important, which is why appropriate terminology is important.
“Wheelchair users are no more wheelchair-bound than I am subway-bound or bus-bound,” Feuerstein said. “It’s a means of transportation.”
In the past, discrimination against people with disabilities took the form of inaccessible transportation and unemployment. The Americans with Disabilities Act improved that — buildings are now required to have ramps and automatic doors, for example — but objectifying and degrading attitudes are still barriers that often come along with disability.
“We, as people with disabilities, can’t just be living our lives,” Fischer said. “Society wants us to be heroic and inspirational, ‘overcoming our limitations’ all the time.”
This heroizing has turned individuals into symbols for people with disabilities as a whole, a group that ranges from bipolar disorder to cerebral palsy to dyslexia. The range of experiences that people with disabilities have is extremely diverse; assuming that all people with a certain disability encounter the same struggles is both inaccurate and offensive to many.
“We need to de-emphasize disability and emphasize humanity and common experience,” Fischer said, suggesting an attitudinal shift of focusing on similarities rather than differences.
One common experience is dependency. People with disabilities may depend on mobility devices or educational accommodations, but people without disabilities also rely on others to perform activities of daily living. “Nobody is truly independent, we’re all interdependent,” Feuerstein said. “I depend on the dry cleaner, the bus schedule, my wife. We’re all spreading our dependencies.”
Seeing these similarities is part of seeing the humanity of people with disabilities. Another vital part is terminology, since negative societal attitudes toward disability are often rooted in language.
“Words are powerful,” Joanie Groome, coordinator of Recreation Support Services at the Ithaca Youth Bureau, said. “Language both reflects and creates feelings and attitudes. Any word that starts with ‘without,’ ‘less than,’ or ‘reduced’ will be construed as negative.”
Language that implies suffering, affliction or confinement also has a negative connotation and is offensive to many people with disabilities. The New York State Department of Health now encourages people to use person-first language, such as “person with a disability” instead of “disabled.” This shift suggests society is starting to move away from seeing people with disabilities as lesser, weak or defined by their capabilities. But the opposite reaction to disability — namely, putting people with disabilities on a pedestal — can be equally reductive.
“People are well-intended and they want to praise others, but they just don’t know,” Groome said. “They can’t imagine doing those day-to-day tasks with the same barriers.”
Recognizing and admiring greater efforts is possible “without turning someone into an inspirational paragon,” Fischer said, but activities of daily living are just as necessary for people with disabilities as people without them. Completing a task in a non-standard way doesn’t warrant congratulating someone or elevating them to hero status.
“When I was younger, I mostly felt baffled. I couldn’t figure out why people thought I was doing anything so remarkable,” Fischer said. “I mean, what was my other option? Stay home and not get my education or my grocery shopping done or whatever it was I went out to do? Not see my friends and family?”
For someone without a disability, completing everyday tasks is unexceptional, and the same should be true for people who have additional barriers.
“If you’re doing everyday tasks, you’re not a hero,” Groome said. “If you do something that’s out of the ordinary for anybody, then you might be a hero. What makes someone a hero shouldn’t be whether they have a disability; it should be what barriers they overcome regardless of disability.”
Sabina Leybold is sophomore speech-language pathology major who doesn’t choose her heroes based on ability. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.