“The only disability in life is a bad attitude.”
Many people tend to believe these quotes are “inspirational.” They are instantly moved by the story about Natalie du Toit, the Olympic swimmer from South Africa with only one leg. She was inevitably forced to have her left leg amputated after she was hit by a car while riding her scooter school. Non disabled folks look at these pictures and feel this sudden rush of “inspiration porn” that magically gives them the motivation to put their struggles into perspective. “Wow! My problems are not so terrible after all! Look at what that Olympic swimmer had to go through! She must have had it so terrible! I am now proud to know that I have both of my legs!” This orgasmic rush is only temporary, however. Before too long, they go back to the boring and normal folks they truly are. Thankfully, I am not the only person who strongly believes that “inspiration porn” is an epidemic. I thoroughly enjoyed a TED lecture by Australian disability rights activist and comedian Stella Young. Her diagnosis of Osteogenesis Imperfecta (brittle bone disease) has made it necessary for her to use a wheelchair. Despite that, she managed to achieve success as the editor for the Australian Broadcasting Network.
I know what you are thinking. You think I am just going on my soapbox and ranting just for the sake of ranting. I would hate to burst your bubble, but that is not the truth at all. I most certainly do not believe my diagnosis is terrible. I also do not believe that it makes me exceptional. I only believe that disability can make one exceptional when they genuinely achieve something that nobody else has managed to do so. I am only willing to serve as “inspiration” to people who are willing to help us live up to the belief that we are exceptional.
I intend to follow Stella’s footsteps and challenge the belief that disabled people are to be used as objects of inspiration. This brings back memories to the day I wrote about Kathie Lee Gifford and the day she made an Autistic child cry on national television. The mother of handsome and popular high school senior Zach Hirsch felt compelled to write to Kathie Lee and Hoda in hopes of appearing on the segment called “Everyone Has A Story.” To sum it up, Zach befriended freshman Graham Jackson after he saw him sitting alone at a cafeteria table. Graham is also diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome and that caused him to struggle with social skills development. The two instantly discovered their love of sports and became fast friends. To honor Zach, broadway singer Kate Baldwin performed a song that told their story. The horrid lyrics are reluctantly quoted below.
We see them everyday, but too often look away from the ones who are sitting alone.
We seldom hear their voice because we make the choice to leave them right there all alone
We see them everywhere, but to often we don’t care. We’re lost in a world of our own.
We rarely realize, they’re angels in disguise, so we leave them right there all alone.
Can you imagine if hello was a word you’d never heard? Can you imagine if you’ve never had a friend?
Can you imagine if loneliness was all you’d ever known?
It’s more than we could ever comprehend. A world, a silent world, without a friend.
But miracles can happen, sometimes they really do.
And sometimes, the miracle turns out to be you.
When you embrace a stranger and show love you’ve never shown, you will make the greatest friend that you have ever known.
Someone who used to be, someone who used to be, but now will never be all alone.
I think that Stella’s lecture is one that is very beneficial for people who live with disabilities that are often considered “fake” by ignorant people in our society. This story with Kathie Lee Gifford and the Autistic teenager is an example of a vapid and patronizing publication of a “feel good” story. I know they meant well. I am willing to believe that Zach is genuinely a good person and that their friendship is something worth recognizing. However, I can’t help but feel insulted for Graham’s sake and reminded of my high school experiences. I was one of those kids who nobody wanted to sit with. I was occasionally bullied in school. People threw things at me and called me names like retard, faggot, queer and butt pirate. I was sexually harassed a few times by a girl who was desperate to be the center of attention and use me as her way of getting it. I did not ask to go through most of the treatment people subjected me to. I don’t think it is necessary to elaborate on my experiences. However, there is one thing that has particularly stood out in this video. Kathie Lee was “inspirationally aroused” after she fulfilled her desire to remind Graham that he is different. I know many people throughout the rest of society can’t get enough of it when it comes to their attitudes towards disabled people. When we encounter them, the most difficult thing to figure out is whether we should ignore them or call them on it.
People have also told me that I am “brave” and “inspirational” when they have read many of my writings from the past year. “My Letter to Steve Grand” was one of those posts. Sure, it was emotional for me and those who were emotionally moved by it. However, I never intended for it to be an “inspiration” to anyone else but myself. When I look back and read it to myself, these are the messages it conveyed to me.
1.) Stop beating yourself up about the past. We’ve all been through experiences where our true feelings were forced to be ignored and even believed to be “wrong.”
2.) Learn from your words and experiences. Use them to create a life that is truly worth living!
Life as a gay man with Asperger’s Syndrome has often forced me to ponder one question. Do I allow my life to be dictated by these “inspiration fetishists” or do I try to live by the example of those who do genuinely want me to live a happy and successful life? Without the latter, none of us can live up to the belief that we are “exceptional.”