Should we be inspired by Paralympian achievement? Commentator Frances Ryan recently counselled Guardian readers to be careful to think through their reactions to disabled “superhuman” athletes and academic poster boys like Professor Stephen Hawking. Treat people with disabilities just like everyone else, is the argument. Don’t see us as special. If we have overcome anything, it’s more relevant to highlight the barriers that a disabling world sets in our way, not our medical problems.
This line of argument was made famous by the late, great Stella Young, an Australian writer and comedienne with disability. She objected to the way that disabled children and adults were feted for very minor achievements – like coming to school, or making a painting. She didn’t like how the non-disabled world automatically responded with pity and admiration for disabled people, often for simply existing.
It was Young who used the memorable phrase “inspiration porn” in connection with internet memes of disabled people “overcoming” their disability, meant to inspire others. The message is: if they can do it, despite their difficulties, then you should stop complaining about the trivial obstacles you face. But disabled people should not have to encapsulate a corny life lesson. We don’t exist to inspire other people. We are normal, we struggle on; sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing. We can’t all be heroes.
I have sympathy for this point of view. Other people’s attitudes are among the greatest obstacles that disabled people face. We just want to be treated like everyone else – not special, not pathetic, just ordinary.
But I also think that sometimes it is the case that disabled people do heroic things, and we should applaud them – just as we do other, non-disabled, achievers. Ellie Simmonds is amazing, but so is Mo Farah. No doubt both have had to overcome social barriers to achieve as they have on the global stage – hats off to their dedication and determination. Our anxiety about avoiding patronising attitudes to disabled people should not prevent us recognising and celebrating genuine achievement.
And often, disabled people face considerable obstacles. I am part of Bridging the Gap, an ESRC-funded research project led by the Leonard Cheshire Disability and Inclusive Development Centre at UCL, that is exploring the disability and development gap. Part-funded by the Department for International Development, so far this year I have visited Zambia, Uganda and Kenya, and interviewed dozens of successful disabled people. I want to understand the factors that enabled them to be high achievers – and to offer positive stories to counter the dominant discourse of exclusion and dependency for disabled Africans.
In Zambia, I met Pius, a young man who used crutches to move around. He told me he was the only member of his family to finish education. I asked him about the obstacles that many disabled children face in order to travel to school. It took him three hours each morning and evening to walk to and from school.
In Kenya I met Mabel, who was deaf. She had been written-off by her family, who were poor agricultural workers in a rural community, and some people even thought she was a victim of witchcraft. But she had completed her primary and secondary education, and then gone on to college to train as a teacher. Unable to hear the lessons, she’d had to copy out her classmates’ notes and do extra reading to make up for the barriers she faced. Now she was paying the school fees of her siblings, and looking after her mother, and was by far the most successful member of her family.
Another man had been the victim of a terrorist bomb which left him blind, but was now a successful barrister. A woman born without arms as a result of thalidomide was now the top civil servant in her government ministry.
Over and again I heard stories which were, truly, inspirational: evidence of extraordinary grit and determination, a refusal to let physical obstacles or the attitudes of self or others prevent them from achieving. Some disabled people – and many people without disability – would have been defeated, but they soldiered on, against the odds.
It’s hard not to resort to military metaphors. Because life, for some disabled people, is indeed like a battle: against unthinking prejudice, against physical barriers, in overcoming the limitations of their own bodies, through struggle towards their goal. I think we should salute them.