Rethinking inspiration

I take it all back. Please keep telling me I’m inspirational.

Well, if I do something inspiring, anyway.

After my last blog post went to air (Stella Young and inspiration porn), I received a number of comments that rightly challenged me to clarify my concerns about labelling people with disabilities as inspirations. To put my comments in context, I was responding to the TED video by Stella Young, who was making the point that the label “inspiring” is, first, a backhanded compliment, since often arises because of the assumption that people with disabilities shouldn’t be able to do the things we are praising them for. Second, it is a label that sets them apart as being “special,” when what disabled people really need is to be treated as “normal” (whatever the heck that is). The history of disability is a story of exclusion, and so disability advocacy in recent decades (following the social model of disability) has been fighting for inclusion; for disabled people to be treated as a normal member of the tribe, welcomed to participate in tribal activities in the same way as everyone else. This involves a focus on the whole person; on their wit, wisdom, personality, humour, joyousness, friendliness, and so forth, rather than on a person’s disability.

Of course, a disability is also a part of a person’s identity – that can’t be avoided, but needs to be understood as only one part of the whole – and it may well be that a person’s accomplishments are all the more remarkable for the challenges that have been overcome in achieving them. I think it’s okay to find this both inspiring and challenging, and to respond with encouragement. The key, I guess, is to recognise the danger of setting a person apart (whether positively or negatively). Instead, most of our interactions with a person should be precisely the same as our interaction with any other friend.

I blog, not primarily to be told I’m extraordinary (although Freud might suggest my fragile and vain ego is subconsciously seeking attention), but to give people a glimpse of life with a spinal cord injury – it’s challenges, ordinariness, and absurdity. There is very little that is heroic or inspiring about my life. A fireman chooses to run into a burning building, but most of what I do is because I have no other choice. I live pretty well the same way you do. Life carries me along in the pull of its relentless current, and I do my best to keep my head above the water, and have as much fun as I can when the rapids slosh me about. Every now and then I do something I’m proud of, and that might be inspiring, and I guess you shouldn’t feel nervous telling me so.

I can’t speak for everyone, but I think this would be true of many people with a disability. Generally we just want to be thought of as “a good bloke”, “a cool chick.” Occasionally we’ll accept stronger acclamation (as would anyone). I think Stella’s TED speech is extraordinary and praiseworthy. It is a response to her disability, but it’s a reflection of her capacity, and I’m greatly encouraged by it. I hope she wouldn’t mind me saying so.

About Author

Shane is an ethicist and theologian, Honorary Associate for the Centre of Disability Research and Policy, the University of Sydney, and Assistant Director, Policy, at the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect, and Exploitation against People with Disability. Shane is proudly disabled, and an occasional blogger on

1 Comment

  • Tania Harris
    June 20, 2014 at 7:20 am

    I think you’re an inspirational good bloke… but I also thought that before your accident 😉


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