There comes a time in every disability blogger’s life when the subject of inspiration must be addressed. We get one too many “nice” comments about how inspiring we are for putting on socks or getting up out of bed and going to work, and that’s it. Well ladies and gentlemen, this is that time. This is gonna be a long post, so buckle up.. But it is really important, so if you have the time/inclination, please hang in there. There may be cookies at the end (sorry there aren’t cookies at the end).
A disclaimer: I know you are not intending to be offensive. I know you are a nice person, and that you mean as well as well can be meant. You think you are being encouraging, and that impulse is very sweet. But you are still doing something wrong. It’s classic “best intentions” territory. But I am *not* trying to make you feel awful. Don’t go home and panic about all the people you’ve offended, and don’t be scared to compliment someone. This post isn’t intended to scold you; it’s intended to explain some things, and hopefully change the way you think about the way you speak to people.
Disclaimer 2: I started this blog mad yesterday. I finished/edited it all today when I was much calmer, but also not caffeinated. Words are hard. You have been warned.
Now, down to business. I offer this scenario for your consideration:
I am working in the computer lab at school, helping a student check in a laptop. He pauses, looks at me, and says “I’ve wanted to say this for a long time.” I stare back, and wonder if I’m about to get hit on by a student for the first time. He then follows this harbenger of doom with “I think what you do is really inspirational.”
I stare. I say a very awkward “thank you,” because I am confused and annoyed, because I know where this is going, and I’m too midwestern to stop it. He continues, clearly feeling very good about himself, “It’s just that most people in your position wouldn’t continue teaching.” I make a lame comment about needing to make money somehow, and he leaves, and I slam a few drawers in frustration.
Some of you will be outraged on my behalf, and some of you will be very confused about why I’m so upset. Didn’t he just give me a compliment? Shouldn’t I be happy that he thinks I’m inspirational? We live in a world that can make it hard for people with disabilities to succeed, and I’m doing a thing. And it’s not that you’re entirely wrong; this world does make my life difficult sometimes, and it throws crap at me that someone with functioning eyeballs doesn’t have to deal with. But really…we all have challenges that get in the way of living our lives, and people with disabilities are just muddling through like everybody else. So, if you’re confused, let me do some translating here. When he says “You’re so inspirational for teaching while blind” (paraphrased because I’m getting tired of typing out his comments), what I hear is:
“Because you can’t see, I expected that you’d be home somewhere having other people take care of you and/or would be in a job with much less responsibility. And you’re at a teaching job making money, and that’s super surprising, good for you for rising above my non-existent expectations, which I am entitled to have because I know you super well wait not at all.”
Someone is now inevitably saying “but he didn’t mean that! Can’t you give him the benefit of the doubt/can’t you just take the compliment that’s intended?” But here’s the thing. As in any two-way communication, how I perceive the comment is just as important as how it was meant. That’s…kind of a basic rule of talking to people. I’m 100% sure he meant to be complimentary. But he didn’t say I was good at my job, he didn’t say he respected my commitment, he didn’t say I was working hard. He said that I was inspirational because I was doing the job I was paid to do…at all. And I’m not even doing it well seriously guys I’m so behind on grading papers it’s ridiculous. And he’s not the first–people tell me this often. It’s never accompanied by praise for my skills or hard work; it stops at my eyeballs.
But that is the point I’m trying to make here. You should always compliment people; compliments make the sun come up and the flowers bloom. But think about what you’re complimenting them on, and how you’d take that compliment. “Good job for showing up for work.” “Good job for putting on clothes that match.” “Good job for arriving somewhere at a semi-reasonable time.” These are daily functions; they are…things people do. You would never compliment a random person with no disability on this; you would just expect it. So, though it probably sounds rude, I’m really not that grateful for compliments that basically congratulate me on getting out of bed. And I’m getting tired of thanking you for them like I enjoy them (hence this post).
….Okay I should clarify, if you find me inspirational for getting out of bed because you know grad school is hard and adulting is super freaking difficult and you’re impressed that a time-challenged introvert with an aversion to cleaning gets up and goes to work every day with clean clothes on, that compliment I will accept the crap out of because life is just stupidly difficult when you’re a mess and it’s about time someone recognized my daily challenges.
All I, and most people, are asking for, is just that you think about what you are saying. Someone I know once said “I’m proud of you for getting your PHD as a blind student.” What I hear, again, is “I had no expectations for you so good job.” And this wasn’t a stranger; this was someone I knew very, very well. And the spirit behind the comment was lovingly intended. But it hurt my feelings. Is it so hard to stop at “I’m super proud of you for getting your PHD?” That takes into account my skills and time, and makes me feel that my accomplishments are worth praise.
Like I said, if you’ve “inspirationed” all over someone before, don’t freak out. You’re not the only one, and you won’t be the last one. So I’m not asking you to feel guilty; I’m asking you to change. Start valuing my perception of what you say as much as you value saying it. Learn how to make someone feel proud, rather than ashamed, when you speak to them – because the rhetoric of “inspiration” does bring a great deal of shame with it. Praise people on their accomplishments, not on what they’ve “overcome,” because in most instances, you know nothing about them. And in the other ones you do know something about, 99% of the time, they want to hear they are doing a good job because they are…doing a good job, not in spite of something. Everyone wants to feel valued, and everyone wants to feel proud of what they do and who they are. So stop handing out the pity compliments and hollow praises, and start appreciating the people around you for the beautiful things they bring to your life just by being them. It’s really not a hard thing to do, and it changes so much.
That was a long one; if you’ve stuck with this post all the way to the end, thank you. And whoever you are, whatever you’ve said or not said, I still think you’re pretty awesome, because you let me have my say, and hopefully you’re at least thinking about it.
Now, if I don’t get some coffee in me, this Thursday is going to go very badly. So I’m gonna do that, and you should too. And who knows, maybe I’ll start blogging again, and not just raise up like a blogging zombie when something makes me mad.