Hmm . . . this sounds familiar. And not in a good way.
Okay, the big thing that upsets me about the inspirational meme stuff like the one above is that pairing images of disabled people with messages like "It's all in your attitude" or "think positive and you can do anything" and "there are no disabilities, only bad attitudes" is basically pairing images of us, people with disabilities, with the sort of trite crap that is used to deny us when we ask for help and shove us down when we try to explain that there is a problem and something is wrong.
See, when a depressed teenager is failing at school, she is told to study harder, try harder, that she's got a "bad attitude." When a person with chronic pain is told that there are no excuses for not exercising every day and keeping a perfectly tidy house, and they react by getting justifiably angry, they have a "bad attitude", a "chip on their shoulder", they're "too sensitive", and they're "lazy" to boot. When a poor disabled person who cannot afford a wheelchair is told that the only disability is a bad attitude, and this is illustrated with pictures of $15,000 prosthetic legs*, and they don't happen to feel inspired by this, they just aren't grateful enough for what they do have. Telling someone to "think positive" when they are in the pits of bipolar despair is not just mean, it's indicative of grave ignorance and a sad disregard for the person's basic humanity.
All this stuff is doing is perpetuating the myth that leads to the stereotypes that lead to the neglect, bullying and abuse that make our lives much harder than they have to be . . . and it's perpetuating it using pictures of us.
And it is doing all of that in order to motivate and cheer up people who are not disabled.
And that is just messed. Do you see how awful that is?
The messages alone are harmful and frustrating, even when pasted over pictures of sunsets and flowers. When put over images of us, when those words, OTHER PEOPLE'S WORDS, are literally written over our bodies and faces, that is really hurtful.** It silences us. It uses us as symbols of something that often doesn't even apply to us.
Don't erase us like that, okay? Those aren't our words. Those aren't our voices.
Don't use us to make yourself feel better about your odds of making it if you just try harder. Don't use us to point out to your underachieving friends that they could try harder. Because we try as hard as we can, we do, and it is often not enough. Do you know how many of us live below the poverty line, struggling to survive because we cannot get help from state agencies without years-long battles that we are often too sick or too tired to fight, or won't live long enough to win?
This is not a game to us. This is not a joke. This is not a teachable moment. This is not a moral to some inspirational story. This is our life. I can't be sure I will be able to afford to go to the doctor this month and buy the medication he will prescribe me. I mean, I could wring it out of the budget, sure, but that's going to cut somewhere else. I have no savings. I take money from my father, from friends, because the state is dragging its heels in acknowledging how very, very sick I am. Do you think that the low-income health programs cover my health care? They don't. All they will take care of is my baby-making parts, because that's all I am to them, and the rest of me is just so much defective meat. And until I am declared officially disabled, and given a piece of paper and a number and an official designation to tell everyone else what I already know because I live it every damn day, it won't cover my medical care. So I hurt more. I get sicker. Don't ignore the unpleasant reality of many of our lives to capitalize on the inspiration value of the things we do manage to accomplish. Our adversity is not something for you to use to prop up your self-esteem.
You can have your inspiration. Nothing wrong with that. You can even find our stories inspirational; it's not the main reason I blog about disability sometimes, but I certainly don't mind if someone who is not mentally ill finds my occasional victory inspiring, or takes heart from my supposed strength or stubbornness. I don't begrudge you that. I don't. The fact that I can help other people by talking about this? That is, about 75% of the time, the only thing that makes the thought that this is forever and ever until I die tolerable. I don't care who it touches. If I am alleviating pain, I'm happy.
Don't use us, though, to talk about yourselves, or other people. Especially not to other people. We -- in our identity as disabled people -- shouldn't be used to represent or illustrate or talk about anything in a way that does not directly center us and our perception of our experiences.
We don't belong to you. Our lives don't belong to you. Our bodies don't belong to you. Our experiences don't belong to you. We aren't your inspiration. We don't deserve to be "that guy" you are glad you aren't, and we aren't brave saints who have navigated the minefield of life and emerged on the other side, triumphant, smiling, and with the wings of eagles.
Here is what we are: we are struggling, hurting people who navigate the shit life throws at us with varying degrees of success, battling all the way. We never win. We just hold it off a little longer. Life is wonderful and amazing, but it is also very, very hard. There is no finish line, not for anyone, except the big black. And the days we don't win that fight, those aren't failures that happen because we didn't keep our chin up. Those are failures that happen because the world is a hard place, and being disabled in one way doesn't come with built in compensations that make us better at dealing with the hard things, or confer advantages in another area. We are as shitty at life as anyone else. And that doesn't mean we aren't trying as hard, or make us less deserving. It makes us human.
We are warriors in a war story that never ends. There is no happily ever after. There is just the fight. Every. Day. For the rest of our lives.
Respect us. Please.
We don't get to look at pictures of you and feel hope. We don't get to look at pictures of you and feel good about ourselves. So don't make us look at pictures of ourselves while you tell yourselves how much you can achieve, because hey, life is so easy even disabled people can do it and smile, right?
Well, no. It's really, really not.
* Let me just talk about those cheetah legs. They are made of carbon fiber, engineered to replicate the spring action of the world's fastest land predator. They are so incredibly effective that South African Olympic sprinter Oscar Pistorious, pictured with that cute little girl above, was barred from competing in the 2008 Olympics because his cheetah legs were found by a committee to bestow upon him advantages that non-amputee runners could not match. That makes using this picture kind of inappropriate. The fact that the legs cost $12,000-15,000 combined with the caption make the pairing actively revolting. Those legs represent the absolute pinnacle of prosthetic technology, and they are extremely expensive and thus accessible to very, very few people. You not only have to be rich, you have to be the right kind of amputee. Not everyone can afford them, and not everyone can use them. Those two people, that amazing athlete and that precious little child who is obviously having a grand adventure, are very, very lucky, and with all my heart I wish them the very best in the world, but there is no comparing that kind of luck with a good attitude. A good attitude will not buy you the world's most incredible legs.
Also, there is no prosthetic for mental illness. Many people barely even acknowledge that it exists as a legitimate thing, not just a cluster of inconveniences and lies and concocted justifications to be browbeaten out of anyone who claims to be mentally ill.
** Yes, at least one of those quotes WAS from a guy with no legs. He doesn't speak for all of us, or even most of us. And it is super-important that you realize that.
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