Inspiring Lower Expectations

Tell a TAB that they are inspiring and the person will be aglow with pride. Compliment me in the same way and I’ll duck my head and try to become invisible, which of course never works when I want. It is almost as bad as being told I’m amazing.

A seatmate on an airplane asked me a crucial question, “Isn’t it good if by your example you cause another to do something worthwhile?” Since nobody can argue with that result, of course I agreed which began me thinking. What is so objectionable in being an inspiration?

I realized there are two forms of inspiration: the role model type and the amazing flavor. They differ in that in the former inspiration has led to act and achievement whereas the latter is focused on emotion.

Their common ground is that of expectation. In order for something to inspire, it must seem out of the ordinary for human behavior. An obstacle assessed as insurmountable must be overcome. Circumstances determined as utterly bleak must have been successfully plumbed for happiness. A perceived burden must be shouldered as though it is feather-light.

If it were simply about behavior out of the ordinary for human beings, I would have no objections to engendering inspiration, but it’s not. People based their expectations on the limits they assume my disabilities impart. These constraints are typically based on socially perpetuated beliefs about disability as opposed to the reality. Thus people think I can’t bake, so when I do they find it inspiring. This makes me crazy.

If the inspiration leads to an individual behaving differently and accomplishing something, I have more tolerance. Perhaps this is because the inspired person has perceived us to have common ground. They are not viewing me as other and setting the bar lower as a result. Instead they realize my reality has traits familiar because they are present in their own lives and use an identical yardstick to measure both of us. This feels far less like being thought less competent and hence less objectionable. It also helps that a person is getting more out of the comparisons than a surge of emotion.

It dawns upon me that there is a subset of inspiration that has always been nebulous to me. I tend to engage in these discussions when people start gushing about my amazingness and I feel obligated to object. Sometimes the person says something like, “I can’t sow, so I’m amazed you made that skirt.” When questioned, they seem genuinely convinced that it isn’t my blindness that makes the act seem extraordinary, but rather the common ground we share as human beings.

So I suppose my objections to those who find me inspiring are solely related to whether or not the person sees us as the same or different. It’s about whether they use the same yardstick to judge me as they use to judge themselves. The instant my disabilities inspire them to create a separate set of expectations, it becomes insulting. If the expectations were higher, I’d probably find it irritating, but somehow they’re always lower.

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About Jen

After acquiring a degree from Vassar College in psychology, I moved to Western Mass where I ran a peer mentoring network for disabled college students as well as activism and organizing around disability issues. I also conducted research on disabled women’s body image. An Upstate New York native, I eventually followed my heliotropic nature to the sun of Southern California. I divide my time between writing (disability fiction and essays) along with moderating San Diego Bisexual Forum which is one of the oldest groups of its kind in the country. In my off hours I can often be found in my neighborhood live music venue enjoying our local talent.

3 thoughts on “Inspiring Lower Expectations

  1. This reminds me of something that hapened a couple of weeks ago…

    I was in my scooter and Holden (my service dog) pushed the button to ope the door. A woman came up to us right after and was told Holden what a good job he did in a squeaky voice, and then she looked and me and was like you did a really good job too, you are amazing! An amazing job well done.

    This was by the entrance to the Mount Holyoke College art building. I don’t see her complimenting other AMAZING student who manage to open the door! She seemed like the type to pat one of he head so I just gave her a VERY puzzled look and kept going.

  2. There will always be the nuanced and multifaceted distinctions between forms and styles of disability, that us TABs will always gloss over out of intellectual laziness. Consider the Special Olympics. Those athletes are simultaneously amazing in your first defined sense because they are competing on a global level, however the bar of expectations is also set lower. They’re not competing in the regular Olympics, and never will. TABs see this and make blanket assumptions leading to the behavior you describe.

    OTOH, there was that one runner whose blade-like prosthetic legs were deemed unsuitable for competition since they made him significantly stronger than the evolved flesh and blood of his competitors.

  3. Court, I’ve been known to give a little bark when someone I know does something usually exclusively directed at dogs, like say, “Stay” or “good girl.”

    Steve, I need to give the Special Olimpics thing some consideration. It is an activity geared at building self-esteem etc, but maybe it’s also perpetuating the idea that disabled people should be judged with a separate yardstick. Unthinking people — and lets face it that’s most of us most of the time — don’t really see the distinctions. Should the Special Olimpics be stopped because they give many TABs the wrong idea? No. Should maybe the para olimpics get more coverage akin to the Olimpics? Yes. I suspect that would change perceptions.

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