Talk Positively about Disability – But How?

In the last several years, opinions on how we should talk about disability have changed significantly. In the past, it was normal to talk about people with disabilities in terms that are today considered condescending and insulting. Nowadays, in contrast people are encouraged to use positive language that emphasizes the capabilities of people with disabilities instead of their limitations. But what kind of language is positive? It seems like a simple question, but not everyone agrees.

In this article, we’ll focus on one specific aspect of the positive language debate, the discussion surrounding words such as inspirational, brave and courageous. These words, while seemingly very positive, are words that many people with disabilities don’t like to hear.  “Why”, you might wonder, “isn’t this a compliment”? Well, no, many people think it isn’t.

People with disabilities who oppose being called brave or inspirational say that it is objectifying and degrading. If you tell someone that he or she is an inspiration just because of their disability, they argue, you are basically just complimenting them on existing. You reduce them to their disability and do not pay attention to who they actually are or what they have achieved in live. Instead, you use their disability to remind yourself of the fact that life can always be worse. This is not their job, though. People with disabilities are not on this planet to make “able-bodied” people feel good about themselves. Moreover, their lives may actually be better or more fulfilling than yours – who knows?.

In a thread about life with disability, some Reddit users explained why they do not want to be called brave or inspirational.

AuthenticSpace: RIGHT? Brave? Strong? I’m pretty sure I didn’t say “Hey, universe, make me handicapped.” There’s nothing brave or strong about it. I exist. My strength and courage comes from what I do. Not what I am.

Leviolentfemme: Don’t say that I’m brave or an inspiration– like other posters have mentioned. You have noooooooo idea what my life is like. I make bad choices just like you do, and I make good choices, just like you do. I’m a little more resilient than others, due to my hearing impairment, sure; but that’s about as far as it goes in terms of being an ‘inspiration’. I strive to be normal. I want to pay my bills, have coffee with my friends, bitch about my latest creepy date, and cry when my bank account hovers near insufficient funds–just like any other 26 year old female in America. I don’t want to be your inspiration, I want to be your next door neighbor and I want to be left to my own devices.. please.

Not everyone agrees, however. There are also people with disabilities who do not mind being called inspirational. Instead, they are glad they are able to help someone and are encouraged by the fact that their experiences in life can serve as an inspiration to other people. As Mel Finefrock explains in a post on Disability Blog:

 “I know that I have gained respect for others who have gone through challenging times and triumphed, by placing myself in their shoes, whether they have disabilities or not. This is the simple, human act of exercising empathy, which seems to be becoming rarer by the day because people are afraid to feel their own pain, let alone others’ pain. As such, I recognize and applaud all instances of empathy, even and often within the context of ‘inspiration porn’.”

So, clearly, not everyone agrees on whether or not words such as inspirational can be considered positive and constructive language. The aim of this article, then, is also not to convince people of whether or not it is acceptable to call people with disabilities this. Rather, the point that we are trying to make is that it is important to think about what you say. Language can help change people’s perception of disability, but only if used constructively. No matter how you twist it, not every single person with a disability has done something inspirational or brave and we can probably all agree that generalizing an entire group is never right. So, the next time that you want to call a person with a disability inspirational, think about this: are you just saying it to make yourself feel better about your own life or, to quote disability activist Stella Young, because they have done something “that could be considered an achievement if you took disability out of the equation”? In the latter instance, go ahead!


If you want to know more, watch the video below. The video features the late Stella Young, an Australian disability activist who vehemently opposed the portrayal of people with disabilities as inspirational. In the video, she gives her point of view on the objectification of people with disabilities and she has some very valid points.


Do you want to help Enablecode spread awareness about people with disabilities in the developing world or do you want to receive more information about what we do? Register to our website here.

About The Author