Jason's View

"You're So Inspirational": Disability and the Overall Culture of Inspiration

06 May 2015 by Jason Harris
Words matter. (Image: 123RF.com)

Inspiration in itself is a very interesting subject. In some ways, we see inspirational people as sort of separate from us. I could never do that. We in some way deify people like Abraham Lincoln or Nelson Mandela or Neil DeGrasse Tyson as inspirational. “Inspirational” can be defined as imparting or giving inspiration. Inspiration itself is defined by Merriam-Webster as: something that makes someone want to do something or that gives someone an idea about what to do or create : a force or influence that inspires someone.

This is important because especially in disability culture, there is a discussion about the question, “Should the word inspirational be used?” It is not uncommon for someone to go up to a person in a wheelchair and say, “You are so inspirational!” without even knowing them. This is true for other people with disabilities that are more visible. Calling someone with a disability inspirational without really knowing anything about them seems to be more a way to say, “I could never deal with this myself.” This goes against the idea of inspiration we get from the definition of Merriam-Webster. It would be like going up to someone who is gay or black or a Muslim or a woman and saying, “You are so inspirational because I could not imagine being who you are.” Would you do that? I hope not. So why do it to people with disabilities?

“It is not uncommon for someone to go up to a person in a wheelchair and say, ‘You are so inspirational!’ without even knowing them….
Calling someone with a disability inspirational without really knowing anything about them seems to be more a way to say, ‘I could never deal with this myself.’”

Now to be honest there are people who have disabilities who are inspirational or gay people or women or black people or members of many other groups, but because of what they do, not who they are. In my own personal life I do not want to be seen as inspirational just because someone thinks it is amazing that a person with autism can do all the things I do. I want to be inspirational because the work I do contributes to larger, positive societal outcomes. I strive to be inspirational or a game changer in the work I do. I do not try to be inspirational by driving a car or going to the grocery store. That is just me living my life, like you or anyone else. When I learned those skills like anyone else, that was a big deal, but to me now it is just like it is for you— a normal part of living.

“Use the word to build people up, not bring them down.”

When we look at people who inspire us we want to be like them or wish we could make the efforts they do. We see what they do as valuable. So in that way, do not stop using the word inspirational, but use it to build people up, not bring them down.


Jason Harris

Founder of Jason’s Connection – an online resource for those with disabilities, mental health, aging and other needs. Jason was awarded an M.S. in Cultural Foundations of Education and Advanced Certificate in Disability Studies from Syracuse University.  Jason is also a Project Coordinator and Research Associate at the Burton Blatt Institute, an international think tank for Disability Rights and Human Justice at Syracuse University.  He regularly contributes to the blog in his own series called Jason’s View and travels the country consulting and speaking about disability issues and rights. To read more from Jason Harris, read Jason's View