Discussing Stereotypes & Inspiration

This past Thursday, I had the privilege of going to lunch with some students from a private K-8 school in Denver to talk about stereotypes.  Their teacher had reached out to me after they spoke with my friend Alina (learn more about her story here) because they wanted to talk to someone who was both an amputee and an athlete.  The students have been working on gathering information and talking to real people with different experiences and relationships over the past months in order to learn more about stereotypes, and this will all culminate in a project that will be presented at a school EXPO later this month.

One of the questions these students asked me (as I was stuffing my face full of nachos) was what stereotypes people make about me as an athlete with a disability.  One of the first things that popped up in my mind was being stereotyped as an inspiration.  I mentioned this, and one of the students expressed that this didn’t seem like a terrible stereotype to deal with because it sounds very positive.  And, I’ll admit, on the surface it does seem positive, and it’s definitely not as bad as the stereotypes about groups such as lawyers, but I explained to them how it could also be wildly inaccurate.

I started giving them a made-up example to help illustrate my point, but then realized Oscar Pistorius is actually a perfect real life example, so we talked about how the whole world saw him as an inspiration… until the veil was lifted and his true character was revealed.  For years, people classified him as an inspiration because he was an athlete with a disability (and very fast), without giving any consideration to who he actually is as a human being.   After the whole incident, people started expressing that he had always had a bad temper and was a sore loser who would act out aggressively following a loss.

The other issue surrounding the use of the word inspiration when talking about people with disabilities is that it can rely on the assumption that a disability is a bad thing that must be overcome, and also that living with a disability automatically makes you exceptional – in other words, it objectifies people.  Stella Young does a much better job describing this concept than I could ever do, so I’m just going to direct you to her TED Talk if you want to learn more about this idea.

In my opinion, we should save the word “inspiration” for those who are truly good human beings and who do things that instill a desire to do good in others. By labeling someone as an inspiration based on one small aspect of what can be observed about a person’s life (like a complete stranger witnessing me running a race with a prosthesis), not only are we objectifying people based on assumptions and stereotypes, I think we are also minimizing the power and meaning of what can be a very powerful word when used appropriately.

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