Disabled People are not Your Inspiration

wispy white clouds in a blue sky
Photo by Nareeta Martin on Unsplash

There are many reasons disabled people don’t like being told we’re inspirational.

It’s not our job to entertain or motivate you (come back if you’re actually proposing paying us).

We don’t exist outside of society to serve some kind of deep, meaningful function for “normal people”. We ARE normal people. We are part of society.

Most of the time when we’re told that, we haven’t done anything special (this is part of being seen as being “outside regular society”). We’re just living our lives. And if we find things really hard that you find easy then quit fawning over us in some kind of pity party and start fighting to make those things easier for us to do.

But the thing I want to focus on here is the one I personally find most frustrating. If I am that inspirational to you, what is it that I’ve inspired you to do?

When you’re a disabled person giving talks you come to expect several things:

  1. If other people are getting paid for speaking alongside you, you probably won’t be.

But the main thing you come to expect is that NOTHING WILL CHANGE as a result of your “inspiration.”

No, that’s not quite right. The institution you talked for will tell people that they have consulted disabled people, and will wear your appearance with pride because it ticks a socially conscious equality, diversity and inclusion box. And that will change how customers and investors see the organization. This is what you might call “purplewashing”, and it serves exactly the same function as greenwashing — it makes an organization look good and can add actual value and open up new revenue streams without doing any real good.

And it’s even worse than that. One of the things people never quite understand in my talks is that it is worse to make a promise that you don’t keep than it is not to make a promise at all.

Let me explain. When you are disabled, you spend your life having to expend large amounts of energy navigating situations that to other people take little energy at all. And you are reliant on other people to support you to carry out tasks that other people can carry out independently. Being able to identify safe spaces, accessible services and reliable support makes a huge difference on a daily basis to our quality of life (and ultimately, because of the cumulative effect of the resources navigating daily life costs us, to our quantity of life).

To many people, seeing a disability-aware sign on a website or in an information pack might make them feel good about supporting someone doing something nice. To a disabled person, every signal and symbol is an implicit promise that “your resources will not be wasted here.” We spend our lives reading these signals, making complex calculations about the services to use, the people to approach. If an institutions actions do not match its words that causes us active harm. If the words had not been used at all, we would simply have carried on our search and avoided that harm. So I repeat:

EVERY TIME YOU PROMISE ACCESSIBILITY THAT YOUR PRACTICE CANNOT MATCH YOU ARE ACTIVELY HARMING DISABLED PEOPLE — AND YOUR GOOD INTENTIONS DON’T CHGANGE THAT ONE BIT.

This is why I don’t like being called inspirational. Because to be an inspiration is to lead someone to make a change. And if, after hearing disabled people say what we need, you haven’t made a change, well — we can’t have given that good a talk, can we? Because we don’t come and talk to you to entertain you — we do it to tell you what you need to change. So don’t pretend we did.

It gives the impression you’re only saying that to add value to your institution at the cost of genuine harm to us.

I am very happy to speak for your organization if you really do want to improve accessibility. Email me at rogueinterrobang@gmail.com

CEO & founder of Rogue Interrobang, University of Oxford spinout using creativity to solve wicked problems. 2016, 17 & 19 Creative Thinking World Champion.