Being referred to as an inspiration should be a compliment. It means your influence has impacted others, caused them to change their behaviours, or take action on a particular problem. It means you are respectable, even exceptional. Unfortunately, as any disabled person will tell you, this isn’t always the case. Being called an inspiration can be flattering, uplifting, and empowering, but it can also be embarrassing, patronising, and downright ableist.
Recently I went for drinks after work with several colleagues, my boss, his boss, and the boss of my boss’s boss. It was a fairly small and quiet affair, with the alcohol flowing perhaps a little too freely, and all pretence of professionalism left behind at the office. As the evening progressed I ended up in conversation with Supreme Leader Debs (the boss of my boss’s boss). We had discussed a few elements of work as I was still fairly new to the team, but conversation naturally drifted towards our activities outside of work. I mentioned the whole writing thing very casually, as well as my activities in support of equality and inclusion both in and out of the workplace, and also that I was soon to be married. After listening to me talk about my very full life, all of which happened outside of a full-time job while living with a debilitating chronic illness, she told me I was an inspiration. Was I uncomfortable in any way with this? Quite frankly, no. I was actually pretty excited.
Just a few days after that I paid a quick visit to the corner shop to pick up a few essentials, nothing major, and nothing as exciting as the glamourous lifestyle I like to project on Instagram (hey, we’re all guilty of that, right?). An older man at the self-service checkout next to me tapped my arm and told me I was a true inspiration, very loudly and very much in earshot of everyone else in the shop. I stammered an awkward thank you, knowing he meant well and not to offend, and tried to hide my beetroot-red face from the rest of the shoppers. I was extremely uncomfortable, and would have made a quick exit had it not been for the fact that I hadn’t yet paid for my groceries and would have been arrested for shop-lifting.
Two very similar things had been said to me, and yet they evoked two entirely different emotional responses. Why?
There are several factors to consider here. First of all, Debs was not a stranger; she knew me and my capabilities, and could make a much better judgement of my lifestyle because of that. Secondly, this was said in one-to-one conversation in a noisy pub, not projected loudly across an entire shop. The fact that a little alcohol was involved in the first instance may well have reduced social inhibitions on both our parts, making it even less likely to be embarrassing for either party. Perhaps most importantly of all was the topic of discussion at the time; I wasn’t just doing something as mundane as getting groceries, but was talking about essentially having two jobs and quite the double life, managing to perform well in both, all while I was ill. Put blatantly and a little arrogantly, this is no small feat.
It can be hard not to feel patronised or even a little exploited when a random stranger declares you worthy of knighthood for existing, loudly saying as much in public. I know that no offence was meant and that’s why I try to be patient, just smiling and nodding before carrying on with whatever I’m doing. At the same time it’s almost impossible not to be annoyed at people’s ignorance and lack of empathy; it’s not like this is the first time this topic has been touched upon. Nor, I’m sure, will it be the last.