What’s Inspiration?

Jul 03, 2013
Tagged with: What’s Inspiration?

Every summer I direct an adapted sports camp for youth with a physical disability. When planning, I always try to develop a theme or motto for camp that focuses on something beyond athleticism. This year I decided to follow the lead of the International Paralympic Committee and introduce their motto, “Spirit in Motion.” Along with the motto, each day we discussed one of the Paralympic values – inspiration, determination, courage, and equality. I must admit, I decided to use the Paralympic motto before I realized that the first value was inspiration.

For most folks “inspiration” is a wonderfully encouraging word and trait sought to achieve. To me, a wheelchair user, I’ve never cared for the word. Since the age of three I’ve been called an inspiration by journalists, teachers, ministers, and lots and lots of complete strangers. I know I was a pretty awesome kid, but I always felt a little uncomfortable when the news crew came to my swim practice or I received a standing ovation during high school graduation.

Instead of skipping the word, I decided to tackle it head on, and I asked the campers if they had ever been called inspirational for completing ordinary tasks. Before I could finish my sentence I saw a sea of nodding heads. We began to speak about the traits of an inspirational person and discovered that a person’s character was far more inspirational than ability or disability. So we challenged ourselves to focus on not just what we do, but how we do it.

Sounds pretty simple, but for people with disabilities, this concept could be groundbreaking. As a whole, people with disabilities have an image problem. The expectations society sets for us and we set for ourselves is far too low.  Is this our fault? Not necessarily. Can we do something about it? Absolutely.

Long ago I learned that no matter where I go or what I do, someone is always watching. And since that realization, I have proudly taken on the title of “Chief Image Representative” for people with disabilities. I’m not the only one with this title though. All people with disabilities have this title. And with this title comes great power. Imagine if we declined the help from others unless absolutely necessary – not with prideful disgust, but with a smile and a, “No thank you. I got it.” What if we went out of our way to open the door for others? What if our graduation and employment rates were 100%? For the first few moments, I think the earth might stand still. Then slowly it would begin to turn again, with an increase in society’s expectation of us.

Of course, some accommodations and services must be provided so people living with disabilities can be independent. We can lobby, protest, and demand that every building is accessible or every student has the opportunity to participate in sport. However, we cannot legislate a change in attitude. That change must happen every day in our communities, at our schools and workplace. Chief Image Representative is a big job to take on. It does not afford vacation or sick time, and it can be daunting. But we are well equipped for the job. We are used to overcoming challenges, thinking out of the box, and adapting to the world around us. We can take control, raise the bar, and determine how our inspiration is measured.

Inspiration is not a side effect of disability, but a capability that lives inside of every individual. As we challenge ourselves to focus on not what we do, but how we do it, we will begin to change the expectations and image of people with disabilities. We might be found a little less inspirational, but in return, way more equal. Do you agree?

Author: Mary Allison Cook