Updated: Feb 17
Today is World CP Day. It is the first October 6th that I have spent as someone who is openly disabled. Of course, the algorithms knew that I had CP before I published my piece saying that I had CP, because algorithms know everything. As such, my Facebook feed has been full of #WorldCPDay stories for a while now. With the exception of writing by disabled people, I approach stories about disability with the view: I’m not going to like this. This is from a lifetime of reading stories about disabled people being clapped for simply living. Often, non-disabled people seem to find the lives of disabled people so impenetrable and inconceivable that they are amazed at them for existing in their bodies. An even greater applause is given to disabled people who are genuinely happy, as if happiness and disability cannot possibly co-exist.
Fortunately, the narrative around disability is improving. Increasingly, stories about disability are being told by disabled people, and not non-disabled authors who have somehow crossed the unimaginable realm into envisioning What It Is Like To Be Disabled. As the #WorldCPDay stories popped up on my feed, I was surprised to find myself not cringing. We are getting somewhere when it comes to the representation of disability in the media. Yet, sadly, it is the comment section of such stories that make me flinch. And now, I ask of you, as a reader/listener/consumer to think about your reaction to stories about disability. If you ever feel “inspired” by a story about disability – what exactly are you “inspired” by? Are you “inspired” by a disabled person for just existing or because they have done something exceptional? Of course, disabled people don’t have to prove their exceptionality to be valued as human beings. And sometimes, being able to perform seemingly menial tasks is an exceptional feat for a disabled person. It was not until I was thirteen that I was able to do a thumb-up with my left hand. It took a lot of practice and concentration. It was with the help of years of splint-wearing and physiotherapy. When I want to teach my left hand to do something, I do the action with my physically stronger right hand, and encourage my left hand to copy. When my left thumb first lifted itself up, I was so pleased with myself that I took a photograph. I can now do a thumbs-up with my left hand without my right hand doing one too, though it takes considerably more concentration and effort. Most non-disabled people probably cannot remember the first time they did a thumbs-up. Should I be congratulated for joining the non-disabled in doing something that they take for granted? I am Small Time Proud of Myself for this. At the same time, I have long been practicing at bringing one finger up at a time on my left hand, and aside from my index finger, this is not possible. No matter how hard I try, all my fingers come up at once. But I don’t feel the need to be critical of my hand for this. It is great that my disabled body can evolve, can become more agile, can develop another trick but it is also okay for my disabled body to stay the same.
How then, does this relate to the non-disabled person’s perception? Should you be inspired by my left-handed thumbs-up? No, please don’t be. My Dad said ‘cool, kid’ a lot, and it hits the mark. It’s cool that through practice and patience I trained my left thumb into standing up on its own, but it’s not inspirational. Check in with yourself. Is a disabled person doing something genuinely “inspirational” or is that your knee-jerk reaction to the anything a disabled person does? Because if it is, that’s not necessarily your fault. We’ve been so socialised to think “positive story about disability = inspirational” it has become an inbuilt response. But something being inbuilt does not mean that it cannot be changed.
Yes, there are bigger life events then doing a thumbs-up. There’s school, university, marriage, children, etc. When disabled people participate in these, there’s an impulse to call them inspirational. There is a balance to strike in recognising that being disabled in an non-disabled world that is often hostile and unaccommodating to disability is challenging, without mindlessly applauding disabled people for every single thing they do.
Give credit to disabled people where credit is due. If you enjoy my writing, I hope that it is because of its quality and content, not just because I am a writing spastic girl. Be impressed that I had the bravery to publish a piece about my disability on a public platform, but don’t call me brave for simply being alive. I didn’t choose that. That just was. Work off the example that disabled people set. See what they are proud of themselves for doing. Read first-person accounts to have an accurate representation of what it is like to be disabled. That will help to reduce the fear of the unknown, it will normalise disability, it will take disabled people off the inspirational pedestal. Also, keep an open mind to how differently individuals can feel. Our experiences are different. Our disabilities are different. The way we want our disabilities to be perceived are different.
I implore you to be a conscious critic. Don’t see a story about disability and think “inspirational” without analysing it. Dissect why you are moved. Challenge the warm, fuzzy feeling. Question what exactly you are impressed by. Why you feel the need to “care” react. Find different adjectives, different emotions, different sentiments. Some things may just be cool, others may be striking, surprising, saddening – you get the picture: every single thing a disabled person does, does not fall under “inspirational”. This #WorldCPDay, I ask you to learn our stories with an aware and open mind, not a mind that has a pre-determined understanding of disability.
 Though this can change and I can end up liking a story about disability by an able-bodied person. It is possible, just rare.  My cerebral palsy is on the left side of my body.  This really infuriated young-me when we were learning to count using our hands at school, which may have been the start of my hatred of Maths.  I don’t recommend going around calling disabled people ‘kid’: I am my Dad’s literal kid.  Though don’t tell thirteen-year-old me that.  Some of my favourites: Sitting Pretty: The View from My Ordinary Resilient Disabled Body by Rebekah Taussing, What the **** Is Normal? by Francesca Martinez, Places I’ve Taken My Body by Molly McCully Brown.