Friends and family – even strangers – have told me I’m inspirational. I joke off most compliments or give a humble grin; however, someone telling me I’m inspirational because I have accomplished something in life or stay active or just simply live life as a C4-C5 quadriplegic shouldn’t be any more praiseworthy than if I were anyone else. I think people often imply a compliment or possibly miss-phrase their intentions. Although most occasions of “You’re so inspirational” actually feel like an over exaggerated tribute or like patting a young child on the head for doing a good job. And it’s a situation that many wheelchair users and individuals with disabilities commonly face and are frustrated with. But what if we consider some circumstances a little differently?
Every morning I wake up to a body that’s stuck in bed. I cannot sit up or use my hands because my body’s paralyzed from the chest down. It takes someone else to come in to get me out of my pajamas, into the shower on shower days, dressed, and then comfortably positioned in my power chair every morning. Think of your morning routine – from brushing your teeth to using the toilet and getting dressed the exact way you want, except it’s done by someone else. Think of someone occasionally doing this in a way that’s uncomfortable or not how you like it and trying to work through it smoothly. Think of knowing that’s your routine every single day for the rest of your life. And then do it with a good attitude. This is not inspirational. It’s impressive.
To backtrack, at age 16, as I was getting as much independence as possible, in one car accident my normalcy was instantly ripped away and replaced with a life of paralysis. Dependency. Body complications. Medical equipment. Social stigmas. Financial concerns. Accessibility issues. I wear this every day when people see me navigate by in my power wheelchair. That’s not inspirational. It’s impressive.
My accident happened when I was a sophomore in high school. I went back to school and graduated on time with my class and with academic honors. It took several years, but I then completed my Bachelor's. A year later I decided to go for my Master's, focusing on English and creative writing. Because I pursued my education, I regularly get called inspirational. But did I really inspire someone or were they impressed with my drive and accomplishments?
I work. Because I hold a job, I get told that I’m inspirational.
I have hobbies. I like to read, write, travel, go shopping, and visit with family and friends, among other things. I’ve recently started drawing, which I haven’t done since before my accident. Because I’m paralyzed from the chest down, I have to use a mouth stick with a pencil at the end. I know it’s not the typical outlet and I’m decent at drawing like this, but hearing someone say “You are so inspirational” because I’m enjoying my hobbies and talents like anyone else, doesn’t correlate for me.
I don’t let much stop me and I stay active. Just because I go out to a restaurant, attend a concert, or have a fun time with friends, it’s not uncommon to get special attention from random individuals. I get that some people may not routinely see wheelchair users in all circumstances, but it’s not a miraculous phenomenon or magical wish granted by a fairy. It’s a normal person living a life beyond injury and disability.
A paraplegic putting groceries in his or her car and then transferring to the driver seat, going out on a date, or exercising in the gym might look like an accomplishment to someone, but it is daily life for that individual. A quadriplegic who lives independently, volunteers for the community in extra time, or is a mom or dad is another person just pursuing life beyond physical limitations.
Inspiration is a call to action; something that is truly inspirational changes you on the inside or motivates you to do something. It’s also a fluff word that people use to give an offhand compliment and then go on with the rest of their day. In reality, recognizing someone’s strengths and acknowledging difficulties only shows you are impressed with what happened. It may be splitting hairs; it may be a subtle difference. But to the person who just wants to live a successful, fun, and otherwise normal life, it is significant.
IF I have done something in my life that’s caused you to somehow change an aspect of your life, motivated you to take action, or actively alter something, I’d consider it inspiration. However, many things I’ve done are simply pretty cool, out of the ordinary, or adventurous, which could invite a compliment, although doesn’t make me necessarily inspirational. I’m not a saint who lives a perfect life and I definitely don’t deserve to be on an inspirational pedestal. I know I face obstacles and it takes more effort to get through this paralyzed life than many people even realize. Some of those things suck and it’s not always easy. That’s what makes me strong and gives me integrity. That’s what makes my life impressive.
It’s not just me, though. My physical disability is visible and that’s what draws attention to me, but you might have an impressive talent, difficulties and obstacles with daily life, or maybe an excellent life-story to tell. It’s what makes each of us unique and individually remarkable.
So, what makes your life impressive?