And I use the term “porn” deliberately, because they objectify one group of people for the benefit of another group of people. So, in this case, we’re objectifying disabled people for the benefit of non-disabled people. The purpose of these images is to inspire you, to motivate you, so we can look at them and think, “Well, however bad my life is, it could be worse. I could be that person.”
But what if you are that person? I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been approached by strangers wanting to tell me that they think I’m brave or inspirational. And this was long before my work had any kind of public profile. They were just kind of congratulating me for getting up in the morning and remembering my own name.
And it is objectifying. These images objectify disabled people for the benefit of non-disabled people. They are there so you can look at them and think that things aren’t so bad for you, to put your worries into perspective. And life as a disabled person is actually somewhat difficult. We do overcome some things. But the things that we are overcoming are not the things that you think they are. They are not things to do with our bodies.
I use the term “disabled people” quite deliberately because I subscribe to what’s called the “social model of disability”, which tells us that we are more disabled by the society that we live in rather than by our bodies or our diagnoses. So, I have lived in this body a long time. I am quite fond of it. It does the things that I need it to do, and I have learned to use it to the best of its capacity just as you have. And that’s the thing about the kids in those pictures as well. They are not doing anything out of the ordinary. They are just using their bodies to the best of their capacity. So, is it really fair to objectify them in the way that we do? To share those images?
When people say “You’re an inspiration”, they mean it as a compliment. They mean it as a compliment. And I know why it happens. It’s because of the lie. It’s because we’ve been sold this lie that disability makes you exceptional, and it honestly doesn’t. And I know what you’re thinking, you know, I’m up here batting out inspiration and you’re thinking, “Geez, Stella, aren’t you inspired sometimes by some things?” And the thing is, I am. I learn from other disabled people all the time. I’m learning not that I am luckier than them though. I’m learning that it’s a genius idea to use a pair of BBQ tongs to pick up things that you drop. I’m learning that nifty trick where you can charge your mobile phone battery from your chair battery. Genius. We are learning strength and endurance, not against our bodies and our diagnoses, but against a world that exceptionalizes and objectifies us. I really think that this lie that we’ve been sold about disability is the greatest injustice. It makes life, it makes life hard for us. And that quote, “The only disability in life is a bad attitude” the reason that that’s bullshit is because it’s just not true, because in the social model of disability. No amount of smiling at a flight of stairs has ever made it into a ramp. Never. You know, smiling at a television screen is not going to make closed captions appear for people who are deaf. No amount of standing in the middle of a bookshelf and radiating a positive attitude is going to turn all those books into braille. It’s just not going to happen.It’s just not going to happen.
I really want to live in a world where disability is not the exception, but the norm. I want to live in a world where a 15 year-old girl sitting in her bedroom watching “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” isn’t referred to as achieving anything because she’s doing it sitting down. I want to live in a world where we don’t have such low expectations of disabled people that we are congratulated for getting out of bed and remembering our own names in the morning. I want to live in a world where we value genuine achievement for disabled people. And I want to live in a world where, a kid in year 11 in a Melbourne High School is not one bit surprised that his new teacher is a wheelchair user.
Disability doesn’t make you exceptional. But, questioning what you think you know about it does. Thank you.”