The Positivity Myth

I’ve been thinking about the inspirational effect of people with disabilities for a while now. It’s an odd topic really, and probably quite a controversial one. But the idea that I’m inspirational when going through a grocery store in my wheelchair confuses me, and don’t even get me started on how inspirational a puppy using a walker is.

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I was recently speaking with someone who was meeting me for the first time. Along the usual process of getting to know one another, they asked me about myself.

“I’m a part-time law student at UQ, and spend a lot of my other time volunteering.” That pretty much sums it up, right?

“Oh that’s great!” they say, “What else?”

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This is what I would have looked like at this moment if I was a bunch of adorable puppies.

“Well I also have a casual job at an optometrist.”

“Mhm,” comes the response. “And what else?”

“I also run a blog with some advocacy articles when I have the time.”

“Mhm,” comes the response. “And what else?”

“Um…” I’m not quite sure what to say at this point to be honest. I’m honestly not sure if I’m actually talking to a recording. “I actually have a chronic illness, so aside from that other stuff I’m basically a full time medical patient.”

An awkward silence fills the conversation, and I crack under the pressure. “So I’m usually attending at least three medical appointments in any given week,” I stall. The silence continues.

“Oh…wow…That’s so inspirational!”

Is it?

Being a law student, active volunteer, working part time, and running a blog is not interesting. But being sick? Here comes the feature film.Animated gif

Now don’t get me wrong. There have been plenty of times when all I can manage is being a patient, and even that not very well. Sometimes eating a bit of food with your medication is all you can manage in a day. There is a lot of strength in making it through that. But sickness is not inspirational, and telling me that my struggle to be normal inspires you just feels condescending.

People with chronic illnesses and disabilities can be incredibly strong, brave, and tenacious. But categorising us as inspirational is such a dangerous trap to set.

The problem is the positivity myth, and the idea that all people with disabilities can be ‘fixed’. Focusing on peoples’ positive traits is great. Perpetuating the idea that if someone with a disability just wants something enough they will be able to achieve it, is downright dangerous. Because whether you realise it or not, that leaves another glaring implication for people who don’t achieve that dream.

“If you don’t succeed, you mustn’t have exercised sufficient faith and determination”.

Don’t tell me that I would be cured if I put enough effort into my diet, or tried this new yoga class your aunt’s friend’s cat did once. For one, I’ve already tried it, and two, it’s none of your business. Don’t bring out the “If you don’t try, you’ve already failed” line. Don’t be another person who tells me to quit medication and exercise more so that one day I’ll be able to climb Everest. I had no interest in climbing Everest when I was relatively healthy, and that hasn’t changed just because I now use a wheelchair.

Constant suggestions as to how to ‘fix’ disabled and chronically ill people aren’t always helpful. Some of us do cool stuff. Some of us do boring stuff. Most of us do a mixture of the two. I could be wrong, but it seems to me that that makes us pretty similar to you.


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