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Leveling the Playing Field: My Lesson From Stella Young and the Dangers of "Inspiration Porn"

07/11/2014 12:59 pm ET | Updated Sep 10, 2014

Click here to watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

In 1913, Webster's dictionary defined inspiration as "the act of power in exercising an elevating or stimulating influence upon the intellect or emotions -- the result of such influence which quickens or stimulates."

That definition has clearly evolved as times have changed, changing what society considers inspirational. It's manifested into the idea that we as people -- as individuals -- can become something larger than ourselves. In doing so, however, we perhaps do more harm than we're aware of.

When you do something unexpected or out of the ordinary, it rarely starts out as such. You do it because you want to or because it could lead to a better way of life. You're not thinking about the lasting impact it may or may not have on people, or how they will react to your decision to do something crazy.

It's simply human nature, because, in a way, that's how people survived prior to the dawn of the digital age. However, when you apply the notion of exceptionalism to disabled individuals as Stella Young has, it's no longer about looking at accolades and accomplishments as reasons to shower someone with praise or call them an inspiration. It's about making the playing field level for everyone.

In her TEDTalk video, "I'm Not Your Inspiration, Thank You Very Much," she entertains the idea that disabilities don't make the person who has them exceptional. By the same token, Stella also emphasizes the fact that it's not always miraculous when someone with a disability accomplishes something -- because it's usually something that the average, everyday person does as well. She shows examples of how the media often objectifies disabled people, highlighting the use of the term "inspiration porn."

"[We] are more disabled by the society we live in than by our bodies and our diagnoses."

Stella goes on to say that the people in the examples she shows "are not doing anything out of the ordinary. They're just using their bodies to the best of their capacity."

As a writer with cerebral palsy, my heart fluttered when I heard her say that because I completely understood where she was coming from. I've always thought of my place in the world as simply a member of society -- not a "writer extraordinaire" or someone bestowed with talent and "a gift." I've always thought of myself as someone who's just trying to make ends meet. Sure, I do things a little differently than everyone else, but I don't see that as reason for people to take exception to me.

I think that speaks to Stella's belief that considering a disability an exception is an injustice. That makes me feel normal. In fact, I don't think I've ever felt that sense of normalcy as strongly as the day I landed my first job as a columnist five years ago. It was exceptional for me, because I'd finally reached the top of my personal mountain. However, I didn't quite understand why people were calling me an inspiration after just days, even mere hours, after getting the job.

Was it because I'd followed my childhood dream, or was it because I was a person in a wheelchair overcoming obstacles?

It took me awhile to decipher between the two, but I took the flood of congratulatory e-mails I received that day as signs of recognition. They were my measuring stick of sorts -- little reminders that let me know that even if I didn't have it all figured out at that point, I at least knew I was on the right track to becoming recognized as a writer -- a person -- rather than "a girl in a wheelchair."

If anything, those e-mails were my motivation to give people more reason to change their minds about the word 'disability.' I wasn't concerned about being an inspiration or even making any sort of big impact at that point. I just wanted to try to get the word out there that my cerebral palsy doesn't make me any less different or loved than anyone else.

Now that I'm in a position where I can use my work as a model for disabilities, I often find myself following in Stella's tracks. I want to convey the idea that I'm one writer out of a million around the world. I just happen to be in a wheelchair, and the fact that I can use my hands and fingers more efficiently than my legs isn't such a big deal as it relates to my cerebral palsy. It's just a "knack" that I have -- the same way every person on the planet has his or hers, too.

To me, that's more of an asset than an inspiration. If people look at me or my work as an inspiration, however, that's their choice.

Stella concluded her video with a number of things that really hit home for me -- one being, "I really want to live in a world where disability is not the exception, but the norm."

It puts an exclamation mark on everything disabled people have long been fighting for and gives rise to the notion of "questioning what you think you know" about disabilities -- or anything else under the sun.

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