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Is It Offensive to People with Disabilities When People Post Inspiring Pictures of People with Disabilities?

07/27/2012 11:46 am ET | Updated Sep 25, 2012
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By Cristina Hartmann, lawyer by day, writer by night

Yes, it is offensive because it mythologizes people with disabilities into a hero meme. People with disabilities are people, period.

This trend of culling inspiration from photographs of people "struggling" with their disabilities is a part of a greater phenomenon. Many of us, through real life, film, and literature, see people with disabilities as either heroes or villains. They're heroes because, well, look at them! They work so hard! Or they're villains because their losses twisted them into a hateful excuse for humanity.

People with disabilities are neither heroes nor villains. They are people. They react to their disabilities in different ways, just like people do. People with disabilities can be racist, homophobic, and stupid, or smart, kind-hearted, and compassionate. They are far more than their disabilities, for better or for worse.

Most people know little about the man in the photograph other than he has a disability. Yet, they assume that he's heroic and awesome. Maybe he's a selfish prick.

I'm deaf and have been since birth (plus some other stuff). Even though my disabilities aren't visible, I've experienced the brunt of this heroic meme. I've heard people say, within five minutes of meeting me, "You are so brave!" News flash: I'm not particularly brave. More precisely, I'm not brave for living without functional cochleas. I, like everyone else, play the cards that I've been dealt. Of course, I've played them better than some, worse than others.

This perspective of people with disabilities as inspirational and heroic is problematic on two levels. As others have said, it dehumanizes people with disabilities and reduces them to their disabilities, nothing more. People look at these photographs and think, "How great!" and then go on with their lives warmed by the poor, huddled, and yearning masses of people with disabilities. It's patronizing.

The second, and probably the more insidious, problem is that this mythologzing separates people with disabilities from everyone else. People think, "I could never do that." In reality, you can do many of what these people do. It's just about adapting to one's circumstances, something that everyone does, regardless or disability. This viewpoint assumes that a life with a disability is a life of loss. It's not. It's life.

People with disabilities are no better or worse than anyone else. They are just people making the best of their circumstances like you and me.

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