From what I’ve seen, a huge deciding factor is the context in which the message is delivered. Generally speaking, those “feel good” stories on the local news are rarely meant to support the disabled community, so much as to help the mainstream feel better about themselves. Granted, it’s not all the time, but nine times out of ten, I find them belittling.
That said, there are a few decent examples of inspirational stories involving various forms of disability.
I’m fond of Jack Horner’s and Temple Grandin’s stories. While they both faced challenges, they were mostly culturally based. They both found ways to us what society viewed as weakness to achieve their goals and contribute to our world within their respective fields. Jack was able to use the strengths gained from dyslexia to add to the field of archaeology, while Temple used strengths from autism to further explore animal behavior.
|I don’t think this was the fetus Jack Horner discovered, but he was the first one to open up an egg to see how baby dinosaurs formed before hatching.
via WikiMedia Commons under GFDL and CC BY 3.0 licenses
Watch the Language
One of the biggest red flags to look out for is what type of language is used within the stories. Are the subjects confined to a wheelchair, or do they use it? Do they suffer from dyslexia, or are they simply dyslexic? Have they overcome autism, or do they live with it?
Terms like “confined to” accommodative devices, “suffer from” and “overcome” all equate differences in ability with diseases in need of cures. In reality, what our culture views as disability often comes with overlooked strengths.
Accommodations are freeing, not confining. Disability is another part of the spectrum known as “normal”, not something to be disparaged as freakish.
Stories involving any type of disability should focus primarily on each individual’s strengths. The differences should be acknowledged, absolutely, but they shouldn’t necessarily be viewed as something that could be, or even should be, cured*. They are part of what form each personality and offer unique outlooks on the world.
I, personally, wouldn’t give up my dyslexia. Yes, it’s classified as a learning disability in my country, and yes it does make things difficult from time to time, but it’s also a big part of how I perceive the world. Dyslexia is part of who I am.
*My only exception to this rule would be when an actual disease is involved. Even then, if it’s chronic, that should be at the very least acknowledged. I say that from the position of having lived with chronic illness for over 20 years, but your mileage may vary.
Let Group Members Decide for Themselves
This is the most important note to make. While I may find learning about successful people who share my neurology useful and inspiring, others don’t. I look at it as a presentation of possibility, but I’ve talked to many others who view it as a way of telling them that if they don’t rise to impossible heights of success, they’re failures. Both viewpoints are valid, and they both deserve respect.
There’s also the question of holding non-famous people up as leaders to follow. Again, I think it’s valuable, but others feel it’s exploitative. As long as their stories are told in non-belittling ways, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it, but others in the community don’t agree.
In the end, people who live similar stories tend to have a deeper understanding of what many of these “tales of inspiration” really mean. Disagreement comes with the territory of being thinking individuals, which is what the disability community is made up of.
I advocate story sharing, but I also believe the best people to tell stories of experience are those who live with it every day of their lives.