I am taking part in this year’s Parallel event as I was inspired to do after meeting some young participants at last year’s event. Anyone who knows me will know I have stopped in their tracks. Not because the thought of me doing anything overtly physical is totally unlike me, but more because I used the word inspired. You see, for many disabled people the term inspired or inspiration or inspirational fill us with dread. It’s a word that gets used far too often when talking about disabled people, and tends to be used in such a way that actually hurts us, usually without any malice at all.
All of us have been truly inspired in our lives. I remember vividly the moment when Ian Dury inspired me, a disabled teenager, to become a professional musician, dreaming of being a popstar. I was inspired by musicians like Gary Numan and Depeche Mode into making the kind of music I played for many decades, and then when I became a TV presenter I met other disabled people who said they were inspired to go into the media by seeing me on the TV screens as they grew up. Other people have been inspired to paint by witnessing a stunning landscape; inspired to write by hearing someone’s story and, like me, inspired to try sport by experiencing and atmosphere and camaraderie or a major sporting event, such as Parallel. But all of these are the real meaning of inspired. To be driven by something to action. The problem is that for many disabled people, the word inspiring is thrown into a description of our lives for no other reason that we are being us.
I was born with cancer, and luckily an experimental treatment means that 51 years after my diagnosis, I’m still alive and thriving. I have lost count of the number of times I have been called inspiring for having beaten cancer, despite the fact I have no memory of any of my treatment. I mean I was given the all clear at the age of five! Later, at the age of 15, a side effect of the cancer treatment caused my spine to collapse and I ended up becoming a full time wheelchair user. Again, I got described as inspiring time after time, but not by people who were going through the same experience and wanted proof of what their new life on wheels might entail. Mostly, I was an inspiration to non-disabled people, and they just seemed to be amazed that I had gone out after becoming a wheelchair user and built a successful and happy life. To a disabled person, being called inspirational can feel like an insult, if the person saying it isn’t actually inspired to action. If it’s just “Well if you can be you, with all of the awfulness of disability, then I should be able to be better. I have no excuses”, then without meaning anything insulting, you’ve belittled our experience, our lives and placed yourself above us, all with the use of one word.
Now that’s not to say people can’t be inspired by disabled people. Of course they can. Whether it’s a motivation to get into sports or the arts or business, or maybe even cut your hair weird like say an ageing punk rocker that uses a wheelchair, you can be inspired. It does have to be an active process. To be inspired you need to aspire to emulate your inspiration. Inspire is a verb, a doing word. To be inspired you need to be driven to action.
At the first Parallel, I was there to record the event on video and didn’t even try to take part. Sport? Physical effort? Me? Er, no. After meeting the young disabled people who were taking part, seeing their excitement at being able to join in with such an event for the first time, witnessing how happy they were to do something they always thought would be closed to them and then experiencing their joy as they passed the finish line touched me. More importantly, it inspired me to take part. I wanted to be like them. I will be one of them this year.
If you have been inspired by a disabled person to also get involved with this year’s Parallel, I look forward to seeing you there. If you meet disabled people while you are there that make you want to go and do something new, smashing. If you find yourself throwing the I-bomb to a disabled person without first thinking “am I really inspired by this person or do I just admire them and think they’re amazing” (nothing wrong with telling us we’re amazing by the way), watch out.
If I hear you, I may ‘accidentally’ run you over! Oops.