Something I spend more time thinking about than perhaps is good for me is how disability is portrayed in the media. I recently gave my first TEDx talk, all about how the language used around disability and success seems to be ingrained in ableism, and constant-real life examples mean that I come back to this line of thought time and time again.
The example that prompted this particular blog post is a phrase I’ve seen used in the reporting of disabled people’s achievements time and time again: “… but they didn’t let it stop them.”
They didn’t ‘let’ it stop them. They didn’t consciously decide to let their disability win, and went on to accomplish something remarkable. Good for them. Genuinely no sarcasm intended; I wholeheartedly agree that we should celebrate disabled people’s achievements and give individuals the acclaim they deserve, no questions asked.
The thing that gets me, however, is the idea that the person in question had any conscious control over whether or not their condition prohibited them from setting out to do something. They didn’t ‘let’ their disability stop them; does this mean they simply chose not to allow it, that it’s purely a matter of mind to overcome such challenges?
Moreover, if somebody reportedly didn’t ‘let’ their condition stop them from fulfilling a passion of theirs, does this imply that consequentially, I’m ‘letting’ my disability stop me from doing the same?
As a personal example, I was recently sent a press release about a disabled dance initiative, an industry I support wholeheartedly, and I looked forward to reading it. However, after reading about how the founder ‘refused to put [their] passion [for dance] aside’ and let their disability win, I had to shut down my laptop and actually walk away, before I could let the full implication of such a statement hit me.
Even though I know, I really do know, that self-motivation only goes so far in ‘overcoming’ debilitating physical illness, statements like these still make me wonder if my own inability to ‘overcome’ my own condition and dance is a personal failure of mine. Perhaps if I was more determined, or more hard-working, or if I cared even more, I wouldn’t ‘let’ my disability stop me either?
Thankfully, I’ve come far along enough on my chronic illness journey know that if people were to pick three statements to describe me, I’d put money on ‘determined’, ‘hard-working’ and ‘caring [probably too much]’ all being up there. I know that I’m just as worthy of success as the people who’ve managed to somehow overcome their illnesses in this manner, and most importantly, I also know that I don’t have to ‘overcome’ my own condition to have a shot at success. I’m thankful that I can keep these things in the back of my mind when confronted with such assumptions in the media.
However, if statements like these still cause my breath to catch in my throat and my heart to ache, and yes, on occasion, tears to be shed, what impact must they be having on other people? How do we make sure these people know that whether or not they have any control over their condition or wellbeing just isn’t as black and white as such statements in the media suggest?
I suppose, however, that there is a flip side to consider here as well. Although I personally find the ‘but they didn’t let it stop them’ narrative to be harmful, what’s to say that others couldn’t find it empowering? Perhaps there are disabled people out there who feel motivated by such statements, who use them to fuel their ambitions and to feel more confident in their ability to achieve… and if that’s the case, the last thing I’d want to do is undermine that.
Personal emotions aside and thinking purely rationally about this issue, perhaps it’s my own insecurities that cause me to have such a strong gut reaction to the idea that we have conscious control over our disabilities. It’s no secret that my own perceived self-worth has taken quite a knock as a result of my chronic illness and my situation. No matter what I accomplish, I often feel as though I’m not enough: as though I should be ‘more’… whatever ‘more’ even means.
So with that in mind, perhaps I’m simply being too sensitive? Perhaps I’m taking the implications of the word ‘let’ too seriously, and that I should just *let* it go instead?
On further reflection, however, I believe that I won’t be the only one feeling this way. I won’t be the only one being hurt by the way disability is portrayed in the media, and the implied ableism under such statements… no matter how well-intentioned. Chronic illness presents enough day-to-day challenges without me also having to worry whether others think the fact I haven’t magically recovered reflects poorly on my own character; that I’m somehow lacking in grit and determination. And I know for a fact that this internalised belief has come directly from the media.
As a blogger, with only a minuscule fraction of the platform that the mainstream media cultivates, I go to lengths to ensure that the content I put out online is done so responsibly; I proactively consider and address any language or statements that could be perceived as harmful by other chronically ill people, and I do it gladly. I personally think that if any of us have a platform, we have a responsibility to use it mindfully, and I only wish the media would consult with disabled people more openly and strive to do the same.
I will always champion a person-centred approach over trying to be that *model inspirational disabled person* that the media still leeches from so much. And that means standing firm on the idea that people are not personally responsible for whether or not they ‘let’ their condition dictate their decisions.
If your illness has stopped you pursuing your hobbies or goals, I hope you know that it isn’t because you simply decided to ‘let’ it. It’s because you’re ill, and you deserve the support and compassion that will allow you to live your best life alongside your condition, rather than anybody pointing the finger and making assumptions. Is that really that radical of an idea?
I do recognise, however, that this issue is a complex one, and people will have various thoughts and have had varying experiences. How do you feel about the “…but they didn’t let it stop them” narrative? Harmful or empowering? Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments below!