A friend of mine shared this photo. It stirred up in me a lot of thoughts about disability (I have a complete L2 spinal cord injury, meaning I’m paralyzed from the waist down). Everything I wrote here applies to a non-disabled person thinking about a disabled person, or a disabled person thinking about a more-disabled person. If you have questions or comments on this topic, please feel free to share.

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Can she* really “kick [someone’s] ass”? I don’t think I would ever talk like that unless I really felt that I had the upper hand in a potential fight and felt the need to try to intimidate another person.

I also don’t resonate very well with unrealistic claims. There is a need for balance of optimism and reality. If the girl in the picture has studied martial arts or learned to shoot a gun or some other similar thing, then okay, maybe her statement is empowering and true. But if not, she probably can’t do much ass kicking, and her physical disability undoubtedly decreases her ability to win a fight.

I would get comments in college all the time from people about upper body strength. They would say something about how my arms must be really strong because I push a wheelchair all the time. Those were actually, in a counter-intuitive way, back-handed compliments. It diminished the hard work I had put in to weight training, cardio training, and two-and-a-half-hour basketball practices five days a week.

I don’t want to be special or inspirational because of my disability. We can think very highly of disabled folks because of our low expectations. It’s soft bigotry. It would be similar to a person being very impressed by a black person getting an A on a test but not being surprised by a white person getting the same grade. That lower expectation placed upon the black person is similar to the low expectations placed upon disabled people. If someone thinks it’s simply astounding that I can open a door, drive a car, or push up a ramp**, then that person (even with good intentions) is being the opposite of empowering. Instead of sending the intended message (you are awesome and do lots of cool stuff!), it sends a very demeaning message (I thought you sucked, but actually you are surprisingly okay!).

I don’t mean to be harsh. I appreciate compliments. But I also think it’s important to spread this message. Here’s what you. Instead:

1. Look for actual positive attributes of the person. Ask this question: If the person were not disabled, would I still think this attribute is noteworthy? Then compliment that.

2. Don’t feel sorry for anyone. Don’t say, “You’re amazing…if I were in your situation, I’d probably give up.” That’s pretty insulting to the people you’re speaking to; you have no place to claim that the other person’s life is that terrible. That also underestimates your own perseverance.

3. Don’t belittle the experiences of disabled people by portraying them as heroes or saints just because they have a disability. See them as real people. Viewing someone as a hero can be just as demeaning as viewing someone as inferior.

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*After writing this post, someone informed me that the girl in the picture is batgirl. So maybe she can kick some ass…

**Another friend asked me about folks that are recovering from an injury in rehab. That is a very different situation. Most of my post applies to people who are no longer in the adjustment phase. For a person in rehab, opening a door or driving a car can be a huge accomplishment. But, years after learning how to open a door while in a wheelchair or drive with hand controls, those tasks are common-place and no longer great accomplishments.

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