I realized something while watching the Oscars Sunday night … something that changes how I think about “inspirational”.
I think that “inspiration” and “inspirational” are becoming all-purpose, generic, go-to words for any kind of positivity. The reason we in the disability community hear these words so often is because everyone is using them, everywhere, in every kind of topic, whether they truly fit the situation or not. It is becoming the new “awesome”, and like “awesome”, “inspirational” is over-used. I haven’t made a detailed linguistic study or anything, but I’m getting the impression that variations on “inspirational” these days serve two purposes:
1. To endow people or things with a positive sheen that isn’t bubbly or trivial, but rather deeper, more spiritual, and significant. There is a reverence implied that is different from other kinds of positive regard.
2. To make a sort of backhanded swipe at the emotional and spiritual opposites of “inspirational” … people and things that are ironic, sarcastic, cynical, or depressing. In other words, bummers.
Maybe when people say that disabled people are "inspirational", they just mean we aren't bummers.
I think this increased use of “inspirational” lately is part of a pendulum swing towards positivity, enthusiasm, and reverence, after several decades when popular culture has been dominated by irony, sarcasm, cool detachment, and cynicism. It is the difference between the furrowed brow, and wide-eyed wonder … between complexity and mixed motives, and simple sincerity. If you were an adult right after 9/11, you might remember people speculating then that popular culture would become more emotional and sincere, less detached and ironic. Maybe it's happening, just later than people originally thought.
Or, it could be simpler than all that. Maybe "inspirational" is what spiritual-but-not-religious people say about things that move them, instead of more religious words like “blessed”.
So, why does it still bother us?
I think the root of our distaste for “inspirational” is that 90% of the time it sounds like a default … something nice people say about us when they don’t actually know enough about us to be specific. That’s why I think it usually comes from strangers, and why it hurts even more when, occasionally, even close friends or family use it.
On the other hand, if people call us “inspirational” out of habit more than meaning, then presumably we might persuade them to use words that don’t sound to us like fingernails on a blackboard.
How about a good old-fashioned “Mad Lib”:
"The story about that woman in a wheelchair is so _____________(adjective)_!”
"Can I just say? You are such an _____________(adjective)_ to me.
Of course, another option is to not comment on people ... either positively or negatively ... until you know something about them beyond surface appearances and familiar assumptions.