Why We Need to Stop Labelling Every Story as ‘Inspirational’

Everyone loves a good old fashioned ‘feel-good’ news story. Someone defeats cancer? Incredible. A dog dials 999 when he sees his owner having a heart attack? Sensational. A woman who can’t have children gets a baby dropped into her arms by a passing stork? Pass me the tissues, I can’t cope. The media absolutely loves this kind of stuff, so naturally we’re bombarded with it like bullets out of a machine gun with a never-ending supply of ammo.

By and large, I don’t have a problem with this. It’s always wonderful to read a story with a positive ending, especially when it’s an act of genuine love and support. With so much tragedy and despair in the world of news – deaths, wars, hunger, politicians – it’s quite lovely to see something which is the complete opposite, even if it is often over-egged by the glorious press.

However, I’ve found that the word ‘inspirational’ is sometimes used in such a patronising and ignorant way. Disabled people are often at the frontline for these kind of headlines – earlier this year, Paralympian Amy Purdy was featured in a Super Bowl advertisement where she ran, snowboarded and danced on her two prosthetic legs. Of course, the ‘inspirational’ messages began to flood in from awed viewers, but the video was dubbed as ‘inspiration porn’, a term coined by the late Australian comedian Stella Young. But surely it’s not offensive to be inspired by a disabled person, you say? Surely it’s complimentary to call them an inspiration for what they’ve ‘overcome’?

Not quite.

By calling someone ‘inspirational’ for something that is beyond control in their life, you’re discrediting everything else that is beyond their disability. People don’t asked to be born handicapped, and being disabled doesn’t automatically make someone ‘brave’ or ‘strong’.They’re not defined by their disability, whether it’s physical or mental – they’re just trying to get through life like everyone else. People find it patronising to be labelled as something when they’re just as flawed and just as imperfect as others without a disability.

On another very different scale, calling someone ‘inspiring’ for an illness they’re trying to battle is also pretty infuriating. ‘But wait, it is inspiring! Look how hard they’re fighting!’ Wow. So someone who dies from cancer clearly didn’t fight hard enough. Never mind the fact that their body is ravaged by bouts of chemotherapy, or the fact that the cancer was too far ahead for doctors to do anything, because that’s irrelevant. If they’d have fought harder, surely they’d still be alive, right? Yes, that’s how you sound.

You may think I’m being far too harsh here, that I’m labouring a point without giving any other insight. But people, it’s time to start rethinking when we use certain terms. A recovering alcoholic staying to stay off the booze doesn’t want to be called an ‘inspiration’, nor does someone battling a serious illness. It’s not. It’s just survival. Remembering what the meaning of ‘inspiring’ actually is – an ordinary person who does something extraordinary.

Martin Luther King Jr., the African-American activist who inspired a generation with his passionate ‘I Have A Dream’ speech. Nelson Mandela, who after a 27 year incarceration became the first black chief executive of South Africa. Alan Turing, the pioneering computer scientist and mathematician who is considered to be the key influence behind artificial intelligence. Aretha Franklin, dubbed by many as ‘The Queen Of Soul’ and the first woman to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame. Ordinary people who lived extraordinary lives.

So before you call someone ‘inspiring’, next time, just stop and think about it.

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