One of the key ways to bring about social change through activism is through sharing personal stories of the people affected by the issue, to trigger emotional responses from others and build motivation to act across the population. Such stories can be roughly divided into two categories: stories of everyday struggle, to trigger an emotional response and a desire to help those in need; and stories of hope, to inspire others and show that anything is possible.
Both types of stories are needed but they must be told carefully, as they can, in some cases, undermine the other’s message. When it comes to activism for the rights of persons with disabilities, there is a risk that stories of everyday struggles, which are widely faced by persons with disabilities around the world, become stories of despair about endless suffering. If all the stories we hear are about how bad things are, it becomes difficult to have hope for the future or to see a path forward.
At the same time, stories of hope can become problematic if they put too much focus on the individual’s story and their ability to overcome adversity. Often, these become stories of “exceptional” people who managed, through their own abilities, to triumph despite the challenges they faced. This is not to say that these individuals aren’t exceptional – the challenges persons with disabilities face are very real and widespread, and overcoming them is not easy! But the focus on the individual can have the effect of relocating social problems to the level of the individual, and suggest a model for people to follow – if only persons with disabilities did what this “inspirational” person did, then they would be able to overcome adversity too, ignoring the different situations that people find themselves in. This can also reinforce the message of despair and normalise ideas that it must be exceptional for a person with disabilities to be successful.
A further problem with the framework of the “inspirational person with disabilities” is that it creates an expectation of who a person with disabilities should be – an expectation held by both persons with and without disabilities. If the only people with disabilities in the public eye are those with a “heroic” or “inspirational” message, then this excludes the lived reality of the majority of people, who are simply living their lives just like everybody else. Compared to the “inspirational” stories, people with disabilities might then be judged as not meeting the social standard for success, or worry that they are not an inspirational person.
If not told correctly, these two types of stories go together to portray a world of intractable social problems that can only be overcome in a small number of cases by exceptional individuals. What is needed instead is a message of hope amidst the stories of struggle, and a more realistic appraisal of the reasons for success other than simple individual exceptionalism.
In reality, a successful person succeeds not only because of their innate intelligence or talent, but because of the opportunities that they have been afforded throughout their life. At the same time, others may struggle to succeed not because of their own personal failings, but because they were not granted the opportunities they needed to flourish. This is why the human-rights based social model of disability is necessary – like all people, persons with disabilities have the potential to succeed but require concrete opportunities to do so. The barriers to inclusion and accessibility must be removed – whether it is inaccessible physical infrastructure, social stigma and prejudice, or simply the expectation that most persons with disabilities will struggle to achieve unless they are truly exceptional, which is reinforced by the two types of stories mentioned above.
In my own life I have been able to succeed in many things thanks to the support of a loving family and the opportunities provided to me. This isn’t to say that anyone else in my situation would have ended up the same way – every individual’s needs, interests, and abilities are different. But the situations in which you are born, raised, and live can to a large extent define your opportunities – whether in your career, your hobbies, or your daily existence.
We must always remember that there are two sides to every “exceptional” or “inspirational” story – the very real success and hard work of the individual, which should be praised, but more importantly the continued existence of the barriers that they had to overcome, which should be the real focus of the story. Widening opportunities and removing barriers means that in the future, there will be far fewer individuals who can be highlighted in the media as an exceptional story – but far more individuals in all segments of society who are able to make real, tangible improvements to their lives.