At age 19 I was awarded Dux of my school in regional Victoria. Nobody was more shocked than me. I had not aimed that high, or even in that direction. It wasn't entirely welcome news.
You see, I was the ‘clever blind boy’, and that made for a story to warm the flintiest heart. When results came out, multiple TV and radio stations chased me for cherry-picked and cringe-worthy sound bites. The local rag got in early. (I had to insist the photographer stop trying to capture me in Daredevil poses with all my school stuff.)
The praise came sleeting in, replete with words like ‘gifted’ - I wasn't - and ‘inspirational’, already an icky word but still a bit taboo to call out. People stopped me in the street to say how unbelievable I was, how proud they were of me, how I made them realise they should stop making excuses for themselves.
The praise came sleeting in, replete with words like ‘gifted’ - I wasn't - and ‘inspirational’, already an icky word but still a bit taboo to call out.
Never mind that my results would have rated as strong but unexceptional at most metropolitan schools. Never mind that they - everyone's, actually - would become irrelevant within months. Never mind that I would limp through an arts degree and spend much of my twenties an under-utilised recluse, mistrusting and avoiding praise and criticism alike. Never mind, for the moment, that the guy who was so proud of me told someone else he'd rather kill himself than be like me.
What of that clever blind boy? Various forces had cajoled me into doing a STEM-heavy timetable. Those subjects got you a free biscuit in the study score department. Also, the optics of me doing well at them brought a certain glory by-proxy. Not just for my public secondary school with its challenging diverse cohort to accommodate, but for the then Royal Victorian Institute for the Blind which provided support for mainstream students and teachers.
Everyone was frightfully keen except me. As a Braille-user, it meant a seventh year at secondary school to get everything done and more concerned adult intervention than necessary. It was an unhappy experience that didn’t produce a better student in me because I coasted whenever I thought I could get away with it. The extra high school year also meant social displacement and the feeling I was constantly behind the eight-ball, which would taint my time at university. My single goal was to get out. Under those circumstances, the thought of being reduced to a noble caricature was galling, and the excessive praise taunted me.
Under those circumstances, the thought of being reduced to a noble caricature was galling, and the excessive praise taunted me.
The whole palaver might have been less painful if strangers somehow understood that I was the bright but undisciplined dilettante I knew I actually was. The kind of kid of whom it might have been said, “let him sort himself out and he'll be fine.” I already had the sense this wasn't going to be allowed; who else got newspaper articles written about them for ‘using a computer’ or ‘reading SciFi’ after all? Practically anything I did conspicuously, from crossing a road to wagging class to buying cigarettes, was liable to meet with spontaneous congratulation from someone. Far from flattering, the surprise shown on these occasions was so artless and effusive that it only made it embarrassingly clear what the expectations of me had been.
The conclusion: I'd probably have gotten a cheer no matter what I did. My place was to gratify and uplift, not to be inconveniently complex or confronting. My normal life, in the reheated-spag-bol and youthful-indiscretions sense, wasn't allowed to be normal. It too was elevated to ‘achievement’ status.
The conclusion: I'd probably have gotten a cheer no matter what I did.
Back then I had no vocabulary for what was happening or what was so hateful about it. This all happened long before disability activist Stella Young coined the term ‘inspiration porn’. In a nutshell this refers to narratives and images objectifying and exceptionalising disabled people to gratify non-disabled people, to make them try harder and feel luckier.
I now have the kind of life many hope for. The demons only return when I see young friends, promised the dignity and respect of adulthood, go through the same mill I did. Why should they set store in others' approval and to value perseverance, when expectations are so low and cheers so cheap? How do they combat a meme that propagates itself by making them a spectacle?
Cumulatively, what is clear is that the disillusionment and sense of futility these experiences leave in their wake sometimes take decades to undo.
So before sharing an article or meme about the disabled, please consider the very real person who is its subject. And ask what really motivates you sharing it.