Individual Smiling at the Camera
Editor’s note: Jacob Lesner-Buxton, who is blind, is the Systems Change Coordinator at the Independent Living Resource Center. During his time at ILRC, he has specialized in advocacy around accessible events, youth transition, and voter education. He has over 20 years of experience volunteering and working with non-profit and government settings focused on disability advocacy. He has also been a producer on KPFA’s Pushing Limits, one of the only radio shows about disability rights in the USA. Jacob has written for many online publications, including The Mighty, and has been part of disability cultural exchanges in Russia and Japan. Jacob loves to do yoga and go dancing in his spare time.
“Man, you guys always get upset when we call you inspirations. You need to get over yourself.” I was at a reception held during a national conference for diversity trainers. An inebriated nonprofit director in D.C. tried convincing me that I and others must stop fighting this inspiration label.
The Common Theme
Although I believed that the man was tipsy, I was told a similar thing six months earlier by a much more sober woman over coffee. This person explained that when she was an editor at CNN, she loved putting stories about people in the Olympics who recovered from a serious accident on the air. “You don’t think those people are inspirational?” she asked me. I was stumped with answering her question, so I changed the subject.
Other times, I sensed that others wanted me to accept the inspirational label. When I post stuff on Facebook critical of being called inspirational, I often get comments like, “I get what you’re talking about, but you are.” In college, one of my classmates said, “You can’t fight it. You are inspirational.”
It’s not only me that can’t shake the inspirational label. In the early 1990s, basketball star Charles Barkley caused some controversy. He told the public he didn’t want to be considered a role model. At the time, the player enjoyed gambling, drinking, and chasing women. He didn’t want to change his ways to appease somebody who didn’t know him or act fake. However, many angry at Barkley’s comments may have desired him to be a father figure for minority youth. Some politicians and businesses leader might have envisioned him being able to help youth more than if they allocated funds to pay for services like education.
Inspired to Do What?
Unlike Barkley, it’s hard to envision why some in society see me as an inspiration. It would be one thing if I advocated that the government doesn’t have a responsibility to provide services to those with disabilities. However, I advocate daily for a strong safety net for people with disabilities. Despite clearly knowing my views, I have been called an inspiration by community leaders.
Since I can’t stop others from calling me an inspiration, I may feel better if they articulated what I inspired them to do. For example, my pastor took a class offered by a disability rights organization. Another friend talked about ableism in a video produced to encourage donations to a social justice foundation that worked on many other issues besides disability. Also, my aunt brings up issues of accessibility when she travels and with leaders in her community. If any of these people called me an inspiration, I would be proud because I might have caused them to take these actions.
Telling someone they’re an inspiration isn’t a compliment when you twist their ideas. Recently I was at a screening of a movie about children and young adults with anxiety. The documentary gives at least a dozen reasons youth are anxious, including genetics, parental pressure, interaction with the criminal justice system, and more. One topic that was barely covered was how social media affects mental health.
Twisting the Message
Many people said the film inspired them in the Question-and-Answer session after the screening. Yet, all of their comments were about how to hold Facebook and other sites accountable for mental health problems in teens. I could sense the filmmakers were bothered that the audience wasn’t getting the movie’s message that the U.S. government is not investing enough in youth mental health. Soon, the film may be shown on Capitol Hill, leading politicians to call it inspirational. They will probably use it to attack Facebook.
Like other artists, the filmmakers are in a no-win situation when trying to control how people view the message of their work. Often people are labeled pretentious when they try to dictate what individuals should take from their art. However, they also receive that label if they say their film is open to interpretation.
Although this might be an unpopular opinion, artists and others should be direct in telling audiences what they want them to take from their work. Sadly there have been numerous times when people’s work inspired movements 180 degrees different than their artist had intended.
One of the people who fell victim to misrepresentation by his “admirers” is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Throughout the years, public officials who subscribed to ideas opposite to his were quick to speak at celebrations of his birthday. Worse, some of those leaders try to twist King’s ideas to fit their political agenda.
Tragically King isn’t alive to correct the record. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t ensure leaders won’t pollute it. What if we required a public official with an abysmal track record on civil rights to pay a fee to speak at the event? If a senator who voted to cut funds for affordable housing wants to talk about Dr. King, he can pay $85,000 for that privilege. This “inspiration tax” could be used for civil rights advocacy or celebrating surviving hearing the politicians’ speeches. Also, an inspiration tax might quell protests that often arise over controversial figures being given a platform to speak. Instead of debating on whether so and so should get a platform, we could get satisfaction in their paying a ton of money to spew disingenuous dribble.
A friend commented that some people might see me as an inspiration for expanding their minds and might not take action on the causes I have been passionate about for years. She makes a great point, and I agree that folks are often too occupied with work or family to get involved or don’t know what to do. While I’m not upset by those people, I am miffed at others who have the power to improve accessibility in the community but don’t, yet still, call me an inspiration. How am I inspiring them when they don’t act on my suggestions? They should pay me for that privilege to keep calling me an inspiration. Covering dinner at a steakhouse for my partner and me would be a good start.