Winners, Losers, and Leftovers: Another Form of Inspiration Discrimination

Good evening, readers,

To say I’ve been preoccupied and got a late start today is an understatement, but here I am, with a new topic. As often happens, this topic came from real life.

My brother and his girlfriend of one year have been entered in one of those Valentine’s Day contests where people vote for the winner on Facebook. A great idea, except that he jokingly said to my mom that he noticed one competitor was a Marine, so should he say in the couples’ blurb that his girlfriend donated him a kidney? Funny, maybe, but also quite thought-provoking. As in: you can’t beat a Marine, so why even try? Indeed, why?

Now, I’m not saying our veterans don’t deserve the utmost respect and appreciation. You bet your last cent they do. I know it’s kind of clichéd, but seriously–walk through a minefield of Improvised Explosive Devices, manage to keep all your limbs and senses, and then come back and whine to me about how bad your day was because your car wouldn’t start. Seriously, folks. No matter how you feel about the U.S.’ involvement in current conflicts, those troops deserve support. But my question is: do they deserve, or more importantly want, an attitude that says, “You can’t beat that?” Does a person with a disability who enters any kind of competition deserve an attitude that says, “It’s no use competing with that person?”

I say no. I say it’s another form of inspiration discrimination. (For that, check out the December 2011 archives). “Inspiration discrimination”: as in, what happens when we make a big deal out of a basketball player scoring twenty points in one game because he has autism. As in, no autism, no big deal. What happens when a person with a disability does something in everyday life that TAB people do all the time. As in, “Oh, my! Annie walked two steps!” Of course, if Annie’s really been working on that and faced a ton of obstacles, fine, but to go completely cuckoo? No, thank you.

And it happens with competitions, too. For example, in the film Miss Congeniality, protagonist Gracie Hart’s pageant coach tells her that ten out of eleven years he worked on the circuit, his girls were crowned. “The year we lost,” he says, “the winner was a deaf-mute. You can’t beat that.”

I wonder what the ASL sign for “Excuse me, where’d you get your source from,” is?

It happened when I entered my mother in a Mother’s Day contest sponsored by the local news station. Of course, they played up my CP because they’re the media and that’s what they do. But we lost to a mother whose son-in-law was in a serious accident; she now spends her days changing his diapers and feeding him. As I said to Mom, “You can’t beat that,” and I wasn’t being too serious. What I meant was, on the “disability hierarchy,” the son-in-law beat me out, because his disability was considered “worse” than mine. That’s not fair, either. The idea that we have a disability hierarchy is about as tough to get rid of as a grease stain out of velvet. I myself struggle with it. But that doesn’t mean the hierarchy should exist.

I know the arguments against this, so let’s deal with them.

-“What, you’re against inspiration?” Yes, I am–if your attitude toward it is exploitive. If you take the disability away, and no longer have a story, that’s a problem. Marine, who fought for his country, loses his legs and still swims like a champ? Fine, because it’s also inspirational that he fought for his country. Pretty girl, who happens to have a disability, ends up in the newspaper because she went on a date, that a classmate was “inspired” to take her on? No sale!

-“People with disabilities can’t win competitions if they’re not inspiring.” Really? Is that because you think we’re all bitter whiners, or all useless? I’d like to inspire you to move 30 feet away from me right now, before I kick your ever-loving able-bodied butt.

-“People with disabilities need to be entered in contests by others because they won’t/can’t do it themselves.” Maybe some of us can’t, or won’t (because some of us are introverts). But you might want to ask first!

-“Disability is inspirational by nature. You just can’t beat it.” Okay. I’m not saying winning isn’t great. I’m human. I like to win. But please, I’d rather do it on my own merit than because a TAB person thinks it’s a big deal that I breathe. To go along with that–maybe we can’t “prove” that a person with a disability doesn’t win because of disability–but we can examine the way we compete with each other and try to improve that.

-“In a contest, if the disabled person doesn’t win, she’ll scream ‘discrimination.'” Stereotype police–I wanna see your license, registration, and brain cell activity! To go along with that: that stereotype has roots in the fact that PWDs have been discriminated against in competitions for far too long. Eliminate the real discrimination and you’ll eliminate the stereotype.

People with disabilities, like the rest of us, want and need to feel like winners. Let’s make sure, though, that we’re making their experiences of being winners authentic. Otherwise, they’ll keep feeling like inspirational “leftovers” whose trophies are spray-painted iron.



  1. Out of curiosity, do you not think there is anything to giving especial consideration to people who succeed in spite of great obstacles? Now, I’m not saying all disabilities are great obstacles and they shouldn’t always be treated as such. But when someone overcomes a lot to attain something, we tend to like to reward it. This is true of people who overcome a great economic struggles to achieve. Sure, someone who had everything handed to them on a silver platter should also be honored for doing well, but someone who had to fight for everything they got is just more meaningful and deserving of recognition. So if the disability did cause the person to overcome many obstacles to attain something (whether those obstacles were related to the disability or whether it was anti-PWD discrimination that they overcame) should that be recognized over similar achievements by someone who did not have to deal with these obstacles? I’m honestly curious what your opinion is.

    1. Good question! Again, I think it depends on the competition you’re dealing with and the kind of obstacles you’re talking about. As in, if all your competitors have had life handed to them, except one with a disability, who overcame a ton to get where he or she is, then absolutely, reward that. But if you have a competition filled with people who all overcame different sorts of tough obstacles (a tour in Iraq, cancer, losing their home, AND a PWD, for instance), I say, don’t automatically assume the PWD must win because he or she is disabled. Also, there are some all-PWD competitions out there, such as the Miss You Can Do it beauty pageant (HBO has a documentary about it). To that, I say, great. Wonderful. Just make sure you’re not saying, “The girl whose disability *looks* the most severe/tough has to win.” Winning should be based on merit, and yes, often, obstacles are part of that. But they shouldn’t be exploited.

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