Let Us Be Boring: Disabled People are More Than Heroes or Objects of Your Pity

Media coverage often caricatures us as overcoming or confined; a champion or a victim John Loeppky , CBC Opinion
Posted: Feb 15, 2023

John Loeppky says people with disabilities are often talked about or around, rather than being given the stage to speak for themselves.

This opinion piece is by John Loeppky, a disabled artist and freelance writer/editor in Saskatoon. It’s part of a series called Taking a Sitting Stand about disability issues.

Travelling with parasport athletes tells you a lot about how folks view disabled people. There’s something about being stuck in an airport with a bunch of fellow travellers you’ll likely never see again that seems to invite uncomfortable questions about your disability.

At Chicago O’Hare International Airport, in a feat of combining Canadian and disability stereotypes, I was asked if I rode a polar bear to school. “No,” I answered, “the bastards aren’t wheelchair accessible.”

Once, when I was in Minneapolis with the junior national wheelchair basketball team, someone asked if our trip was a Make-a-Wish Foundation request.

In Toronto, I was met with: “Wow, there sure are a lot of you here today.” What? Travellers?

In Saskatoon, airport staff got my wheelchair jammed in the baggage scanner and set alarms off. I laughed at that particular bout of chaos as my chair wasn’t in any danger.

On these trips, plenty of people also called me a hero – not because I was representing my country and not because I was a half-decent athlete, but simply because I’d gotten out of bed that morning and dared to fly somewhere. Going through security as a wheelchair user takes a ton of effort, but I don’t know that it’s worthy of being decorated with a medal.

Late advocate and artist Stella Young called this habit of putting disabled people on a pedestal “inspiration porn.”

Disabled people are often shoved into one of two categories: the super crip – a person who is assumed to have overcome their disability to accomplish great things; or the tragic, pitiable cripple whose life is defined by how their disability has held them back.

There is endless media coverage that says we are overcoming or confined; a champion or a victim.

Society affords us little middle ground. We are not trusted with our own stories. We are often talked about or around, rather than being given the stage to speak for ourselves.

Many disabled people are also tired of being “first.” We continue to break barriers that shouldn’t have existed at all. We repeatedly have to challenge perceptions because they’re so darn persistent.

What we don’t have is the privilege of being boring. Our society believes that to live a wonderfully average, disabled life is impossible.

Another problem with this narrow representation of disabled people is it can stifle addressing harm that’s coming from within the community. I’m not espousing that we’re one medically complex monolith, but that’s how society tends to view us, and when there’s any internal disagreement, we’re expected to play nice with each other.

According to the 2019 General Social Survey, Canadians with disabilities were three times more likely to be the victims of violence than those without. More than half of Canadian women with disabilities who had been in a relationship reported experiencing some form of intimate partner violence, according to the 2018 Survey of Safety in Public and Private Spaces, compared with 36 per cent of those without. For men, the split was 44 per cent with disabilities versus 32 per cent without.

While it’s hard to come by reporting on how many of those situations involve disabled people as perpetrators, if we’re only considered heroes or victims, then we go unchallenged on that behaviour.

Being boring doesn’t make for an eye-catching headline, but stereotypes are harmful and they don’t allow the space for disabled people to hold wider society (let alone one another) to account: either you’re helpless or able to transcend anything.

If the person I encountered at the Minneapolis airport more than a decade ago happens to read this, what you could have asked was, “Where are you playing? What did it take to make the national team? How can I get involved?” Ask me what I bring to the world, not what you assume I’m struggling with.

Be mindful of how you consume messages about disabled people. Call us heroes or zeroes for the right reasons, and begin to see us as more than caricatures.


John Loeppky is a freelance journalist, writer, and editor who currently lives on Treaty 6 territory in Saskatoon. His work has appeared for CBC News, the Globe and Mail, FiveThirtyEight, Insider, Defector, Healthline, and many others. He can be reached at John@Jloeppky.com.

Original at https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/saskatoon/taking-a-sitting-stand-disability-representation-opinion-1.6744704