Stopping the hero vs victim narrative for disabled people

Disabled people are regularly perceived as inspirational superhumans who can overcome anything and can defy all the odds. They can also be seen as people who are suffering or battling their disability and should be pitied.

However, the disability community wants to stop this narrative and just be treated like everyone else.

Chloe Tear, a disability blogger who has cerebral palsy and a visual impairment, recently published this blog post, in which she explains why society thinks disabled people are heroes or victims and how this narrative should be stopped.

When you hear the word disabled, what do you think of?

Chances are it will fall in one of these categories – a victim or a hero. Someone who is struggling and battling on, or someone who had overcome the odds and is an inspiration to all.

We cannot be blamed for these views, but we do have the power to change them. Within society I’m either portrayed as a hero or a victim, yet I am neither of those things. I hope to explain why the hero vs victim narrative needs to stop, but also why it is harmful to disabled people.

The hero

Hero (noun): “a person who is admired for their courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities.”

Aside from this looking like a compliment, the hero narrative can take on many forms. For example:

  • inspirational
  • overcoming
  • superhuman
  • defied the odds

I know comments like these come from a good place. They are well-meaning and often serve as a compliment. But let’s unpick what they mean.

By using the word “overcoming”, it suggests the problem is my condition and that needs to change. Overcoming also implies it is something within my control.

If I did choose to hide my condition to overcome challenges, I’m not giving myself the best chance possible. Whether I like it or not, I am disabled, even if this means society sees me as less.

When people use the word “overcome” in reference to disability, they are more accurately describing the barriers that society puts in our way.

Similarly, the word “inspirational” is known for grating on the disabled community. I believe this is partly down to inspiration porn and how society view disability. I know I cannot do this topic justice, without pointing you towards Stella Young’s TED Talk; I’m not your inspiration, thank you very much.

You might see images of disabled people with captions like:

  • What’s your excuse?
  • The only disability in life is a bad attitude.
  • Before you quit, try.

Disabled people’s existence is not to make you feel better about your life. It’s not heroic to brush our teeth or simply sit there. Yet disabled people are seen as incapable. If we achieve, it has to be possible for a non-disabled person. I believe this completely invalidates our own achievements.

The victim 

Victim (noun): “a person harmed, injured, or killed as a result of a crime, accident, or other event or action.”

The victim narrative can take on many forms, for example:

  • suffering
  • pitied
  • battling

Victim suggests that something very bad happened. Some people are born disabled; their existence isn’t a bad thing. If we’re a victim of anything, again, it’s the inaccessible society that we live in. I’m not saying it’s easy, but our mere existence isn’t to suffer. We want to live and thrive just like everyone else.

The pandemic has seen us as vulnerable and something to be protected. While this might have been the case when it came to getting coronavirus, I hope this isn’t something we generalise to every aspect of life.

Disabled people can be pitied, but what does that say about you? That you can’t imagine anything worse than being disabled? I’ll tell you now, I can think of much worse.

It’s complicated 

Being disabled can stop us from doing things, and that’s ok for us to talk about.

It’s complicated, but it’s allowed to be. We’re not a box to be contained or a simple solution that allows non-disabled people the ability to comprehend aspects of our lives.

Disabled people are often portrayed in the media as positive, grateful and happy. Again, this stereotype has made it hard for disabled people to say how they feel.

As someone who talks about their disability online, I am often hesitant of being negative. To appear ungrateful or to perpetuate the belief that having a disability is the worst thing in the world just seems like I’m doing a disservice.

Not only that, to show a weakness makes us out to be the most vulnerable within society and we don’t want that sympathy. We get patted on the head for living day to day, and that’s when we’re being positive!

But this is why we need to continue normalising disability. We’re people, just like everyone else. As Martyn Sibley put it, “disabled people can be arseholes”.


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A post shared by Martyn Sibley (@martynsibley)

At the end of the day, we want to be treated like everyone else. Not shamed into being a poor victim or celebrated as a hero for simply living our lives.

“You can’t say anything these days!”

Seeing disability as a victim or a hero makes society feel better and allows them to process this way of living. But where does that leave us? The ones who are “inspirationally battling on”.

Normalising disability is critical. Not only in the hope of raising awareness, but so disabled people don’t feel the pressure to perform to the societal norms.

Also, so that someone who becomes disabled (it really can happen to anyone) doesn’t see it as a life sentence. It’s a huge and often devastating thing to be diagnosed with a disability. It can take time to accept and adapt to a new way of living, but it’s not the worst thing imaginable.

We don’t want disability to become a topic that people cannot talk about or something they fear. I also appreciate that disabled people won’t always get it right.

Language and the words we use are ever evolving, something that is deemed acceptable today might not be in five years’ time. It’s complicated.

I think the most important things is a willingness to learn and an open mind to listen and respect those with lived experiences. That’s all we can ask for.

By Chloe Tear

Check out Chloe’s blog Chloe Tear and follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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