Rob J. Quinn


The word inspire has probably become a bit bastardized for me. It's certainly not a bad thing to be inspired, find something inspirational, or even to inspire someone else by personal deeds.

Yet, I cringe when I hear the word.

Its overuse in describing people with disabilities has created somewhat of a Pavlovian reaction for me when I hear the word. I want to recoil when I hear someone use inspire, even if they are describing something in a perfectly reasonable way. I've literally had strangers make a point come over to me at the gym to tell me that I inspire them. I'd like to report that my physique is the cause of such remarks, but I'd be lying.

Their inspiration comes from the fact that I have cerebral palsy.

I've seen hundreds if not thousands of news stories or television programs that put people with disabilities in the role of inspirational simply because they are living their lives. The only job I ever quit was when I was given the opportunity to cover the disability community in a realistic way – a concept I had proposed – for the local section of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Articles that were intended to be informative to the local disability community were edited into the typical human interest stories about the disabled that newspapers have been doing forever. Years later I regretted not quitting a two-year job with a foundation whose mission was supposed to be to enhance the lives of people with disabilities when it became abundantly clear that they defined my role as a writer in terms of being their inspiring poster child.

I was born with my disability, so maybe that explains why I absolutely cannot comprehend the mentality of individuals who don't seem capable of looking at people with physical disabilities as full-fledged human beings. With all of the political correctness in the world it may seem as though people with disabilities have achieved a level of acceptance where basic statements of humanity are completely unnecessary. But once the surface of that acceptance is scratched, they seem as needed as ever.

I am here to seek all of the same things that anyone else in the world wants, including happiness, fulfillment, success, and finding someone to love.

I'm not here to inspire you.

I've often written about my experiences living with a disability with the goal of breaking the mold of the accepted portrayal of people with disabilities being nothing more than sources of inspiration. Unsilenced was the title of one of the first pieces I ever had published. The fact that it was published in the literary magazine of my university was of little concern to me at the time. Writing is the one thing besides playing sports that I don't remember ever not wanting to do. To actually see my words in something that was printed, bound, and handed out to people, was the highlight of my college career.

The dramatic monologue featured a high school kid who had been sent to a psychologist after having a fight. The character was highly biographical. He had cerebral palsy with a severe speech disability, and was rather unapologetic for finally fighting with one of his able-bodied tormentors.

The response I received is something that I struggled to understand for years. In the last weeks of the semester after the magazine came out I received numerous compliments on campus, many coming from students who I didn't even know but had remembered me from a previous class we'd been in together.

Yet, family and close friends had nothing positive to say. The problem seemed to come from the foul language used by the character. One older woman who I felt particularly close to at the time but has since faded from my life actually told me that I knew better than to use such language. A family member said she put it down after the first paragraph. The entire piece was maybe three short pages. Another dismissed it as bitterness.

Later, I attempted to write an actual autobiography. No, my ego hadn't gotten the best of me. My intention was to take segments of my life and discuss them in terms of the disability issues that I thought were apparent in those episodes. It was too long, and no doubt far too boring for print. But the reaction from another acquaintance eventually helped me make sense of the response I had received to the monologue.

I just happened to speak with the person just after she started reading my work, and she gushed about the book. Yet, by the time I spoke to her again, she hated what I had written.

Later, the man who gave me my first job and briefly became a mentor of sorts to me pointed out the reason for the drastic reactions to my work from the people I know best. The woman who did a complete about face on the book was a former special education teacher of mine. The only specific she ever mentioned about the book was my criticism of my time in a special education school.

Aside from self-defense, the reason for her reaction, it was suggested, was that she felt partly responsible for that portion of my life. He said that my family and friends reacted negatively to these particular pieces because they had an innate desire or feeling of responsibility to make my life "good." My writing about it as less than perfect was upsetting to them.

Unsilenced was really about being heard. It was about how a speech disability, or more specifically the way people react to someone's speech disability, almost de-humanizes a person. In some ways it was my response to the ignorance that I had dealt with throughout my life.

Reading the monologue for the first time in years, I have to admit I was surprised by the amount of foul language that peppered the monologue. Yet, there was a point to it. In fact, the whole idea was to go against the idea of "knowing better" to show a character with a disability as something other than the relatively absurd image of people with disabilities that still exists in the media today.

While my essays are not generally meant to inspire, they are meant to challenge the version of living with a disability projected by many and talk about disability from the perspective of an everyday guy who happens to have cerebral palsy.

*Originally published in Rob J. Quinn's blog Rob Q. Ink Page 2.


Rob J. Quinn wrote for the Philadelphia Inquirer as a freelancer for the sports section and briefly wrote a column for the local section covering the disability community. He has worked as an editor for a children's publisher and as a writer for a non-profit intended to serve people with disabilities.