Jen Lee Reeves is a mother of two who works in social media with AARP. She writes about parent advocacy and her 7-year-old daughter, Jordan, on her blog.
This post was originally published in Jen Reeves' blog, Born Just Right.
It’s a word Jordan hears from people from time to time. For a while, I just smiled and let it slide. But after she won a sports inspiration award earlier this year, “inspiration” felt heavy. It expects a lot from a 7-year-old. Especially a person who is just figuring herself out. I’ve struggled with this thought, but I’ve had a hard time verbalizing it or knowing who would understand it if I brought this up.
Jordan and I had a chance to attend a speech by Aimee Mullins at the University of Missouri campus on Wednesday evening as a part of the Delta Gamma Lectureships Series. I’ve never had a chance to see her speak in person, but I’ve watched her collection of awesome TED talks. She speaks on overcoming adversity and empowering women — and really, anyone. I was so excited to have a chance to bring Jordan to the event, even though I am certain she was the youngest person in the audience.
What was really cool about Mullins’ talk tonight was how she touched on so many lessons I’m trying to teach both of my kids: We can all learn to adapt to change if we learn how to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. (Don’t let fear of failure hold you back.) She spoke about how those who are the most adaptable to change are the ones who survive. She even talked about how she does regular accountability checks about herself — not the self judgement kind, the self-assessment type of accountability. I love it.
Jordan has grown up understanding some of those concepts naturally. Our opportunities through Born Just Right have also allowed her to meet so many incredible people who live life in a positive way. She understands almost intuitively that a physical difference does not have to be a disability. You can live a positive life and not allow the disability to define you. As Mullins says, a disability is anything that undermines our capabilities. We celebrate the life experiences that have come with Jordan’s limb difference.
So I asked Mullins how she handles it when someone tells her she’s an inspiration when she’s simply living her life. I’m not sure how to react, and I certainly don’t know how to help Jordan understand what it means. Mullins’ answer helped me put this into a little more perspective.
Mullins agrees with me. The word “inspiration” has been made into a one-dimensional word. It’s overused, and over time, it’s lost meaning. A person who is framed as “inspirational” is not always given the chance to be more than an inspiration. It also robs that person of the option of failure. And no one is perfect. No one. Mullins mentioned she’s aggravated when someone uses a picture of her running or looking awesome while modeling and adds terms like, “If she can do it. You can do it.” That assumption ignores the possibility that each of us has our own challenges to overcome and they could be bigger than two prosthetic legs. You can’t make these assumptions. Inspiration is often relegated to the final four minutes of newscasts.
So how does she handle the “You’re so inspirational” comments? Mullins usually responds with, “Oh really, why?” And if someone has a real reason why — like how she has learned to take risks and not box herself in by others’ expectations — she’ll own up to that compliment and appreciate it. But if the person responds with a vague reason that isn’t thoughtful, she moves past the compliment.
I’m going to be honest. It’s a relief to hear someone else struggle with this word. When I mentioned this online while I was writing this post, I found out at least one other woman with a limb difference feels the same way. I’m clearly not alone. I’m not saying we stop using the word inspiration. I’ve used it a number of times on this website. But I know I’m much more thoughtful about its use as I watch my daughter grow and I hear the word used often.
I want to send a special thanks to Aimee Mullins for taking a moment to talk to Jordan after her speech. She even signed one of Jordan’s old, tiny helper arms. It’s pretty special, and Jordan legitimately appreciated it. (Jordan also liked seeing pictures of Mullins’ helper legs — especially ones that looks like cowboy boots. Those are awesome.)
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