I’ve always felt uncomfortable around motivational and inspirational speakers, especially if they’re disabled. It’s not that I don’t respect disabled people who have done well, or those who have great stories to tell; far from it. I have a healthy dose of cynicism and I am of a generation who was brought up to believe that blowing your own trumpet was not the thing to do. But I am also deeply suspicious of hype and those who claim they have all the answers. Their take is often at a very facile and superficial level.
Call me cynical, but a lot of disability motivational speaking is designed to make both disabled and non-disabled people think that if that poor crip, blindie or whoever can do it then I should be able to too. This is often coupled with a slightly voyeuristic view of people’s individual impairments – non-disabled curiosity about the detail of disabled lives that becomes legitimised by listening to motivational or inspirational speaking.
Of course becoming a motivational speaker is not that simple. Some impairments, or degrees of impairment are more acceptable than others on the speaking circuit. You have to look good, and sound reasonable especially if you are female. A degree of life success is also necessary. Your ability to make the most of your experience depends on a lot of factors, whether you are disabled or not. If you had a good start in life, with comfortable beginnings, supportive family and good educational opportunities, whether you were born with or acquired your impairment, the personal insight you have, whether you are an optimist or a pessimist, and of course whether you are male or female – I’m almost willing to put money on the gender imbalance. Most of this is not acknowledged. The ways people overcome adversity are complex, and not always easily transferable. Hype won’t cut it in most cases.
I’ve done a fair bit of public speaking and I thought briefly of becoming a professional public speaker at one time, before reality very quickly asserted itself. Somehow I couldn’t take it, or myself seriously enough, and strong and serious self-belief in your role as a professional speaker and your message is a fundamental requirement. I’m way too old anyway.
Disabled people do, of course spend time in the public eye, as actors, singers or musicians, dancers, comedians and so on, They are practising their skills and talents, telling their own stories in their craft. I respect wise and skilled communicators such as the late Stella Young who spoke truth to power honestly in a way that any audience could relate to and understand. She nailed issues such as inspiration porn in a way that puts purveyors of it to shame. She was creating meaningful change, rather than motivating people to do something like selling banal products, or exert themselves to greater individualistic heights on their life journey.
People who impress me are those who do great work or other things that are of value to communities or the world generally, or who make the most of what they have and maintain a balanced perspective. Such people don’t have to talk up their achievements. They speak for themselves.
It’s time professional speakers groups and bureaux modernised their view of disability.