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Please Don't Call Me Brave Just Because I Am Disabled

I'm just like everyone else.

24/04/2017 10:29 AM AEST | Updated 24/04/2017 10:30 AM AEST
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"There are definitely brave disabled people out there but they are brave for what they have achieved, not because they are in a wheelchair, have autism, missing a limb or whatever the case may be."

This ANZAC Day, the word 'brave' will be used to describe the many men and women who made sacrifices for our country -- and rightfully so. But it's also a word that has been used on several occasions to describe me, when I'm at the gym of all places.

I wasn't risking my life, saving a life or doing anything even remotely brave. I was merely doing my thing at the gym -- just like everybody else.

So why was I the only one to be verbally pinned with a badge of bravery?

I think my wheelchair had something to do with it. To me, it's no 'big deal' and a very normal part of my life. Sure, at times it can be cumbersome but it's just how I get around -- at the gym, the shops, my apartment -- pretty much everywhere.

Perhaps I should be thankful or even flattered each time these comments come my way. However, I'm neither, and if anything I'm a little insulted.

It implies that their expectations of me, as a person with a disability, are so low that a relatively small and unexceptional task was in some way worthy of praise and compliment.

I don't mean to sound disrespectful because I realise the perceived praise is always loaded with good intentions. Furthermore, I don't want to be rude and begin a lecture on ableism. It always seems like neither the time nor the place, and the people who say it do so with a genuine sense of compassion and care.

But that's just the point. I don't need compassion or care. I'm in the gym, for heaven's sake! Not a war camp or a paediatric oncology ward.

I've been going to the gym for decades but it was only after I started using a wheelchair that people felt compelled to call me brave.

Being disabled doesn't make you brave. It just It just makes you disabled.

I've known that since I acquired multiple visible and invisible disabilities in my early twenties. Apart from my wheelchair, my prosthetic limb, scars and other amputations would be the most obvious signs of my physical disabilities. There's also the invisible disabilities like fatigue, chronic pain and significant vision impairment caused by permanent brain damage.

But again, I stress that there is nothing brave about that.

Since acquiring my disabilities and daring to be seen in public <insert sarcasm here>, I've been called brave more times than I care to remember. That would be quite okay if I had actually done something brave. But simple going to the gym each week does not fit that bill.

I'm grateful for plenty of things in my life but flattery for merely existing with a disability is not one of them.

So why am I frustrated and insulted each time someone calls me brave for doing something so mediocre? Quite simply because it implies that their expectations of me, as a person with a disability, are so low that a relatively small and unexceptional task was in some way worthy of praise and compliment.

On a larger scale, this is reflective of how our society views people with a disability and is best summed up by high-profile disability advocate, the late Stella Young, who famously said:

"I want to live in a world where we don't have such low expectations of disabled people that we are congratulated for getting out of bed and remembering our own names in the morning. I want to live in a world where we value genuine achievement for disabled people."

There are definitely brave disabled people out there but they are brave for what they have achieved, not because they are in a wheelchair, have autism, missing a limb or whatever the case may be.

Just like the able-bodied community, each person with a disability is different but we are frequently bundled into the same basket and given all-encompassing labels.

To add insult to injury, I often find myself in the gym at the same time as a group of elderly Australian war veterans. They are brave, they are courageous and I am especially embarrassed when well-meaning strangers call me brave in their presence.

Disability does not put you on an automatic trajectory to bravery.

Lest we forget who was really brave this ANZAC day, and who is brave every day.


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