"You're not really helping anyone if you become some sort of activist or motivational speaker."
I wasn't sure how to respond. A professor was suggesting I not tell my story. At the time, I was only considering whether or not to disclose to other instructors and students that I had some medical conditions that were less obvious than my occasional use of a cane. Anytime I'm told what not to do, I start to question why.
"You risk giving people false hope if you tell them anything is possible. You should instead argue for more public assistance and protection."
There it was. Silly me, I might make the mistake of being a role model and not the type approved of by this professor. I wouldn't be proving how terrible America was, how unfair life is, or whatever beliefs this professor held. She could sense I hated self-pity and bitterness.
She loaned me a book on "disability studies" that included a chapter on the "risks" of uplifting stories about overcoming disabilities. According to the author, stories of overcoming poverty, disability, or discrimination are meant to maintain the discriminatory practices of those in power. Worse, these stories make those unable to succeed feel like they are to blame for circumstances beyond their control.
To borrow a catch phrase, "Give me a break!"
Yes, stories are used to create social myths. We all know that "rags to riches" stories and tales of the American Dream are not promises that literally anyone can rise to be president or the head of a major corporation. Reading about Andrew Carnegie or John D. Rockefeller doesn't mean we expect everyone to behave like these men or that everyone can rise from poverty to extreme wealth.
If I read about a wheelchair-bound Olympic bobsled pilot, I'm impressed. I'm not thinking, "Why doesn't everyone in a wheelchair make it to the Olympics?"
We've forgotten that small steps are still valiant and worth celebrating. Instead, people complain that we need to be "realistic," which is another way of saying "defeatist." Let's just give up the notion of role models and hope.
Not me. I'm going to keep telling parents, educators, and students to work towards more than passive acceptance of fate. I'm more than my disabilities and so are the students to whom I speak. I simply affirm what they sense to be true: it takes hard work to succeed academically or professionally.