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He's Your Inspiration, Not Mine

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: the following article is re-printed from the Washington Post, July 1, 2001. Kathi Wolfe lives and works in Falls Church VA.

"You must be so excited! It's great what blind people can do!" said the woman standing next to me at Starbucks a couple of weeks ago. I groaned inwardly as I folded my white cane and sat down with my coffee. Erik Weihenmayer had just become the first blind man to climb Mount Everest, putting him on the "Today" show and the cover of Time magazine. The sighted folks were inspired again, and I knew what was coming. "So?" she continued, "when are you going to climb Mount Everest?"

If this encounter had been unique, I would have laughed and shrugged off the woman's misplaced admiration and silly question. But anyone who's disabled can tell you that the experience is all too common. One of us bursts onto the cultural radar screen as a superhero, and all of us are expected to perform amazing feats.

It's hard to say which stereotype is more annoying: the disabled as helpless victims or as superheroes. It's certainly no fun to be an object of pity. At least half a dozen times in the past few years, well-meaning but annoying people have thrown coins next to my plate when I've been eating at a restaurant. On the other hand, it's just as bad to be held up as some kind of motivational guru. I wish I had a nickel for every time someone has said that I must be so much more "insightful" than a sighted person.

Like most people, disabled and non-disabled alike, I'm neither victim nor star. I work as a freelance writer, shop, take care of family responsibilities and visit friends. But you wouldn't recognize me from the stereotypes in the media.

On one side, there are the ubiquitous telethons, as well as movies from "Wait Until Dark," in which a blind Audrey Hepburn is terrorized, to "Jennifer 8," where a blind Uma Thurman is stalked. On the other, there are the icons that some of us who are disabled have come to derisively call "supercrips." (No disrespect intended. After all, we're talking among ourselves.) And they set quite a standard. All of my life, people have assumed that I should be able to sing -- and possibly play the piano -- like Ray Charles, even though I am tone-deaf. When I was growing up, my grandmother told me that if I couldn't find a husband, I could "become another Helen Keller." Get serious. Keller, deaf and blind from the age of 18 months, was a writer, a feminist, a 1904 Radcliffe College graduate, an outspoken opponent of racism as well as an outstanding advocate for the blind. Would you have the intelligence and stamina to do all that? Why would you think I would? Sorry to disillusion you.

Supercrips are everywhere in the media. The person with no use of her arms who paints masterpieces with her feet, the guy with Tourette's syndrome who becomes a radio announcer, Stephen Hawking explaining the universe from his wheelchair. And, of course, that blind mountain climber.

But realistic stories about people like me don't often make it into print or onto TV. As Joseph P. Shapiro wrote in "No Pity: People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement": "While prodigious achievement is praiseworthy. it does not reflect the reality of most disabled people, who struggle constantly with smaller challenges, such as finding a bus with a wheelchair lift to go downtown, or fighting beliefs that people with disabilities cannot work, be educated or enjoy life as well as anyone else."

I belong to a disabled women's support group that meets monthly. Over pizza, we discuss what's going on in our lives. One woman just bought her first condo ("handicapped-accessible") and is deep into mortgage rates and maintenance fees. A paraplegic describes balancing her career with being a wife and the mother of an 8-year-old. A baby boomer whose speech and gait are impaired is getting her daughter ready for college while ironing out her tense relationship with her own mom. Those are the everyday challenges we have to surmount. They're not Everests. They're just tougher than they might be if we weren't disabled.

George Covington, a lawyer and journalism teacher who is legally blind, served as the special assistant for disability affairs and a press assistant during the first Bush administration. When I asked him about this subject last week, Covington said, "Often disabled people tell me that they want to work in the White House like I did. I tell them: You can. You just have to go to journalism school, go to law school, be able to work with the media and politicians and, no problem -- you'll get a top White House job."

The supercrip stereotype exacerbates the already difficult challenges that people with disabilities face. If we hear enough such stories we may feel defeated by the comparison. And trying to live up to the image can be just as damaging.

Hugh Gregory Gallagher of Cabin John contracted polio in 1952 when he was 19. Gallagher went on to study at Oxford University, then worked as an aide to Senator Bob Bartlett of Alaska during the 1960s -- successfully making his way in both environments when neither was wheelchair-accessible. Gallagher, author of "Black Bird Fly Away: Disabled in an Able Bodied World," told me: "For years, I tried to work harder than any able-bodied person would. My drive to become a superhero exacted a terrible price. I paid no attention to my emotions. I became an automaton."

Don't get me wrong -- I like to read news reports on disabled people, at least when they're about issues -- health insurance, discrimination, education -- that concern me and my peers.

Just keep us in some kind of real context. Occasionally, show us not as main characters but as background characters -- like a story about a Metro delay or the Smithsonian Folklife Festival that includes, but doesn't necessarily feature, the folks with white canes and wheelchairs stuck on the subway or sitting in the audience. And on TV and in movies, give us some roles as regular characters -- like Marlee Matlin's deaf political consultant on "The West Wing." There's been progress on this front in the last few years; I'd like to see more.

And I'd like to see stories about some of the people who really are heroes to those of us with disabilities. Like those who found a sudden demand for their previously unwanted services during World War II, and rose to the challenge. While able-bodied men were away fighting, disabled people worked in factories and offices and served as volunteers. Reporting for a 1995 article, I talked to Norma Krajczar of Morehead City, N.C. As a visually impaired teenager in Massachusetts, Norma was a volunteer aircraft warden; the thought was that her sensitive hearing would give her an advantage over sighted wardens in listening for enemy planes. And I learned that Akron, Ohio, became known as the "crossroads of the deaf" because of all the deaf people who came to work in tire factories converted to defense plants --making more money than they had ever been able to before. Yet, even with all the reporting that's been done recently about the Greatest Generation, you don't hear much about those folks.

Eyesight aside, I'm never going to climb Mount Everest. I'm a lover of creature comforts who freaks if the AC breaks down for 15 minutes. And as I told that woman at Starbucks, I'm terrified of heights.

I don't mean to be a grouch; I know she was trying to be nice. But next time she wants to strike up a conversation, maybe she could try something she'd say to an able-bodied person. Like, "The O's are tanking again." Or, "Just what's in a Frappuccino, anyway?" I'd even settle for, "Hot enough for you?"

Now, these are things I know about.