By Kolya Alvarez
I am always glad to celebrate someone’s successes. Everyone’s accomplishments look different, especially when you live with a chronic illness or a disability. While I love congratulating people on their achievements, I’ve noticed that some ways of doing that are better than others.
When scrolling on Facebook, I sometimes come across inspirational videos involving people with disabilities. They often follow a similar format. The amputee who runs marathons. The girl with autism who was asked to prom. The guy who lost his limbs, but has a wife and kids and a job as a motivational speaker. These videos say to us that if these people can do this, then we can do anything.
While these videos can inspire some, they also send an unintended message to other people with disabilities. These videos say that my illness is no excuse for not doing as well, if not better, than someone who’s able bodied. It says to others that their struggles are less valid because, “If this person can do it, so can you!” It says that real success is going above and beyond, even if this world was not built with us in mind.
Some videos even seem to paint us as tools to make non-disabled people look better. It shows them that they should get a cookie for treating us like anyone else, like the example of the girl with autism getting asked to prom. This kind of video assumes that treating us with dignity is a good deed, rather than the bare minimum of what we deserve.
These videos also gloss over many other people with disabilities. For every girl with autism that is asked to prom, there’s another who is non-verbal and can’t go to a public school. These videos gloss over people with invisible disabilities, like chronic pain, heart or lung conditions, and other things they “can’t see.”
The word success is tied to the idea of pushing our limits. This can be incredibly harmful for many of us, and even impossible for others. Instead, I challenge us to change that definition and recognize what our successes look like. No two people’s needs are the same, and there is no one-size-fits-all definition for success. Recognize what someone’s achievements are, and congratulate them on those instead of someone else’s. Rather than running a marathon, maybe the real victory is taking a day to rest at home.
Kolya Alvarez is a Spoonie with Ehlers-Danos Syndrome. Kolya is very active in making sure that disability rights are added in social justice movements, especially for those with invisible disabilities. Kolya is interested in current topics such as representation of LGBTQ people, women, and people with disabilities in the media. They work to include disability rights in equality movements, spend a lot of time in the local music scene, and have also been trying to make those spaces more accessible. Also of importance to them are the topics of gender equality, LGBTQ rights, and equal treatment of people of color. Kolya notes, “I was shocked how little these groups knew about rights for people with disabilities.”