If you watched the closing ceremonies of the Torino Olympics, you saw Vancouver mayor Sam Sullivan, representing the city to host the next Winter Games in 2010, accept a giant Olympic flag and wave it before a packed stadium and throngs watching on television.
You also saw that Sullivan uses a power chair because of a spinal cord injury sustained while skiing at age 19. The flagpole was slipped into a holder on the arm of the chair, and Sullivan turned the chair in pirouettes to make the flag wave.
The next day, newspapers called Sullivan inspirational.
Is he a hero? Probably. How many people could perform on a world stage with the eyes of about a billion people on them and not crack? Not me.
But that's probably not why most people thought he was inspirational. Rather, they saw him pivot in his wheelchair and assumed he was.
Never mind that your wheelchair customers pivot in their chairs every day. Never mind that Sullivan told NBC broadcaster Jimmy Roberts that he'd done many more difficult things in his life than wave a flag.
You likely work with clients every day who are inspirational. You also likely work with others who are inspirational only because they inspire you to think of colorful words you shouldn't say aloud.
You know first-hand that not all people who use wheelchairs or POVs are saints or angels. Then what are they? They are the first generation of people with disabilities to live under the American with Disabilities Act (ADA), and more importantly, they're the first generation trying to teach society the spirit of that decree.
As that first generation, they endure a lot of ignorance. That's the way it is with civil rights movements. The first generation faces condescending people claiming to "protect" them. The first generation hears that doors that won't open for them aren't worth opening anyway (remember the wheelchair user who sued for equal access to a strip club?). They're praised faintly or overly praised for the wrong things.
So is there any good news? Well, look at the University of British Columbia's school of journalism, whose grad students recently penned articles about the media's treatment of Sullivan. One story was titled "Does Sullivan's Wheelchair Hinder Good Reporting?" and asked, "Does Sam Sullivan get a soft ride from the media because of his disability?" The answer seems to be both yes and no — author Carolynne Burkholder says the inspirational angle was common initially, "But when Sullivan became a serious mayoral contender, the focus shifted. Recent articles have focused more on his politics... Many articles do not even mention Sullivan's disability."
Judging a politician by his politics — what a concept!
Sam Sullivan probably is an inspirational guy. So are many of your customers. But here's to the day when society and the media ditch the tired "inspirational" tag in favor of wiser, unique descriptives. Here's to the day when achievements and accessibility are so common that they're expected. And cheers to the first generation, forging through the bad cliches and ignorance to make those days happen.
This article originally appeared in the April 2006 issue of Mobility Management.