Electric EDGE
Web Edition of The Ragged Edge
March/April 1997
Electric Edge

'Courage' can be a perfect word

By Chet Mottershead

Years ago, The Disability Rag ran a short article called, "Courage is for when the other options are easy." Using "courageous" to describe disabled people, it said, was a hackneyed stereotype applied willy-nilly by the media; it caused more harm than good. What was really courageous was "deciding to fight for our rights when society is always telling us to be good cripples" -- but reporters never got that.
Today reporters are still using "courageous" and "brave" to describe disabled people. But what of it? says Chet Mottershead. "I am not going to discard the concept of courage for persons with disabilities just because a nondisabled person misuses the word."

Why are some disabled folks infuriated or frustrated by the word "courage"? What is wrong with having courage or being be perceived as courageous? I think "'courage" is a magnificent word.

My first awareness of the word "courage" was in the late 1940s when I watched movies about World War II. The plot would have one soldier defending the pass or the bridge against the oncoming enemy, while the rest of his comrades would escape the attack to fight another day. For me, risking or giving one's life for others was probably the highest example of courage.

As I grew older, however, I saw other examples of courage by people who gave of their life but did not physically end their life. The most poignant were mothers who would get a full- or part-time job to help pay the bills, or to save money for that much respected college education. And even more courageous was the mother who tried to maintain stability within the family as she shielded the children from an alcoholic father.

Today, two other examples readily come to mind. These are the parents who have a disabled child and in most cases have to give extraordinary physical, emotional, and economic resources to help that child develop in the early stages of his or her life. The other example is the courage it takes to reconcile an untimely or unexplained death of a family member. There are as many examples of courage as there are individualsĄdisabled or not.

Courage is not only making the choice to risk one's life so that others may live; it is also making the choice to live (with certain "unfavorable" or "tragic" restrictions) so that others may live or that you, yourself, can live. Jean-Louis Servan-Schreiber best describes these two aspects as "essential courage" and "everyday courage," and an easy way to define them are the "courage to die" and the "courage to get up in the morning."

For whatever reason, some of us disabled folks have developed a resentment toward this word that has inspired individuals and civilizations through the ages. Many of us resent it when a nondisabled person who observes our living (and working) patterns calls us "courageous." Well, I think many of us -- just as the nondisabled people cited above -- are examples of courage.

I have had people tell me they admire my "courage." When they said it because of their understanding of efforts I had spent to achieve a certain goal in spite of many complications, I appreciated their comments very much. One time however, when I was at a park pushing my young son in a swing from my wheelchair, a person came by, put his hand on my shoulder and said how "courageous" I was. I smiled and thought that it doesn't take much effort to be courageous nowadays. Should everyone swinging a child receive a medal for courage? When I told my wife, she said that the person may have meant he admired or felt good by what he saw. Or, as my cynicism emerged, I figured he may have meant "better you than me, pal."

Even if the latter was the case, I am not going to discard the concept of courage for persons with disabilities just because a nondisabled person misuses the word. We deserve ownership of that word too.

Many of us disability advocates have labored hard over the years to eliminate stereotyping and to promote our activity in the mainstream of society. By criticizing the word, we support the stereotyping of "courage". I would argue we should be critiquing the people who use the word incorrectly. Why are we giving up the use of a powerful word by allowing them to control the interpretation (the "spin") of that word when they describe disabled folks?

I would argue that we have an opportunity to help people understand their emotions and their definition of the word "courage". Some nondisabled people may talk of "courage" because it is the first word that comes to mind. I chalk that up to an inappropriate comment -- something we all do when we are at a loss for words but want to say something.

In other instances nondisabled people are truly moved or inspired by actions or living patterns of people with disabilities. It is this "everyday courage" that many nondisabled people recognize and admire. But they do not know how to talk about it. What they may be saying is, "I'm glad to see you are making it, and if I have a similar situation, I now know that maybe I can make it also. Thanks for being a positive example of how the human spirit triumphs. "

Others may use the word "courage" as a way to thank their god that they are not "crippled." Such people are in no way inspired by what we are calling "everyday courage". Here the word and intent is being misused-just as the words "liberal", "conservative" and "Christian" are misused.

We, and most other people, know the true meaning of "courage". We should not allow these degrading nuances to keep us from recognizing and using such a powerful and inspiring word to define someone's actions or character. Both disabled and nondisabled people exemplify "essential courage" and "everyday courage"; I do not want to be excluded from this aspect of humankind.


Chet Mottershead uses a wheelchair as a result of an injury when he was a Marine. He has worked in rehabilitation and advocacy for 25 years.

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