A Typical Tragic-But-Brave News Story (Parody)

Jim Smith may be confined to a wheelchair since losing the use of his arms and legs in an accident many years ago, but he doesn't let that stop him from living his life. "Seriously, once I got used to it, it's not anything close to the end of the world," he says bravely. We can only admire his iron stoicism.

Jim manages to actually raise a family despite his disability. He maneuvers his electric wheelchair by operating switches with his mouth, a shell of his former self. We followed him to the grocery store, where he picked out his own groceries with the help of his devoted wife, Cindy. It must be so hard not to be able to reach the can of peas with your own hand, but they show no sign of discomfort.

You would think his two children would be devastated to have a dad with a disability, but courage must be hereditary. "Seriously, he's just Dad," says eight-year-old son Alex. The heroism in this family brings tears to our eyes, but they only look puzzled by this. Such is the depth of their bravery.

Tragic but brave is the common name in the disability community for a stereotype that starts from the assumption that disability is tragedy, a horrible fate that lesser souls could not handle. A disabled person is then elevated to the status of courageous and brave for doing the utterly ordinary. Going to the supermarket. Sending a package at the post office. People call these things amazing, despite the fact that they are possible for most disabled people provided the physical and social environment is set up correctly. Stereotypes such as tragic but brave are one example of barriers in the social environment.

Where does this particular stereotype come from? Most people harbor prejudice towards disabled people that they are unaware of. That prejudice takes the form of pity, caused by a conviction that the lives of disabled people are uniformly miserable, that we go through our lives in a haze of agony and suffering, and that whatever form of dependence we have is worse than ordinary forms. Many people have their egos tied up in certain abilities and can't imagine living without them.

Despite study after study in which disabled people rate our quality of life the same as everyone else does theirs, and far higher than non-disabled people rate our lives, people still don't believe us when we say disability is just one part of our lives. The reality is that even severely disabled people tend to view their disability as an inconvenience at most, with the possible exception of people with depression or untreated chronic pain. Disabled people, with rare exceptions, don't fill every waking moment with the dream of being able-bodied. When we say we're doing fine, we're not hiding anything.

This stereotype looks on its face like a compliment, but it's actually pretty insulting. It's rooted in inaccurate views of disability, and exposes what many people think our lives must really be like. It ignores the real lives of disabled people in favor of a fantasy that alternates between the morbid and the maudlin: How many people remember Helen Keller's political activism and beliefs, and how many remember her as a tragic but brave figure overcoming deaf-blindness?

It also underestimates us: How would the average able-bodied person like to be congratulated on his bravery and courage to beat the odds and keep on living every time he crosses the street? Disabled people tend to find it equally patronizing. Save the comments about bravery and heroism for when we do something worthy of the compliment. Not for when we get up in the morning.


Baron, J., Asch, D., Fagerlin, A., Jepson, C., Loewenstein, G., Riis, J., Stineman, M., Ubel, P. (2003). "Effect of assessment method on the discrepancy between judgments of health disorders people have and do not have." Medical Decision Making, 23, 422-434.
Gerhart, KA, Koziol-Mclain J, Lowenstein SR, Whiteneck GG (1994). "Quality of life following spinal cord injury: knowledge and attitudes of emergency care providers." Annals of Emergency Medicine. 23(4):807-12
Goupil, Tessa. "We can be heroes... just having a beer." http://www.mouthmag.com/heroes.htm. Mouth Magazine. Accessed 2005-04-17.
Riis, J., Loewenstein, G., Baron, J., Jepson, C., Fagerlin, A. Ubel, P. (2005). "Ignorance of hedonic adaptation to hemodialysis: A study using ecological momentary assessment." Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 34, 3-9.

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