The Trouble with Heroism

What is heroism? And why are people with disabilities so often accused of it?

from Mouth magazine #42, May 1997

with cartoons by Scott Chambers

and two photos by Tom Olin


When a world hero is a cripple, ordinary mortals just can't cope...

but when ordinary cripples go out for a beer, they're heroes.
    by Tessa Goupil


When I heard that this issue was about heroes, my eyes rolled back in my head and I let out a groan. Not that, I thought, as I flashed back to the time when my husband Michael and I were having drinks with friends. A drunk approached us and asked me, "Can I shake your hand?"

I'm sure I looked dumbfounded -- why would he want to? -- but, trying to be polite, I agreed. Then he went into the standard "I really admire you people" speech. He was, he said, in complete awe of us.

I felt like the focus of an Elvis sighting.


Apparently it isn't heroic for able-bodied people to go out for a beer, but it's a flipping miracle of heroism if the person having the beer uses a wheelchair.

The guy told me that I have a pretty face, that I reminded him of an ex-girlfriend who later became disabled in an accident. "It was such a shame because she used to be pretty."

This is not the thing to say to four members of Adapt. Steam had started coming out of our ears. Our purpose in going to the bar was to relax after dealing with all the idiots in the world. But idiots are everywhere.

Educating this staggering fool was out of the question. My husband probably saved him from the verbal thrashing of his life by shooting pool with him. Of course this deepened the fool's admiration since Michael sometimes gets up out of his chair to lean over the table for a shot.

Funny how the guy's admiration dwindled as he got his ass kicked by a crip. He left us alone after that and went back to his alcohol.


My first reactions to the man's comments were embarrassment and anger. Embarrassment because he singled me out in a public place to congratulate me for doing something that would be ordinary if someone else did it. But since I have a disability I must be "strong and brave."

Then came the anger because he just didn't get it. He was saying, "What a shame," as if physical perfection is the only thing worth a damn.

Finally, after my initial rush of feelings, I felt sorry for the man. To him I really was a hero. He imagined that if he were in my situation, he just wouldn't be able to go on.

We tried to tell him that people are people regardless of their differences. He looked at us like he was trying to decipher a foreign language. He seemed beyond reach and understanding. In his eyes, I was not the same as he and never could be, but it was really neat-o that I was trying.

I'm surprised he shook my hand instead of patting me on the head.

Contrary to what many people believe, my every waking thought isn't about my disability. I don't get up in the morning and think, "Damn! I'm still disabled!"

I wake up and wonder if I have clean socks and if am I going to make it to work on time. I'm not a hero just because I have a life.

A hero can do the typical hero things: rescue ladies from burning buildings and save lost dogs from the highway. But my kind of hero tries his best to do what is right, even when that isn't the easiest choice.

It takes a strong person to stand for what she believes in, again and again and then again, even when she's tired and when the whole world seems to stand in opposition.

There's the true hero.



Tessa Goupil is the editor of We The People, a disability rights magazine published by the Topeka Independent Living Resource Center. To subscribe, send $12 to We the People, TILRC, 501 SW Jackson, Topeka KS 66603. Mouth recommends it, especially to editors of newsletters who would like to see people actually reading those newsletters. TILRC has a website now,

President  Roosevelt in a wheelchair

This is the only known photograph of Franklin Delano Roosevelt using his wheelchair. He used a wheelchair throughout his long presidency.



We asked our own hero, Justin Dart, "What is heroism, anyway?" 
 Justin Dart 

"Finding the courage in yourself to stand for something -- that's heroism.


"We will never achieve our goals until the members of our movement understand that they can be, they must be, leaders. You can be a revolution of one! There are thousands upon thousands of unsung heroes whose names will never be known. Without them, we wouldn't be where we are. Without them, we cannot get to where we are going and must go."

-- Justin Dart, Jr.  

protester chained to inaccessible bus

Some heroes chain themselves to buses.







We ain't no goddam heroes, but...

we must take back our heroism

by Josie Byzek

It took frostbite to force Philly ADAPT out of the paratransit van they'd commandeered in front of the Philadelphia Flower Show in early March. They took that van and held it for 33 long hours. If it hadn't been for the frostbite, they might still be there, negotiating hard for access now.

That Philly crew is as tough as nails and does whatever it takes to get the job done.

But try to call them heroes and they'll bite your head off. Tell them they're brave, and they'll laugh you out of town. Say they're an inspiration and I do believe it would be a while before you got your nerve back up to go to Philadelphia.


What they do, they'll tell you, is born of necessity. Not bravery, not heroism, and not some sort of Super Crip fantasy. Most disability rights warriors would say the same thing: "I ain't no goddam hero. I just do what needs to be done."


Here's the age-old practical definition of any heroic deed, disability-related or not: It's what needed to be done at the time. This was true when the American revolutionaries dumped tea in the Boston Harbor; it was true when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on that Montgomery bus; and it was true when the sissy fags and stone butches took their stand against police at Stonewall. And it will be true again in June when Adapt warriors take their targets in Washington, D.C.


Brave. Heroic. Inspirational. Special. Exceptional. This is praise that most every American without a disability would love to claim. Yet no matter how brave, inspirational, special and exceptional the act may have been, a disabled American will likely cringe at hearing those words, words that are links in the chain-link fence separating us from them.

So many people still see us as subhuman. The most intense hatred I felt in my life washed over me when I sat in the stairwell of a bus that refused to put its lift down for me and my friend. Every pair of eyes on the bus stared through the back of my head with what felt like laser intensity.

"You're going to make us late for work," they muttered under their breath. As if this weren't a public bus and we weren't the public. As if we didn't have anywhere important to go that morning. As if we weren't even human. After 20 minutes of not moving, the bus driver let the lift down, and let us on the bus.

Yet, as much as they hate us, anytime we do anything merely human, like our own grocery shopping or going to work, they heap false compliments on us. They call us heroic, brave and courageous, which still keeps us from being merely human in their eyes. In these days of Jack Kevorkian, when assisted-suicide victims such as Buddy Miley are called brave and courageous for being put to death, the words are more than insults from the mouths of Middle America -- they're sinister.


Some of us think that if we become superhuman, they'll accept us as merely human. We become Super Crip, able to climb Mount Everest with our teeth, hold down two full-time jobs and five volunteer advocacy positions, and still be home in time to cook dinner. Yet it doesn't work. Super Crips are referred to as inspirational and exceptional by the non-disabled. A credit to our race, but not just human.

Ladies and Gentlemen, it's Super Crip! Able to crawl an entire staircase without a single grimace, capable of a smile when told remaining sane is brave, and believing segregated education foisted upon you because of an ugly label is special.

I hate it when people talk to me like this. I've hated it my whole life, and being in the disability rights movement makes me hate it worse. Yet, it's not the words that hurt me. It's how they're used and who is using them. The words themselves are good ones. We deserve the right to honest praise when it's earned, especially when the praise is awarded to us by our own.


This is why I say it is time to take back our heroism. It won't be easy. There will always be some Jerry Lewis out there trying to force us back into our "tragic but brave" prisons. Or some Kevorkian trying to force us into a "bravely suffered for so long" grave. We can't let them do this to us. It flies into the face of everything we've learned about ourselves as a people: We are mighty, strong, and powerful. We can destroy these prisons and defy these graves. But not if we don't start calling ourselves what we are.

When the pity-mongers come to steal our heroism and use it against us, let's snatch it back. We must start knowing things for what they are. Risking our bodies, our jobs, or just social embarrassment to defend our civil and human rights is bravery. Stopping traffic on an Atlanta highway in the battle to free our people from institutions is heroism.

When the most oppressed of our citizens becomes powerful in defense of our rights, that's inspirational.
Loving ourselves and each other in a world that can't see us for who we are is special.

As warriors for our rights, we become exceptional. All of this is true in the most pure, most basically human way. We do what we do because we have to do it. If we didn't do it, nobody would. We will not be pushed into pity prisons. We will not be pushed into pity graves. We will not let them call us courageous for keeping our mouths shut in the face of ignorant and false praise.


We don't need the false praise. We've earned the real thing. /


 Scott Chambers Observes Heroics

Mental Patient National Monument

giant sculpture of a man in a straightjacket


Cartoon of five different men with five different disabilities. Each is saying that the others are the real heroes.

Cartoon of a general in a wheelchair explains his medals to a young boy, pointing out the one he got for having MS.
"And this is the one I got for my MS..."


Cartoon of a man in a wheelchair coming on to two women at once."How'd you girls like to make a hero sandwich?"



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*Scott Chambers, cartoonist and visionary, may be reached via email at bought the rights to use these cartoons first, but Scott holds the copyright to them forevermore. For reprint permissions on the cartoons, address him directly.