The important difference between being called ‘inspirational’ and actually inspiring others

Mallory Weggemann at the 2012 London Paralympics
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Author’s Note: On Tuesday, two-time Paralympic swimming medalist Mallory Weggemann released her memoir “Limitless: The Power of Hope and Resilience,” co-written by Tiffany Yecke Brooks. In the book, Weggemann discusses everything from the 2008 medical procedure that left her paralyzed from the waist down to overcoming another injury to win three medals at the 2019 World Para Swimming Championships.

When swimmer Mallory Weggemann started writing Limitless in January 2020, she could imagine the picture-perfect ending to her story: “me being named to my third Paralympic team at the University of Minnesota, the same pool that I was [first] exposed to the Paralympic movement.”

Given the one-year postponement of the Tokyo Paralympic Games, it’s not a spoiler to say that the book doesn’t end the way Weggemann originally envisioned. Instead, Weggemann is still training for those U.S. Paralympic Trials, which are now scheduled to take place in June 2021.

As a two-time Paralympic medalist who also works as a motivational speaker, Weggemann has plenty of experience with telling her story in the hope that it will inspire others. Still, the 31-year-old knows there is a big difference between inspiring someone and being labeled as ‘inspirational.’

“[The word] ‘inspiration’ traditionally gets thrown around like a total fluff statement,” she explains. “We’re used to using in situations when we just don’t know what else to say. And at times, it’s a straight up microaggression… Stigma around disability is alive and real. There is, frankly, still a lot of discrimination in our society towards people with disabilities.”

Weggemann recalls going out to a bar with friends shortly after her 21st birthday and being told that she was ‘inspirational.’ “In my head, I was like, ‘For being a 21-year-old college student?’ The logic just didn’t make sense for me.”

Weggemann knows that microaggressions like these are often rooted in lack of exposure and education.

“I have the perspective of 18 years of not being disabled and I didn’t know many people with a disability [when I was growing up],” she says. “As a teenager, I probably would have been incredibly awkward if someone in a wheelchair had rolled up to me and started talking to me.”

While the word “inspirational” is often misused, especially as a blanket term to describe Paralympians, Weggemann still hopes that her story can inspire others.

“Inspiration is a powerful thing. But inspiration that turns into action is even more powerful. If you’re inspired – and [there’s] something moving you to turn it into action and become empowered – that’s what it’s about.”

Weggemann also knows there is power that comes with being visible and represented in society.

“We’re just scratching the surface of representation in the disability community,” she explains. “One of the reasons I wanted my image to be on the book cover was less about wanting to be on the cover, and more about the fact that I wanted my wheelchair on this cover. Every single bookshelf that my book sits on, there is a woman in a wheelchair on that bookshelf. Anyone who walks or wheels or crutches – or however they move through this world – by that bookshelf, they will see somebody [with a disability] represented.”

[RELATED: Wheelchair rugby player Liz Dunn is aiming to make U.S. Paralympic history]

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