Do famous role models help or hinder?

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Joined: 2 Oct 2012
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28 May 2013, 1:50 pm

Viewpoint: Do famous role models help or hinder?
By Mark Brown Editor, One in Four magazine

14 May 2013

... The media retains a fondness for presenting exceptional disabled people as inspirational.
"Look," they say. "Here is a person who has achieved so much. Do not lose heart, you too can overcome your disability if you follow their example."
This may at first seem a benign point to make but, I wonder, does it do more harm than good? ...

Sociologist Richard Sennett tells of how so-called inspirational figures can challenge people's self-respect rather than encourage them. He outlines it in his 2003 book Respect: The formation of character in an age of inequality.

Sennett grew up in the projects of Chicago where his mother was a social worker. He excelled at cello and gained a scholarship which led him to New York, shifting to sociology after a condition reduced his ability to play.

Years later, when invited back to his old neighbourhood to give a speech of hope to excluded young people, Sennett spoke alongside an electrician, a secretary and a young doctor who had worked his way up from nothing.

The secretary told of learning shorthand and getting a job with a union official, the electrician of how he broke into his trade. The young doctor told of his journey, saying: "If I can do it, so can you if you believe in yourself."

Despite his story appearing the most inspirational to outside eyes, the audience heckled the doctor - they didn't appreciate his message.

Sennett wondered why this was and realised that the young doctor's story had challenged the self-respect of those listening. "Whereas the secretary showed the young people what to do, the young doctor told them who they should become," reasoned Sennett.

Exceptional figures are important but so too are those with whom we feel real affinity and who can show us practical steps we can take in our own lives.


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28 May 2013, 1:57 pm

I don't feel inspiration from famous role models. I don't feel positive or negative about me or them when I read their stories. But I do find some of the practical details useful for me to apply. For eggsample, I feel no inspiration from Temple Grandin, but when I read one part in her book where she describes her interest in animal behavior and how she contacted some people working in that field and how she got into that field, even though it was not her initial path. So I found those practical steps useful and applied them to get into the field of my special interest this year.

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28 May 2013, 2:26 pm

Having a famous role model helps me in a way that no other person can. My parents are poor examples of role models and having Mick Avory as a role model keeps me on the right track in many ways. He's all the things that my parents will never be. He's sensitive, placid and very laid back. He's also a gentle soul. I think it's great that many of the people on WP are able to be their best selves without a role model, but I'm not able to do that and that's why I need a role model who's the same type of person that I'm striving to be with the traits that I feel are important for me to have in the long run. My posts are more thought out and thoughtful than they were 4 to 6 years ago around this time.




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28 May 2013, 2:31 pm

I found more inspiration from the bullies who would beat me, heckle me, and tell me that I would never be as good as they.

They inspired me to prove them wrong, and I did.

Most of them are dead now - accidents, cancer, combat trauma, drugs ...

Not only am I at least as good as they ever were, but I've outlived them.


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Joined: 5 Aug 2012
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28 May 2013, 2:52 pm

I agree with Fnord. I prefer "negative" role models to the positive ones. I've gotten far more out of criticism, occasionally even vicious criticism, than I ever have out of praise and such, which is only good for massaging one's ego.


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28 May 2013, 4:38 pm

I think it depends on how it's framed.

Firstly, make sure they have actually done something noteworthy - not just 'wow, this person is not 100% incapacitated by their disability!'

Secondly, make sure to acknowledge that what that role model achieved is not possible for everyone with that disability, due to many factors apart from just the disability (eg socio-economic status, non-disability-related talents, support from other people, etc). And that there is no 'guilt trip' for people who haven't achieved that sort of thing.

Just basically have it as a 'this is possible, so dream big, but don't get down if you can't reach this yourself' sort of thing.


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28 May 2013, 11:00 pm

And I want people to understand that in the arts, as well as fields like business, there's a fair amount of luck involved, too.

I guess I accept it as part of a conversation. The first step being, hey, look at what all these people on the spectrum have accomplished. And the next step being, hey, my worth as a human being shouldn't have to depend on being famous.