My name is Sarah Fitzgerald, and I have an awful confession. I think I have turned into an angry person with a disability. A ‘crip with a chip’, I believe we are referred to.
I hate ‘angry crips’, or at least I thought I did, until recently. I’ve come across many people in my life who I would’ve dubbed an angry crip at one stage. They are portrayed as believing that the world is against them. They seem to moan about things all the time, but yet they don’t do anything about anything, because they think it is pointless. I used to think it was laziness, selfishness, that they wanted everything handed to them. Yes, I am ashamed to say that I used to view the angry crip as some sort of moaning Michael.
As life changes day by day, so too does my perception of the angry crip, because I’m starting to think that maybe an angry crip has every right to be angry. Maybe it’s old age, maybe it’s cynicism. I personally think it’s I-don’t-think-I-can-take-more-of-this-crap … ism.
In my previous blog, I wrote about the expectations we have of ourselves and how we sometimes go to extremes to meet these. Some of these expectations come from within, but there’s no denying that society and consumerism create them too. When my daughter Alison sings ‘Let it Go’ and particularly ‘don’t let them in/don’t let them see/Be the good girl you always have to be,’ I cringe inside. I know Elsa sings them with irony, as a reminder that society expects women to act a certain way. I just don’t want my daughter to feel pressured to become anyone less than who she is inside.
I must confess that over the years I too allowed myself to aspire to perfection. A grade-A student in school, who from the outside struggled through adversity and completed the Leaving Cert. Teachers would look at me in awe; I would look at them like they were demented. ‘But you still get on with things, despite everything, aren’t you great?’ they would gush at me. My parents never said this to me and I love them for it. I went to college where, let me assure you, I never heard how great I was once. I wasn’t treated differently at all, and it was there that I gained a sense of what it was to be equal.
And then I was flung back into the real world. A world where people stare at you while you’re having your lunch, having full-blown conversations about you (‘the one from the telly’), your walking (‘she’s very shaky, God love her’) and your disability. This used to not bother me at all, but now it’s difficult to resist the urge not to go over and say ‘I’m sorry, can I help you? introduce you to the art of whispering perhaps? Because I can hear what you’re saying from the other side of the restaurant.’ But I never break my resolve, and you know why? Because I don’t want to be known as the ‘crip with a chip.’
My resolve has been tested so much over the last few months. I watch as people can’t access education and employment because there are too many obstacles. I was in a queue in the bank recently, in my wheelchair, and a woman said to the person who was ahead of her ‘I need to hurry up cause I have my mother in the car in the wheelchair space so I wouldn’t need a ticket.’ (When I told her this was wrong, she ignored me.) And you know, the usual that all of us put up with at some stage or another: the taxi man asking my friend who was putting me into the taxi where was I going (I didn’t know, apparently); a shop assistant taking my wallet off me, looking for change because I was taking too long to find it; a woman asking me where my mother was as I dropped my handbag and started scooping up all my change (‘Who is with you?’); people talking over my head (‘she wants the chicken roll’). And you are expected to keep schtum and smile. Well, sorry, no. I’ve had enough.
Two things tipped me over the edge today into writing this ranty blog. The first was seeing an interview of two veteran disability activists from the US, Ed Roberts and Judy Heumann (who I met in 2011). The interview took place in 1984 and Roberts and Heumann were talking about the need for people with disabilities to have more control over their own lives. ‘There is a lot more to life than being physically perfect,’ Roberts said. Judy Heumann said, ‘Disabled people have to fight harder in order to be able to make it in the system… if they want to live the life that they want.’ In their opinion, people with disabilities need to be seen in positions of power in order to be taken seriously, and they need to work together in order to achieve this. Judy adds: ’I question whether disabled people have achieved democracy and solidarity’. Although this interview is thirty years old, it is unfortunately still relevant today.
Then I opened the local rag to reveal the headline, ’24 hours’ notice required if assistance needed to get on train’. For a moment I thought I’d entered some sort of time warp, but no, this was an article written in 2015. I was outraged and posted this on Facebook immediately, to which some of the responses included, ‘yeah, this has always been standard practice in our local station.’ Eh, really?! How can anyone think this is okay? Have we become so complacent as a society that we not only witness discrimination every day, but think that it’s to be expected? That it’s now just a part of our psyche, part and parcel of having a disability?
No, sorry now, but from where I’m sitting I’d rather be perceived as the angry cripple and be vocal about these very real issues than give into the status quo and say nothing. Because if we don’t start channelling this anger into making real changes in our society, then we might as well watch all of our human rights slowly disappear. And if we don’t start making these changes, us ‘crips with chips’ will always have something to be angry about.