Earlier today my daughter, who is growing increasingly aware that her mummy is different to other mummies, asked me if I could walk properly when I was a little girl. ‘Nope,’ I told her, ‘My walking was pretty rubbish when I was a child too, but I didn’t need a wheelchair.’ She was silent for a second, then she said, a tint of sadness coming into her otherwise unblemished face:
‘Some of the girls in my class make fun of you. They say “ha ha, your mummy can’t walk properly.”‘ For a second, my heart stopped. This is the conversation I’d dreaded having with my daughter since the day she was born.
As nonchalantly as possible, I prodded. ‘And what did you say?’
Alison shrugged. ‘I said “don’t make fun of my mummy, it hurts her feelings” but they didn’t stop. I didn’t like it mummy. I would never do that to anyone.’ She was so absolute in her defence of my that it made me want to cry. ‘Mummy,’ she continued. ‘You know I don’t care if you can’t walk properly, or you’re in a wheelchair. I love you and you’re the best mummy.’ I sat, reeling. Where the hell had all this come out of, all of a sudden?
‘School,’ my friend said when I told her the story. ‘Kids learn all sorts from each other at school. They learn to see things differently, to question things, and most worryingly of all, they trust what each other says.’ This isn’t my first encounter with schoolkids of course; once upon a time, in the very same school in fact, I had the honour of dealing with this sort of thing first hand. And while some of the comments hurt (and they did, because I was an impressionable child, just as Ali is now), others were downright hilarious. One particular time I caused grievous injury to a classmate who was enjoying imitating my walking and consequently whacked herself off a door. ‘I never do that,‘ I laughed. And bingo, humour became my new method of self-defence. To be fair, it’s lasted pretty well.
But what has always interested me, even from my prepubescent years, is how people tend to be so fixated on my impairment and how they see it as problematic. ‘Do you ever wish you didn’t have Cerebral Palsy?’ is a question I’ve been asked more times than I’ve had hot dinners. My answer has always been the same, but it’s only in recent years that I understand why I’ve always said no. Cerebral Palsy, and any other disability for that matter, only becomes problematic when others are uncomfortable with it. Impairment and disability are different things. Impairment is a condition or diagnosis, and disability is the collective term for physical and attitudinal barriers facing people in society. I’ve lost you now, haven’t I? Allow me to explain.
My impairment wasn’t the reason why gaining entry to mainstream school was a battle, but the lack of supports available was.
My impairment didn’t stop me reaching third level education because I was enabled through Assistive Technology and Personal Assistance to do so. I used these as tools to unlock my potential.
I built a ramp on both sides of my home so that I could consequently get a wheelchair to enable me to be independent and get out of the house. A lack of ramps would hamper my freedom, not my impairment.
My heart always sinks whenever I hear the words ‘disability awareness training’ because it often involves so-called ‘able-bodied’ people ‘cripping up’ to try and get a feel for what the world is like for a wheelchair user. With all due respect to those of you who think this is a good idea, it’s not. Often, it involves able-bodied people using oversized or unsuitable wheelchairs and trying to navigate a physical environment. It’s an unrealistic portrayal because wheelchairs for full-time wheelchair users are designed for their specific needs. While doing something like this, you get a flavour of what it’s like to use a wheelchair to get around and the physical challenges involved. However, you cannot possibly be expected to know what it’s like to carry the burden of a history of hundreds of years of neglect, discrimination and degradation.
It creates awareness, as Kathryn Thomas did on The Late Late Show on Friday 7 April. Everyone knows her face. She was selected to create awareness of the barriers facing wheelchair users in Dublin. It got a great response from many people, saying that it was great to see this issue being highlighted at last. The reality is that people with disabilities have been saying these things for years. And yet, many wheelchair users, including Louise Bruton, who reviews access in Dublin for her blog, Legless in Dublin, was not asked to participate. She wrote an article for the Irish Times before the Late Late aired in which she said: ‘These pieces are a gimmick and if they help change the minds of a few people, then that is great, but they remove us from the discussion. By doing this, we are passing the baton and the opportunity to go deep into the experiences of a wheelchair user is missed.’
Blogger John Doyle was more direct in his criticism of this approach, saying in his blog: ‘Would your celebs paint themselves black and claim the understand racism? No they would not. Did John F Kennedy mimic being a different ethnicity to highlight racism? No he did not. He acted with legislation because he lived in a country that had one rule equality for one section and a rule of inequality for others’. We still haven’t ratified the United Nations Convention of Rights for People with Disabilities, which would mean so much more than a celebrity endorsement.
And why do we need celebrities to highlight the issues that we disabled people have been discussing for years? The answer is simply we don’t – but for some reason our voices seem to only matter when they’re endorsed by politicians, celebrities and the likes. I wonder is this because people don’t want to know about the nitty-gritty of the discrimination disabled people face, or is it because they feel they can relate to an able-bodied person better? If that’s the case, will our voices, our own voices, ever be heard?
Because I don’t want my daughter answering questions about her ‘different’ mummy forever. I hope that one day she will be wise enough to say ‘You have a question about my mummy? You ask her yourself. I don’t speak on behalf of her, or anyone else.’