It might surprise those who know me to learn that despite my passionate way with words, I once was seriously lacking in self-confidence.
I have always been integrated into a mainstream environment. When I started attending primary school in 1989, nearly thirty years ago, integrating students with disabilities into mainstream classes was certainly not the norm. it didn’t take me long to work out that I was the ‘other’, an undesirable, almost an example of what could go horribly wrong in life. By the time I was eight I always felt a hint of self-loathing in the background, a sense of shame, responsibility. I must have done something pretty abhorrent to deserve such rejection, such isolation by my peers. I couldn’t be trusted to do PE, to play out in the yard. By the time I reached secondary school I was something of a pariah. I cycled to school on a red, then blue, tricycle. I had a laptop. I walked from class to class like I was drunk.
The only time I ever got closed to being kissed (‘shifted’ as we say in the Midlands) was in third year and a young lad asked me, stating that it was part of a dare. I declined as the boys fell about laughing. When I told my friend, she said I should’ve gone for it as I was sixteen and at that stage, had had no encounters, romantic or otherwise. After all, it was the best I could do, the best I could hope for. For a long time I accepted this as the status quo. (My husband was my first and only kiss- isn’t he lucky?)
I was the geek in school – the brainbox. The world of the average teenager was one I didn’t fit into.
At fourteen, until my early twenties, I instigated a war with my stupid spastic body. While the girls in my class were wearing jeans, tight-fitting tops, hipsters and belly-tops, I was wearing baggy combats and my mum’s old t-shirts. I didn’t own a single dress or a skirt because I didn’t see the point. The girls in my class were ‘sexy’ whereas I had nobblity knees, ever-jumping arms and a screwed-up mouth. Ironically, the only thing that I liked about myself was my brain (which is ironically damaged!), my mental ability.
In fifth year, I decided that I needed to define myself as someone other than the class cripple, the tokenistic inspirational figure. In a world where I would never fit in, I had to be good at something. Around the same time, I started exercising more and I lost weight. I was delighted with myself. I started eating less. I was finally the clever, skinny girl in class. I had a small group of friends. I almost felt beautiful, normal.
It didn’t matter that my own ribs ripped into my skin when I lay down at night.
It didn’t matter that I stayed up till twelve at night learning Irish poems while my parents pleaded with me to stop. ‘This shit is not the end of the world,’ my father would say as I looked at him from my books, panda-eyed, my brain melted. And I could never find the words to explain to him how much I needed to do this, that unless I conformed that I wouldn’t be worth anything, not only in the eyes of others, but in my own eyes.
In 1999, I went on a pilgrimage to Lourdes with the Irish Handicapped Children’s Pilgrimage Trust, and I remember vividly seeing the seven abandoned crutches hanging by the grotto, left by those who had apparently been cured. Did I want to be cured? I was asked before I flew out, by various people. Cured of what? My mum retorted when I told her. She’d always been adamant that I was fine the way I was. Okay, I lie: she wished that I wasn’t such a huffy teenager and that I took the initiative to clean up now and then, but in terms of my disability, she was pretty accepting. And it was only after I’d been to Lourdes (and came back my same old spastic self) that I started to question not only how I was perceived but how disability in general was perceived.
After all, didn’t Jesus cure the cripples and the lepers? When I was say, communion age, I don’t remember cripples being mentioned in religion class and I wonder now whether that was a deliberate action taken by the teachers, to avoid awkward questions. But I knew from going to Mass that Jesus cured cripples – the blind, the lame. In my teens I had many an elderly lady come up to me, unapologetically invade my personal space and say, ‘I’ll keep praying for you,’ when ironically their lives were probably much crappier than mine. Hell, in my twenties I went to Mass in Emo one evening and the priest actually apologised to me afterwards for reading a gospel about curing the cripples!
Disability is unsexy, disability is undesirable. This is the mantra we crips are taught, from cradle to grave. We exist only to remind others that they are lucky, that they somehow dodged a bullet in being ‘normal’. I’ve actually heard people I know and love saying ‘God, if I were to be diagnosed with xyz disability, I think I’d kill myself.’ We are amazing simply in being. But of course the majority of us crips hate this patronising bulls**t. Unfortunately we live in a world where we are expected to conform, to fit in. Look at all the women’s fashion magazines. You’ll never see a size fourteen in any of them (is it true that fourteen is considered a ‘plus’ size?) and rarely will you find a disabled model.
With no strong disabled role models until my mid-twenties, I spent the majority of my life second-guessing myself. I went to a secondary school that had an upstairs and never questioned why it had no lift. I wore high heels to my grad and didn’t understand why I couldn’t walk in them! I chided myself for getting tired even though I know I use more energy than others doing menial shite. To slow down, take it easy, makes you weak, not quite as capable. Even now I cannot shake that mantra completely.
Despite the fact that disabled people are shouting loud, demanding their rights (your end of January deadline for having the UNCRPD ratified quickly looms, Mr Finian McGrath), there’s still an uncomfortable undercurrent, an unspoken consensus that we should strive to eradicate impairment in all its forms. Hitler had ideas on how to achieve this (gas chambers) which is a shameful part of our history. But his ideals are far from relegated to the past. I read an article published just last week about how Pakistan is promoting the use of drugs and technology with the aim of ‘eradicating disability by 2025’. (Why such a specific timeline?) In the same article it’s reported that Pakistan has done little to further human rights of people with disabilities in the country. I can’t be the only one who is frightened by this.
One such piece of technology which is increasing in popularity is the eksoskeleton, more commonly known as robotic legs. I read in the local rag the other day that a local man has recently acquired one and highly recommends it. And I am trying to see the positives too. There’s great benefit in exercise with the aid of an ekoskeleton, particularly for those paralysed from the waist down. What makes me uncomfortable is that it pushes wheelchair users further down a hierarchy, reinforcing the idea that to be physically disabled is far from desirable. For those of us who have struggled on our road to self-acceptance, it reminds us that we are ‘Other’ and that we live in a society more preoccupied with making sure people fit in rather than committing to constantly strive to make our world more accessible. Not forgetting, of course, that we need to be inclusive of people with visual, hearing, intellectual and emotional impairments as well.
I only hope that in ten years’ time, when my own daughter is in her mid-teens, that there aren’t hordes of insecure disabled teens across the country, doubting their proper place in the world as I once did.
And if I could give them one piece of advice, it would be this:
Stop trying to conform for the wrong reasons, and make sure you stand out for the right ones.