Apologies folks for the long silence. I was trying to decide what to do with this here blog, whether to shelve it or archive it, and after a lot of soul-searching (and talks with my patient husband and some writer friends, including the long-suffering Ken Mooney), I’ve decided to commit for the next number of weeks to have something ready to post every Tuesday, but – full disclaimer – this may or may not happen. Watch this space!
The topic of this week’s unmissable instalment is timely, linking in with two separate things – the novel I’m hacking away at, and a new programme that will be available soon on BBC Reels featuring activist Paddy Smyth entitled Should I Be Fixed? Like myself, Paddy also has Cerebral Palsy, and like many of us, he’s had his own journey to self-acceptance and feeling comfortable with his disabled identity. I learned about the programme by accident, when I was farting around online this morning instead of writing my novel.
Paddy did a radio interview with Ray D’arcy, discussing the upcoming programme. He spoke candidly about the aftermath of his experiences on the RTE programme, First Dates, which aired in 2019. “I thought I’d be loved,” he said, recalling that some of the comments he received following the show were quite negative. “Some people accused me of using my disability to win.” I can only imagine how hurtful that was.
Paddy’s journey to self-acceptance shares some parallels with mine, and also with Rachel’s, the character who I’ve been trying to write a novel about for the last eight years(!!!) Lately, I’ve managed to gather some momentum with telling Rachel’s story (nearly back up to 60k, yay!), but only because I took some time out to do some real self-reflection. I had to learn to be comfortable with some heavy realisations. The first one is, crucially, that I seem to have a penchant for punishing myself for my impairment. Since starting to use a wheelchair, my output and productivity has gone through the roof. My sleep has improved, I’m writing every single day, and I also manage four sessions a week on my exercise bike. And once I sort out the flat tyre on my tricycle, I’ll be back on that as well, especially in this good weather. My life has become so much richer, and yet I still berate myself for not walking more, because the overarching message from society continues to dictate that I am somehow worth less if I’m not at my physical best.
I caught a glimpse of a programme the other night, This Time Next Year hosted by Lorraine Kelly, where one of the guests were a wheelchair user and more than anything, she wanted to relearn how to walk using a prosthetic limb. And of course, that was the happy ending of the programme. That was her wish, and she worked long and hard to ensure that wish was realised. Healthwise, it is better for this lady to be walking than to be sitting in a wheelchair all day long. But this particular message – of fixing one’s body or hiding or minimising one’s impairments – seems to be more palatable to a wider audience than the idea that disabled people/people with impairments are perfectly acceptable as they are, and that self-acceptance is more productive and healthier than becoming obsessed with cures.
Technological advances aren’t always the blessings that they appear to be. For example, AI (Artificial Intelligence) can now write content for websites, threatening my job (nooooo!) and the jobs of many other content creators across the globe. Think about it: why should a company pay me for content articles when they could save money and use an algorithm instead? No proofreading needed there, because there is no human error. Similarly, prosthetics and robotic limbs have helped many disabled people regain their independence, but they aren’t for everyone. To ask a disabled person if they have considered prosthetics may come across as offensive, given the struggle that many of us have with our bodies. Technology has advanced to a point where there is now a wheelchair that can scale a flight of steps (not available from the HSE though, I’m sure). Some people think that’s beyond cool.
But this obsession with finding ways for people to overcome physical barriers puts the responsibility back on the disabled person, which isn’t right. Surely making our world accessible to everyone is a more sustainable and measured approach? Isn’t it weird that we live in possibly the most accepting time in history in terms of sexuality and identity politics, and yet it’s still an act of rebellion to embrace and love one’s disabled self? If a venue doesn’t have ramps or lifts, it’s a safe bet that there’s no Braille, or induction loops for hearing aid users, or easy-to-read menus and promotional material. In the absence of provisions, disabled people are forced to adapt to a world that was not built with them in mind. Because of the inaccessible environment, we are often left on the outside.
We are all getting older. People are living longer, making them susceptible to illness and disability. COVID have left many people wrestling conditions like Fibromyalgia; it’s estimated that 20% of those recovered from COVID have Long COVID or lasting effects from the illness. The pandemic reminded us of the frailty of the human condition. Why are so many people obsessed with finding a “fix” or a “cure” for disabled people in a world that is so broken? And in an age of social media, will it always be an act of rebellion to be our true selves?
Should I Be Fixed will be on BBC Reel on 21 June 2023.