Monthly Archives: March 2017

Around and About

I decided pretty early on that I shouldn’t drive. Those who know me well believe this to be a very good decision. I think we all sleep better with the knowledge that I will never be behind the wheel of a car. I haven’t been tested for suitability to drive. That would be the first step if I were to decide I wanted to give it a go. I just don’t even want to risk it. As a teenager, I had a ‘could’ve been worse’ and certainly bad enough jet ski accident that left me with torn ligaments and tendons throughout my body as well as massive bruising. It took ages to recover. I collided with another jet ski. Naturally, there was a whole lot more room to move on the river than there ever would be on a road.

Slow reaction times, poor fine motor skills, a total inability to visualise where I am in relation to everywhere else at any given time, not being able to concentrate well on more than one thing at a time, all of these things, added to a total lack of confidence in myself, make me not having a license to drive a sensible decision in my book.

*sigh* Why am I justifying me not driving to you? I shouldn’t have to. I guess I’ve got used to having to explain to people, since I was a teenager, why I’ve decided not to drive. Well meaning people get very frustrated with me. They put it all down to a lack of confidence and something that I’d be able to do just fine if I put my mind to it. Well, maybe. I’m just not willing to take that risk. It’s not that I wouldn’t love to drive. The independence that driving would afford me would be life changing. That said, I am happy knowing that I have made the right decision for me.

If I want to get around, I have a few options. My preference is to wheel to wherever I’m going. Of course this is restricted somewhat by time and the effort it takes to push my wheelchair and it was much easier when I lived in a compact city. I’m fit and strong, so I can travel a reasonable distance, given enough time. I’ve even wheeled myself 28km in a charity ‘walk’. For that kind of distance though, I prefer to take a bus than spend all day getting to my destination only to end up a shattered wreck.

Buses have come a long way. In my lifetime, most if not all of the buses I might want to catch have been made wheelchair accessible. Last weekend, I caught a bus from Wellington Airport into the city and back again to the airport, when I was ready to leave. Everyone on the bus seemed utterly miserable except for the drivers, both of whom were very calm and professional. Luggage and smaller bags were everywhere. People heaved their oversized bags onto the large luggage racks at the front of the bus as they clambered on.

When still more passengers ambled onto the bus, struggling with their bags, they started carrying them to their seats and holding onto them in the isles. For someone who has difficulty with spatial tasks at times, I’m quite good at knowing what will fit into a space and how to stack things to use space efficiently. I wished at that time that I’d had a clipboard and a hi vis jacket. Then I would have felt bestowed with sufficient authority to instruct everyone on how to stack their bags so that the minor skirmishes over space didn’t have to occur. I watched it all with bemusement and, holding onto the vertical grip pole next to me, I smiled at my ability to get from the plane, onto a bus and into the city on my own. It can be so liberating going away on a trip that involves public transport.

I got a plane to Wellington, which is the best option I have over long distances. Buses are ok for a couple of hours but I can’t be guaranteed that longer journeys will incorporate rest stops long enough for me to find and use an accessible bathroom, nor can the provision of a wheelchair accessible bathroom be assured.

I’ve always adored flying. Not just being in the air, though that is the most fun part. I also love airports. Checking in, with my wheelchair and bags, if I have them, tagged and ready to stow, I’ll find my way to an eatery with exorbitantly inflated prices and food on a scale from terrible to fine. I’ll usually seek out a bathroom, which I know will be accessible. I might buy a book and a couple of doughnuts – one for now, one for later – then I’ll find my ‘gate’, let staff know I’m there and wait. I enjoy hanging out in institutional buildings with processes and procedures and rules and regulations, it makes me feel safe. I like doing all of this on my own. Public transport gives me a sense of independence that I don’t always feel when I’m relying on people I know to get me from A to B; people who I haven’t paid to provide me with the same service as everyone else.

I only had to take one taxi while I was in Wellington. That was a relief. Even more of a relief was the fact that my driver was just the nicest person. We chatted away and he commented on how easy it was to get my wheelchair in and out of his car. I prefer to order cabs rather than vans. I like getting out of my wheelchair into a car seat. It’s much more comfortable for me and it’s really not difficult. I know how well a taxi ride is going to go from how a driver reacts to having to fold down my chair and put it into their boot or the back seat of their car, depending on the size and shape of the car. Some, as in this instance, will express surprise at how light my wheelchair is and how easy it is to fold and take apart. Others will act like I’ve ruined their day with the difficulty of what they are faced with. This can, in turn, ruin my day.

Though I prefer to take public transport than get rides with people I know, the exception would be taxis. If I have to choose, I prefer in that case to ride with friends or family. I was a bit concerned that the taxi ride back to the hostel I was staying at might not be so pleasant. I’d been very lucky with my ride there but that was unusual, so I was very happy to accept a lift back with friends.

I was only away from home for a night but it was a really packed 24 hours for me, much of which was taken up with travel. I have some real public transport horror stories. It absolutely made my weekend that getting around was made so easy and so enjoyable. It has put me in a really good mood and it meant that I was able to enjoy every aspect of my trip. People take getting around for granted, I think. While it has taken far too long and there is still work to do, I am so grateful that there are now so many options in public transport that are now accessible to me. How well people who work in public transport are able to cope with me using their service can affect not just how I experience using a particular mode of transport but how well I enjoy an entire trip, from beginning to end.


Disability and International Women’s Day

I cannot begin to think about International Women’s Day, or indeed the experience of being a woman, without first acknowledging the role that disability plays in my life. I am a woman with a disability, a disabled woman.

Both identities have been difficult for me to embrace and even to accept at different times in my life. I never felt like I fitted in with other kids who had disabilities. They all seemed so at one with who they were. I felt like I had to fight against being disabled because of what I thought having a disability meant. It was a negative thing to me. I had been through a lot of painful surgeries, many of which were traumatic. I also had feedback from adults who would try to give me money on the street, as a way to lessen my burden, I suppose. Or they’d tell me how sorry they felt for me. I didn’t see that having a disability was in any way a positive thing.

Being a girl and a woman has never been easy for me either. I have been what in contemporary vernacular is referred to as ‘gender non-conforming’ since I was a child and I knew I was a lesbian before I became a teenager. Before I had any control over what I wore or how I might present myself, I would fantasise about getting my hair cut off into a neat buzzcut and wearing well tailored suits. Of course, in my fantasy, I was standing. A strong, tall and confident man in a business suit working with equally important people. If I were a handsome, besuited, white, able-bodied, heterosexual man, I could be important and successful.

Integrating my disability and being a woman into my identity and sense of self has been a hard fought and ultimately rewarding experience. I happily identify now as a woman with a disability, though neither way of identifying myself has ceased to be unproblematic.

Being a woman with a disability meant always wondering just how much harder I was going to have to try, to reach the level of my peers. It meant watching those same peers get ahead on an upward trajectory that I fell off over a decade ago. It has meant realising after I had tried and tried and tried, that I was never going to be able to work hard enough or be good enough anyway. I have to recalibrate my self worth and my definition of success all the damn time. Eventually I realised on my own that none of this is my fault. All the cards were stacked against me.

The most insidious message women with disabilities are taught from a young age is that we have to be better than everyone else to succeed. This is a not too subtle reframing that places the responsibility on us as women with disabilities for the problems that society has in accepting us for who we are. I have very nearly died on several occasions because I thought if I just tried hard enough, I’d ‘get there’. I just had to stop trying to succeed on society’s terms in the end because it really was going to kill me. I mean that quite literally. Something has had to change in order for me to stay alive and since society wasn’t going to in a big hurry, I’ve had to.

I applied for so many jobs when I graduated and in the years following. Many of these were jobs in the disability sector. Not only was I well qualified for the positions but I also had what I know to be valuable insight into what it actually means to live with a disability and the skills to apply that experience to the work I might have been asked to do, if I’d only been given a chance.

I’ve been on the other end of a phone call from a woman who wanted to give me a job in the intersecting disability and education sectors. She had to explain to me that the two men on a panel of three had decided to award the job to a young able-bodied white man who personified exactly the person I had fantasised myself as being when I was a child. She offered congratulations and implied that it was progress that I had got so far. That was the first full-time job I ever applied for, back when my health was not a mitigating factor in my ability to work. I sometimes wonder if I’d had a job back then, whether my health might be better now. It’s not worth pondering for too long. I had several other job interviews in my 20s for similar positions. I came second in all of them. I changed my strategy, I lowered my expectations, I embarked on further study. Nothing worked. Then my health started to fail. My turn was over and I wouldn’t get another one, I couldn’t play anymore.

Having tried over many years to find work and having worked in a number of part-time and voluntary positions, I set my sights this year on a teacher aide job. I’ve had some schools say they will get back to me if something comes up. I really hope they do. I do wonder how many schools I’ve sent my CV to have since given jobs to able bodied people that could have been very capably done by me. I can never know this of course. Discrimination is much more tricksy these days than it every was. People have learnt that it is not ok to discriminate, so they are much more clever about it. Now we all know it’s happening but it is done behind closed doors and out of earshot of anyone who might be able to corroborate our stories and experiences.

Being a woman with a disability is exhausting.

How great would it be to have more women with disabilities working with youth, mentoring them, making it known that we can help each other? I say women here because in my youth, I remember very few women who were put forward as role models and mentors for young girls and boys with disabilities. If we saw anybody at all with disabilities as public figures, they tended to be young disabled men who had the same focus on physical fitness and sporting prowess as the able-bodied men who were offered up as our most valued role models and representatives of national pride. I don’t believe much has changed.

I want to live in a world where a young girl with a disability can realistically aspire to be a successful woman with a disability, on her own terms. Being a woman with a disability means loving myself for who I am and not what society wants me to be but will never let me be.


Bad Things

We are conditioned from early on to accept that bad things happen and that’s horrible but eventually the bad thing will go away or get better and an equilibrium, a return to normal, will be established.

Occasionally that won’t happen. Sometimes the bad thing is here to stay and it’s awful and it will continue to be awful. This is difficult for so many reasons. I often liken it to falling down a bottomless well. You will continue to fall but eventually you will stop screaming and you’ll kind of get used to it. It can take a very long time to adjust. That’s ok, though. It’s not going away. You have time. You should allow yourself time. This is not a moment to take advice from people who might suggest the ‘pulling up of bootstraps’ or other such well meaning ‘tough love’ nonsense.

Eventually you will carry on and the bad thing will become a smaller and smaller part of your life and it will be ok. That will happen. If you have given yourself what you would consider a good long time and you are still really struggling to accept your new normal, you might seek professional help. Talking to your doctor or other health/mental health professional could be a good start. I have done this myself, with varying results. When you find someone who meets your needs, it can be life changing.

Fortunately we are very good at adapting to new normals. Sometimes people who don’t understand what is going on for you might suggest that you seem to be doing so much better or they are glad the bad thing is not there anymore. That is sometimes more acutely frustrating than living with the bad thing.

Once it has been established that the bad thing is not going away, a certain amount of self preservation and acceptance kicks in and it can appear from an outsider’s perspective that everything is now fine. Sometimes it’s worth explaining that the bad thing is still there but it’s not going to go away, so you’re learning to live with it. It could be that the best thing you can do is change the subject and remember that for those who are not living with bad things, it can be difficult to impossible for them to understand your experience.

People, for the most part, don’t know what to say when a bad thing is a permanent fixture in your life. That’s ok because really, if you’re honest with yourself, you can’t think of a damn thing that anyone might say that will make it any better either. There are rare people with what seem at the time like magical powers who do know what to say and it will make you feel heard and it will make you feel like you can do this, you can live with the bad thing and be ok. I wish everybody had at least one of these people in their lives. Others cannot be blamed for not having this ability. It is very special indeed and should be valued and cherished.

Everyone has bad things happen to them. Everyone will eventually have bad things occur that are life changing. The impact and severity of those bad things will vary but the experience is universal. It’s awful but it can also be ok with time.

A good life, by your own subjective standards, can still be lived, even if the bad thing is here to stay. It will almost certainly take some reframing and you will have to work at it. You might have to ask for help and you must allow yourself time to grieve. There are no shortcuts. The good news is that bad things, even those that won’t go away, do not have to ruin your life. You are stronger than you think.