Disability, Invisibility and Denial
3rd December 2020
Now disability is not always a comfortable topic. It comes with the label – “dis”, like “discomfort”, “disappear”, “disregard”. And to be quite honest, it is a subject I have struggled with my whole life. I did not grow up ”disabled” – I grew up in a very non-disabled world, with non-disabled friends and family. I just happened to use a wheelchair and happened to have needed various major surgeries and regular hospital visits. I would see other people in wheelchairs and mentally distance myself from them – they weren’t me and I certainly wasn’t them. Denial was, and perhaps always has been, my first form of defence. Which, looking back, didn’t really protect me from people who could not see past the chair.
There did come a time when I embraced my disability, with a brief foray into swimming championships and thoughts of Paralympics but that was always separate to the other “me” who was striving to be the same as all my non-disabled friends. Of course as I grew up, qualified as a solicitor, had my own family, I understood that my disability was very much a part of me but I have still always distanced myself from my identity as a “disabled person”. I never quite understood why it was that the first thing someone notices about me is my chair and why some people simply can’t see the person sitting in it. So often I am referred to collectively as, “the wheelchair”.
So imagine my confusion now that I can hide my disability on a daily basis. My work, training clients in employment law, is all done over Zoom or Teams where the only bit of me you can see is my face. No one knows about the chair and my interactions with new people can take place without them having that knowledge (and the preconceptions that come with it). When lockdown first happened, I reaped so many benefits – no more tearing around trying to get on and off trains, (with ramps that were often missing), in and out of taxis, visiting clients and worrying about access into their buildings. Whilst at the same time juggling the school run. And then this strange phenomenon of realising that people no longer knew I was different. A simpler, easier life.
And yet. As we reach our 7th month of this extraordinary world we now live in, I feel somewhat at a loss. Like everyone, I miss my workplace, I miss the face to face and I miss the incidental daily interactions with strangers – those conversations that often happened because I use a wheelchair. But more than that, I now realise I have lost something else, which I have been denying my whole life. I have lost my identity as a disabled person. I can hide it now if I choose to but I find myself, remarkably, weaving it into my diversity training, declaring it when I don’t need to. You see, if you don’t know this about me, then you don’t know me. I am more than my disability – much more – but it has made me who I am, with all my strengths and of course my flaws.
It is this stark realisation for me that makes me finally embrace my disability. When I wake up in the morning, the first thing I see is my wheelchair (the only time it wasn’t there after rather too much alcohol one evening, caused me quite some angst). It is a part of me and I am ok with that. So when you see my chair before you see me, what you are seeing is a person who has fought, is fighting and is striving to make things better. I am much more than my disability but my disability is what has made me who I am.