If you use a wheelchair, or any other kind of mobility aid, people will look at you differently. I have been exposed to this from the earliest age, though it’s not until recently that I stopped to reflect upon why. Here’s what I was able to come up with: the disabled experience is often synonymous with ideas of tragedy or unfulfilled potential. Furthermore, non-disabled people are so caught up in the privilege of having a healthy body, it’s almost impossible for them to imagine being happy if that reality were to change. Spoiler alert: it will change, someday, even if only through old age. That much is inevitable. But still, the idea of not being able to rely upon yourself completely independently is suffocating. I know this because it’s a weight that I have carried for as long as I can remember. The painful understanding that some people will always be confused whenever I smile or laugh, particularly in public. I have heard “I’m kind of glad that you’re disabled because it has taught me to be a better person” more times than I can count. It’s easy to look at mobility aids and assume that they’re a sign of restriction. I believed that, too, for a long while. This year, however, my wheelchair has instead become a sign of hope.
The other day, I decided to be brave and leave the house with my family. This is an increasingly rare occurrence these days, in all honesty, but I really wanted to go to a little Christmas market. Remind myself what it’s like to enjoy being outside and having fun, even when the pandemic continues to make everything feel scary. With that said, when we got there, it quickly became obvious that the environment wasn’t very accessible. Unless, of course, we wanted to make a scene about getting a ramp. I just wasn’t in the mood for that conversation. Is it too much to ask that these accommodations are standard – just for once? As if that wasn’t enough, almost nobody was wearing a mask, anyway. Immediately, I felt uninvited. Looking after my health was twisted into an inconvenience for everyone around me. It must be nice, I thought, to move around the world without always having to wonder if you’ll be safe. For the record, I have said it before, I will say it again: health is not a guarantee. For anyone, at any time, but perhaps especially right now. In response to this situation, I awkwardly waited outside with my dad until we were ready to travel home again. Despite what it may sound like, this was a win for me. If it had happened at another point in my life, I can assure you that I definitely would have cried. I probably would have been quite dramatic about it, too. This time was different. Although the disappointment was crushing, I wasn’t overwhelmed by negative thoughts. Instead, I reached a state of peaceful acceptance. This is just the way things are.
For the past month or so, my mental health has started to (once again) feel a little more wobbly than usual. I should have expected it with the changing of seasons, I guess. But after allowing myself to sit alongside this darkness, I realised something: just because nobody else seems to care, it doesn’t mean that I have to stop caring, too. Disabled people are allowed to expect more than the bare minimum. For whatever reason, I don’t remember much about my childhood. Something that I do remember, though, is the day that I got my first electric wheelchair. I didn’t know it at the time, but this form of mobility aid was about to become an extension of my body. With this, I have autonomy. I can move around the house freely. I don’t have to rely upon anyone else when I’m outside. I make the rules and my limitations are significantly lessened. Even in my manual chair, when it’s more difficult to have control myself, it gives me a sense of participation that would have otherwise been unavailable to me. That will always be a truly beautiful thing. In the most inaccessible spaces, I will no longer regret being visible. Disabled joy is worth fighting for.
If you’re reading this and wondering how to become okay with the presence of mobility aids in your own life: it’s a journey (maybe even a lifelong one) and you’re allowed to take a moment. But know that looking after your body will never be something to hide or feel shame for. You’re still you. Just with a little extra spice. It is radiant.
Zoe, thank-you for (once again) inspiring me to write this. I’m so proud of you. Lexi, thank-you for all of the kind texts. You are an angel. Maybe we could write something together someday. xxx