Have you ever lived with a puppy, one which becomes your beloved family pet? Whilst you watch Netflix, it nestles in your lap, an intrinsic part of your life. However, after a long day at work, when you open your front door to be greeted with dog excrement, your endearment to the pooch wanes.
Living with a disability is similar to this situation, while I have embraced mine, it has its unique challenges.
The body I inhabit is always ‘currently under construction’. My disability affects every muscle, resulting in my gait being extremely unsteady and I walk as though I’m an accident waiting to happen. My speech is slurred, most people require subtitles to understand me. I appear as though I’m permanently intoxicated.
My disability is purely physical, it doesn’t affect my intellect in any way. I was accepted into university on my own merit and have three degrees.
My disability hasn’t prevented me from experiencing the richness life has to offer. However, there are challenges and some of the most confronting, are people’s perceptions and reactions towards me.
As I step out of my front door, dragging my contorted body along the pavement, I’m met with a sea of stares. Many feel entitled to gawk at me and I feel like a thousand paper cuts are pulsating through my body.
I’m a celebrity without renumeration. I realise people gaping is often due to ignorance and in most cases I ignore or smile. However, occasionally I snap and say “would you like a picture?” Most decline the photo opportunity. If I feel playful, I smile and say “sorry I’m taken”.
My unsteady gait and slurred speech, also causes many to believe I have the intellect of an infant. Their tone of voice alters, pitch rising as they condescend. I’m frequently addressed as a ‘good girl’ and whilst I aim to have a Zen like attitude, sometimes this aspiration goes out the window.
For instance, once, as I was walking to the sink in a public toilet, a woman who emerged from a cubicle, instructed me to ‘go clean your hands like a good girl’. I was infuriated. How dare she patronise me, I thought. My face turned crimson, a wave of indignation came over me. I cleansed my hands, violently, and without sufficiently rinsing the soap suds from my palms, I stormed out. If my speech was crystal clear, I had a list of retorts on hand, I can assure you they were not G rated.
On another occasion, I sat at a table while my partner bought our meals at a club. Two elderly couples across from me, began vocalising their paternalistic concerns that I shouldn’t be left unsupervised. I guess they had a point, they did look dodgy!
In most cases I try to explain I am intelligent. When my partner and I first started dating, he was surprised that whenever I met someone, I would automatically announce to them I had three degrees. He thought it hypocritical and elitist from someone who professed to be a socialist. However, by spending more time with me, he understood the rationale behind the introduction.
Many people have limited understanding of cerebral palsy and require education. However, I feel enraged when condescending attitudes remain even after explanations are provided. For instance, my partner conveys to someone that I’m intelligent with uni degrees. They turn, looking toward me, saying, “you ARE a clever girl!" Sadly, the perception of people with disability being intellectually inferior is so ingrained. Ignorance moves into arrogance, which is extremely difficult to deal with.
People often express to me they find me inspirational simply for completing ordinary tasks. I once attended a job interview, during which I was praised for getting to the venue ‘all by myself’. I had no idea that catching a cab was so impressive. My notion of inspiring action involves reducing world hunger. Placing witticism aside, it’s frustrating that people have such small expectations of me due to my disability. As I ventured home, ‘all by myself’, I knew I wouldn’t be offered that position.
Despite encountering prejudicial attitudes, I have also experienced empathy and inclusion. My friends and family value the essence of who I am. I have experienced the best of humanity. People generally yearn to understand.
So next time you see a person with a disability, don’t be filled with fear or curiosity. We are really not that fascinating. I can assure you, your Facebook feed is probably more captivating!