"Room for two?" An older man asked me as I passed him. It took me a moment to register what he said, just coming out of the zone I'd been in, before replying the not-so-snappy come-back, "afraid it only takes one". He had seen me in my powerchair, as people do, and made a friendly comment.
I was flattered to be asked by Naomi to write for her blog. The lack of predictability with illness means my piece here is late, but for Ehlers-Danlos Awareness Month I thought it might be a nice change of pace to write about my feelings on other's perception of me. Posts this time of year tend to range from, "inspirational zebra" to "look at me bend", to "let me give you a biology lesson, collagen style". It's all very productive but it never addresses the more personal aspects of living with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS). So let me put in on a platter for you, simply as a person who's dealing with being built differently. Collagen-style.
Recently I've started getting out on my own, & I've noticed different attitudes around me - in fact, more positive when I'm lonesome. When I'm with my mother, my carer, I'm not treated as though I'm mentally capable of answering questions about myself - when it's obvious that I am. As she gets hit with questions in regards to my prognosis, my diagnosis, if the wheelchair is permanent - it's the failed effort to not be confronted with the subject herself that seems most offensive. It's often when I've wheeled myself off out of ear range that these questions come. It's hard to know how to react when your body is achknowledged above your present state of being. At moments like this, it is not our duty to raise awareness or give away personal information - it's our right to maintain dignity and privacy, that comes into play.
When I'm on my own - when I look closer to a "normal", or capable, teenager - it's a different story. It's always a struggle, but I have yet to face those questions in that scenario - additionally, people are more direct and more receptive to the prescence of someone who may need a hand. I get people making comments a lot - like the man I mentioned before, predictably usually about them hitching a ride or a driver's joke (“got a license?"). But I lose my voice when I'm seen to be cared for by another, and I'm treated like a tradgedy and a burden no matter what. The real tradgedy isn't the wheelchair, but it's the assumption that because of my illness I'm not living my best life. With nothing to blame for it but chance and luck, this is the hand I've been given. I am living my best life because this was the direction it took me, and like most I'm working with what I have while figuring out what I want. But what frustrates me more than anything I can't change, is the things that should change - and I believe awareness is the first step forward (or wheel - whatever your form of travel) to rectify that.
If I had control of the country for a day, I would smatter the nation with ramps, lifts and dropped curbs. Going deeper into the issue, I would make access a priority in architecture and businesses. Work environments would receive funding for disabled employees and schools would bring disability into education. I would delete every piece of obvious "inspiration porn" (see below)* and replace it tenfold with representation in mainstream media. I would make it mandatory for any new houses built to have options for future adaptions - in the likelihood that the inhabitants became disabled themselves. Of course I would put every effort in to save the NHS - which is this country's biggest redeeming quality, something to protect. And hopefully, pave the way for young disabled people like myself to be given more options for their future, and not have to fit into a society that shows unending reluctance to accommodate for them.
Alas, disabled people rarely make it into powerful positions, which is what crossed my mind as I passed the university near my house today, and saw the crowds of students not far from my own age, making the most too. Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome has forced me to confront the deep and difficult parts of society, the overall perception we have on living with a disability, the realities of health care. Physically, it's given me unimaginable amounts of pain and trauma, and that's something that has changed my perception of myself; I may be no inspiration but that doesn't mean I'm not proud of the discovery that I can endure & I can persist with what is deemed to be the most unimaginable of life changing occurances. Something which TV told me was worse than death, and politics taught me was the least productive and therefor the most burdensome existence to have. In the face of loss and grief I aim to acheive happiness, fulfilment & ambition. That's not inspirational; that's life! And I can't help but wonder how it would be if we stopped hurting ourselves over other's definition of success.
I am seeing the good in people now I've been exposed to both sides - the frustratingly intrusive and dehumanizing side, which comes from a place of ignorance and fear, and a stranger's need to comment silly things about my chair, which at first felt like an act of self congratulation, but now also feels like a gesture of solidarity. Ehlers Danlos Syndrome is a complex, multisystemic condition, it requires x and y for treatment and continuous medical input... but most importantly it's a life changing experience. It's an ongoing process, living with the internal and external experiences associated with EDS. Way into the future, I have hope both battles will have significantly more positive associations and prognoses.
*For those of you who don't know, this is a term used to describe the way able bodied people turn disabled people's accomplishments into their own motivation/"inspiration porn". It's a harmful gesture, most commonly used in media, because it both makes disability such a terrifying thing that merely living with it is a tradgedy, while simultaneously pressuring disabled people to do more than physically & mentally necessary in order to be considered a success. All the while no one does much to challenge stigma or helps those with a disability. My best example and most used by infuriated activists: "The only disability in life is a bad attitude" - a quote by Scott Hamilton.