Monday 29 August 2011

Culture Shock

When I call myself disabled, I am talking about my identity and my experience, I am allying myself with other disabled people whatever their impairment, and I am claiming my place in a community built on shared history and common language. It is personal, it is political, it is cultural.

It also has its uses. It's a shortcut to explain to people that I need that seat on the bus, that they have a legal obligation to make this lecture accessible to me, that I'm taking the lift and not the stairs.

I claim this word with pride, and some find that hard to understand. People have done their best to tarnish it, to use it as a synonym for scrounger, object of pity, incapable - to make it my fault, or my tragedy.

For so long I couldn't say it out loud, in case someone said what I was telling myself in the wee hours of the morning : "You're not sick enough to be disabled. You're just lazy. Get your shit together."

After yet another doctor refused to listen, refused to acknowledge, refused to act, I took my first shaky steps. Found myself a walking stick that was pink and shiny. I came out.

A friend showed me how to wheel, joyfully. Another how to stand up for my needs. My love tells me every day that I'm beautiful - that my bendy, breaky, bruisy body is beautiful - her words have soaked in to each cell and for the first time in my life I am not at war with myself.

My beautiful, complex body is not flawed. It is not an intrinsic failure. It is not appreciated, not accepted, not expected, and this is my disablement.

The finality of 'disabled' scared me before I realised that a word doesn't change who I am - just gives me a fresh perspective on my experience. That a label doesn't become my whole identity - just gives me a name to part of myself that's been their all along. I don't have to be 'bad enough' to use this word, I don't have to fit the stereotypical image it conjures - just acknowledge that I have something in common with this community, that I am part of it.

These are all the things I mean when I say that I am disabled, but it's not what people hear. It's not what people see when they watch me wobble along with my stick.

I don't know how to translate my thoughts, how to share the powerful and prophetic words I read about justice and equality. I don't know how to show my friends the strength I have found through working together with other people 'like me'. I want to communicate more coherently that we cannot separate our own favoured branches of inclusivity or accessibility : "If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your struggle is bound up with mine, then let us work together"*.

And yet my words seem to get stuck in a filter somehow, to become jumbled and stripped of nuance. Culture shock.

Sometimes I think that we can change the world with these conversations - these whispers of a world that could be if we learn that love is far more radical than tolerance, that acceptance for nothing more or less than what we are is life-changing, that capitalist ideas of reciprocity are too shallow. If we could only find the words.

*Aboriginal activist group, Queensland, 1970s

1 comment:

  1. This is amazing. I'm lucky that you can express what you're thinking like this so I can better understand what's going on in your head (if that's not a weird thing to say)

    -The one you live with that isn't tiny and furry