It has been just over three weeks since I learned that I will almost certainly never walk again, and I have been overwhelmed by the gestures of kindness and messages of support I have received. Friends both at home and at university have been fantastic, and I am so grateful for that. One thing that has struck me throughout this time, however, is the language within which some of these messages have been phrased: it is a language of loss, of bereavement. This, it seems, is symptomatic of societal attitudes not just to disability, but to wheelchairs in particular. As Daily Mail accounts of freak accidents and injuries go, losing the use of your legs is often right up there with brain damage. I will admit that, as someone whose legs have always been a bit dodgy anyway, using a wheelchair is easier for me to handle than, say, a former able-bodied athlete or soldier. Still, this is an attitude which seems to attach unnecessary melodrama to an event which, with the right adaptations, need not be a hindrance.
Accepting the permanence of my wheelchair has been a massive blow, but it is not a death sentence.
That said, the availability of ‘the right adaptations’ can rarely be assumed. The bane of the life of a wheelchair user is often, quite simply, stairs. This brings me to the social model of disability, a theory which claims that a disabled person is not disabled in themselves, but by environments which are not effectively suited to their needs. As a young deaf teenager, this was a theory I found frustrating. Sound is not a man-made construction, but a sense which the majority of humans are naturally adapted to use. My audiologists, hearing support workers and sign language teacher were all fantastic but, with the best will in the world, they could not replicate for me a world in which sound was not something on which I felt I was missing out. Likewise, even in the most well-adapted, wheelchair-accessible of situations, chronic pain remains the greatest obstacle in my efforts to lead a successful, independent life.
I maintain that the social model does not apply to every aspect of every form of disability. However, with regards to mobility impairment, it is a theory which can have hugely positive ramifications both for the mobility impaired individual and for wider society. Dealing with inaccessibility on a daily basis is wearing; I am fortunate in being both sufficiently petite and willing to be carried up and down stairs, but waiting to be carried, pushed or otherwise assisted, I often feel like a burden on my family and friends. On a bad day, I wonder whether I will ever prove myself deserving of this assistance, or whether I will spend the rest of my life reliant upon the tireless and entirely unwarranted kindness of friends.
The truth is, I’m not the burden: stairs are. When the lift up to the University Library packs in because there are leaves trapped in the gate at the top, I am not the problem. When staff at Vodka Revs take away my wheelchair on the grounds of health and safety (?!) I am not the problem. When I find myself stuck in my parents’ home, unable to leave the house unassisted, I am not the problem. Living in Cambridge, where I enjoy the comparative luxury of two sets of electric doors and a ramp into my flat, where streets (aside from the cobbled ones!) are largely flat and where public transport and its staff have never once failed me, I am utterly independent.
I am not inadequate. I am just unusually appreciative of a well-maintained lift.