The ‘Social Model’: Why I Am Not the Problem

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.

Please follow this link for a lovely little animation explaining the social model.

For the past three years, my life has been geared around one main goal: to walk to Cambridge University’s Senate House on graduation day 2014, and graduate. Three years ago, my biggest challenge was the work required to pass my BA, which then seemed almost fantastically insurmountable. Over the past year and a half, however, another aspect of the day has become the greater challenge: to walk the 150 yards from St John’s College to the Senate House. Eight months ago, flicking through photographs of the sunlit, beaming faces of friends in the year above on that infamous walk, I promised myself that, however much physiotherapy it might require, I would follow in their footsteps.

Yesterday, I sat in my orthopaedic surgeon’s consulting room and accepted that, whatever happens on graduation day this year, I will not be walking. Scrolling through a recent MRI scan of my right leg, he traced with his finger the white patches which criss-crossed the healthy black. ‘Your bones,’ he said in amazement, ‘are crumbling.’

The Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital in Stanmore is an incredible place, and they are very kindly funding – at great expense, with a generosity many hospitals would not permit – an ‘Exogen’ ultrasound machine, which will hopefully heal the worst of my existing leg and foot fractures. All my life, the healing of an injury has precipitated frantic encouragement to start weight-bearing as soon as possible, however much it hurts, so as to increase bone density and muscle mass. It is a catch-22 situation: bone density and muscle mass are essential to prevent further fractures, but the stress of weight-bearing might cause further fractures itself. The fragility of my bones has now tipped the balance; walking is no longer an option.

I cannot count the number of times I have learned to walk. I also cannot count the number of nights I have spent in sleepless agony, because walking is something my body is simply not designed to do. ‘Giving up’ walking feels like a heart-wrenching waste of the years my doctors, surgeons, physiotherapists and other specialists – as well as my family and I – have invested in getting me walking. Yet it is also a great relief. I have been using a wheelchair more-or-less full-time for a few months now, and the pain which I have felt in my knees, legs and feet for as long as I can remember has almost completely disappeared. I am sleeping better, and my mood and concentration span have improved dramatically. Once my current fractures heal, there is a real possibility my legs might never break again. My life is no longer in a state of flux, prefixing every long-term plan with ‘If I can walk by then…’, working constantly towards increasingly unreachable goals. More importantly, my day-to-day plans will no longer be dictated by the short distances I can walk. I can wheel faster and further than I could ever walk. The complicated logistics of life in a wheelchair aside, my horizons have only broadened.

I am fortunate to count amongst my friends not only the black-robed graduands who walked to the Senate House last summer, but a number of fabulous wheelchair-users who are living proof that a wheelchair is in no way a barrier to success. I will not be walking to the Senate House this June. I am learning to accept that such an ambition, the product of a society structured around able-bodied norms and values, was never that important, anyway.