The first time I stepped out in public with my walking stick, I got stuck behind a rather dishevelled stag group. Dressed in half-matching t-shirts and stumbling over cobbles with 11 am bottles, I took a protective wide angle across the Grassmarket as I clipped passed them. I heard a member of their group shout: “Hurry up lads. Even that disabled bitch is going faster than us.”
As soon as you enter a public space with a marker of disability, you become visible. Eyes are naturally drawn to what is different, and I’ve come to accept it as an unavoidable truth that a nineteen-year-old with a cane will garner its fair share of sheepish glances.
However, it is when people talk down to you or, at worst, harass you that the constant spotlight surrounding disabled bodies turns into a blinding glare. Even on a smaller-scale, the clear difference in treatment I receive as someone presenting as able-bodied or as disabled proves that we, as a society, do not know how to interact with people who fit outwith the narrow boxes of social norms. While I don’t want to dramatise the disabled experience, I cannot overstress my personal feelings of self-consciousness every time I exist in a public space.
Society is built on the medical model of disability in which chronic health conditions are something to be ‘fixed;’ the aim is to make the blind see, the deaf hear and the paralysed walk.
While managing our pain and increasing our quality of life must be a priority within the healthcare system, these attitudes are extremely harmful when filtered down to a social level. When disabled bodies are categorised as an inherent problem, society begins to view those disabled bodies as an inconvenience.
This translates itself, I believe, directly into the shame I feel navigating the world with an indicator that something is not ‘right’ with my physical being. My health is failing me and, therefore, I am failing society.
I am embarrassed when I need to ask for help. I feel like a burden when I bail on the plans I have made with my friends. I drain my already limited energy worrying about paying for things in a shop, getting into a taxi or entering a lecture hall, knowing I will be slow to get my money out, take my bag off my shoulder and sort out my laptop with one-handed, awkward manoeuvers.
These anxieties are all framed within the knowledge of my heightened presence in the public gaze. Scared to be looked upon, fearful of judgement.
My head knows I am not broken. But harmful messages from society still weave their way into our subconscious. We internalise a forced identity of someone who is less than. To move forward, we have to unlearn.
The social model of disability is preferred within our community. It focuses on confronting society’s inaccessibility, suggesting that disabled people are only ‘disabled’ due to the barriers we face in a world constructed for the able-bodied. Unless we are in pain, there is nothing inherently wrong with us; we are simply existing in a society that chooses not to accommodate us.
By moving the blame from within the disabled body to wider society, the theory lessens our anxieties. It facilitates conversations within workplaces and universities as to how we can be supported. Internalised shame is reduced. We are no longer the problem.
But we are far from that point yet. While being hypervisible on a social level, I have often felt completely invisible in an institutional capacity.
It is estimated that 30 per cent of the workforce live with a chronic health condition that impacts their daily lives, and yet only 3.2 per cent of employees self-identify as disabled. While, legally, workplaces must be accessible to all and employers are not allowed to discriminate on the grounds of disability, the reality is that disabled staff members at our university get paid 6.8 per cent less than their able-bodied colleagues.
Financially and medically, the processes towards diagnosis and benefits are long and laborious, with scheduling appointments, filling in forms and following up on emails moving university work from our focus to an uncompleted inconvenience.
While I am lucky to have not experienced this, doctors are notorious in our community for not listening to our pain. The #DoctorsAreDickheads Twitter movement has exposed the ways in which disabled patients are ignored or undermined with GPs not taking their conditions seriously. If I had a pound for every time I have been asked “have you tried yoga”, I certainly wouldn’t be needing to apply for Personal Independence Payments.
It’s at least a two-month wait for an appointment with the university’s Student Disability Service. When you get there you can have an incredibly positive experience, like I know so many of my disabled friends have had.
Or, you are taken in and spat out in 20 minutes. An advisor tells you she cannot just “hand out adjustments” unless you “actually need them”. It makes you feel as though your pain is not enough, as though you are using disability as an elaborate ploy to exploit the university, to grab what you are not entitled to.
Despite their job description literally being to help us get what we need, it is like they forget that, as disabled students, we start in life’s basement while able-bodied students are on the ground floor. Other students can climb the stairs to opportunities without thinking twice about it. Disabled students are told they have to take the lift. It’s out of order.
Balancing hypervisibility and invisibility is my experience as a disabled student. However, I cannot speak for all disabled students. We are a diverse, complex and varied group and I recognise I have a great deal of privilege within the community as a white woman with a platform from which to speak. This is one insight and one story.
If you are able-bodied, I urge you to seek out the stories of disabled people. Learn from us without speaking for us. Be mindful of your innate ableism and challenging the structures around you. Use your privilege for good. We have voices. Please listen.
Illustration: Julia Evans