This post has been circling through my mind for months, and I figured it was about time it got actually written. I’ve read some amazing pieces about disability, disability politics and the like, and I really don’t think I can add to that. So instead, this is a personal stream of consciousness about some of my disability experiences.
I have an ‘invisible’ disability. Around the start of this year I finally gave in, and started using a walking stick, which physically helps out amazingly, allowing me to walk about four times as far as I can without it. Using a stick was a super big change for me, first because it required inner acknowledgement of my disability, which, quite frankly, I’m generally terrible at, preferring to ignore it, second because it was effectively a shift from being invisibly disabled to being visibly so. I was very worried about what this would mean – specifically how it would change others treatment of me. This worry had been part of what made me hesitate for years before I started using a stick.
Firstly, it’s got to be said, there are a lot of really rude people out there. People who assume that because you aren’t able bodied, whatever is ‘wrong’ with you should be up for public discussion. People who start conversations with “so what’s wrong with you?” or, on the first meeting, think it’s quite ok to ask “are you in pain?” (for the record, no, this is not an acceptable question, and I have no interest in discussing my medical history with random strangers on the street).
Then there the absolutely awful encounters, like the one with the librarian who decided that because I had a stick I clearly needed assistance paying my (okay, rather massive) fines. Yeah, sometimes I get house bound for a month or two, and rack up a library fine if I haven’t got my shit together enough to get someone else to drop the books back for me. But I always return them and pay them off when I’m back on my feet, and so far as I’m concerned it’s my own damned fault and I’ll pay my fines happily (thus doing my bit to support my local library - I literally budget my library fines in advance, I know it’s inevitable I’ll get them!). So this woman’s stubborn insistence that I ‘just bring in a doctor’s note and we’ll write them off for you’ really really upset me. Not that she suggested it, which was likely just part of her job, but that she literally could not hear that I was saying I was quite happy, able and willing to just pay them off, oh, and no way was I sharing medical details with my local library! (Also I have an unpredictable illness which means I literally can’t turn up every month to pay off fines on instalment, as she was trying to pressure me to do). After half an hour of waving my eftpos card round, I left the library nearly in tears, fines unpaid. It took months before I had the courage to try again, with a different librarian (who was wonderful, and just let me pay with no fuss). If I didn’t really love getting library books out, I suspect it would have been years.
The really nice thing, however, is that these obnoxious people are in the minority. And even the intrusive questions aren’t always prurient – like the woman in the wool shop, who asked because she wondered if I had arthritis like her – and, yeah, okay, I was there buying wool, not discussing my health, but at least she was just trying for some solidarity.
A lot of interactions with strangers are like that, a brief moment of connection, not alienation. Not really wanted, but also not unpleasant. The stick does seem to act to break down the normal social barrier of interacting with a stranger, which I can’t say I really appreciate, but also don’t completely object too. Like the people who yell out “cool stick” as I walk by – ‘cos, yeah, it’s a cool stick, pretty swirling colours and all. It’s a nice boost that people appreciate my fashion sense – but I know they wouldn’t have felt comfortable just yelling a comment without the stick, because people didn’t used to do so as I just wandered round town (at least, not so often), so it’s a bit odd.
Then people give me chair when I really need it, without being asked, or don’t glare when I take the last seat at the bus stop. I look like a young, fit, woman, so pre-stick getting access to needed seats etc could be a big, embarrassing, deal. Really, that has been the most positive difference I didn’t realise beforehand – that a walking stick acts like an amazing shorthand. Instead of taking five minutes to stammer through a “I’m really, truly sick and need these accommodations, please, now”, while the world is spinning and everything aches and I’m embarrassed, now I just wave my stick and say “I need to sit down” or “sorry, not up to moving tables today” and people just nod and move on, in a way they never did before. It’s made it easier for me to speak up regarding me needs, and thus more confident in doing so.
This opens up options I haven’t had for years, places I can go with confidence when before I knew that it would just take too much energy. Yes, some people assume I’m incompetent, make annoying assumptions about my needs and capabilities, ask invasive questions, and decide they have the right to comment on my body and medical choices. Almost everyone does some form of double take, and I can see the mental re-filing as ‘disabled’, which I have had the privilege of avoiding before. Some days I wish they’d just see me as the same as everyone else. Most strangers, however, see a woman with a walking stick and just give me a bit more room, that last chair – or just a smile. I like smiles (and often badly need the chair), so generally, I take that as a win.
I love my walking stick, in a way I did not think I would. It’s made things easier, not just physically, but socially – and that was the really unexpected but very awesome benefit using it has brought me.