What If?

Woman sits in a manual wheelchair.

As I approach a whole decade since finishing my mandatory education at the age of 16, I find myself recalling GCSE results day in August 2012. Green Day were about to release a trio of albums, wearing tights or knee-high socks with shorts was the height of fashion, and the biggest threat to humanity was the end of the Mayan calendar in December of that year.

While I had been using a wheelchair for a few months at that point, I hadn’t been using it in school for very long, and so it caused something of a stir when I turned up to collect my results in one. At this point I was still very sensitive, almost ashamed, of being disabled, so I was keen to simply collect my results and go. Unfortunately, the wheelchair might as well have had a flashing, neon sign above it saying “talk to me”, because I could hardly move a few metres without someone cornering me.

Of all the people to speak to me that day, one conversation in particular remained ingrained in my mind, and not for a good reason. The perpetrator was a member of staff who I genuinely liked and respected, which is perhaps why what he said caught me so off guard. After praising me for the results I had achieved, he followed up with “Imagine what you could have achieved if you had attended more.” Those words stung.

It should be said that my high school was big on 100% attendance, and my parents had spent most of the past 18 months fending off aggressive administrators reprimanding them for allowing me to take time off for the minor complaint of meningitis, taking me to the slew of medical appointments that followed when I didn’t recover, and letting me take more time off as I adapted to a literally crippling illness. It didn’t matter that I had letters from multiple doctors; being so sick I could have died was not an excuse.

On results day, hearing that sentiment come not from an administrator but a previously supportive member of staff shook me to the core. It was probably my first real encounter with overt ableism, and it opened my eyes to the fact that I was not viewed with the respect and compassion I might have expected others to have. It appeared that some people didn’t even believe I was ill.

Perhaps that wake-up call was a blessing in disguise, as the A-level results day a couple of years later was even worse. Upon opening my envelope, I cried with relief that I was finally able to escape that hellhole of a school, and one of the exam invigilators came over to comfort me, assuming that I had failed to achieve the grades I needed (when I had, in fact, exceeded them). My chemistry teacher then made a remark that had I followed her instructions and over-worked myself into relapse, I could have achieved higher marks. These remarks, while memorable, were practically water off a wheelchair-using ducks back at this point.

In all honesty, I don’t really see the point in wondering what would have happened if I hadn’t contracted meningitis and developed M.E, thus allowing me to attend more. Even if I could go back in time, I don’t know where I first came into contact with the virus that would change my entire life overnight, so I couldn’t take action to prevent the illness. I would perhaps advise myself not to undergo Graded Exercise Therapy, but given the information available to me at the time it seemed like the right choice, so I do not regret even that fateful course of physiotherapy. Wondering “What If” simply wastes energy I do not have, and I would much rather put that energy into moving forwards than pondering pointless questions. I did what I could and my results were more than adequate; what difference would a slightly better scoresheet have really had?

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