An Unlikely Crowd.

When I tell people that I enjoy watching wrestling, their eyebrows travel so far up their faces that they merge with their hairline. What surprises people even more is that when I attend live shows, I am made to feel the most welcome I have ever felt in a crowd. Many assume that the staged violence draws in a crowd of mentally disturbed misogynists, but the reality is that women enjoy watching sweaty, muscular men run around in their underpants as much as the men appreciate the women.

The main appeal of attending a wrestling show, however, has no element of sexuality. The fact is that the shows are fun to watch, the crowd is a group of friends having a good time, and the wrestlers receive the respect and admiration they deserve for mastering their craft.

You may be wondering what wrestling has to do with being disabled, so I shall reiterate how welcoming an environment it is. I am not stared at, nor ignored, and no one uses condescending tones when they speak to me. My opinions are not immediately invalidated just because I am disabled, and it is rare that the first question people ask me is how I ended up using a wheelchair. I have spent many happy hours in the company of wrestling fans, chatting, laughing, and getting to know each other. Even the wrestlers themselves accept me; when they run around the ring high-fiving everyone there, they always lower their hand so that I am not missed out. Were I to go on a night out with any of these people, I would feel perfectly safe, and far less vulnerable than I do in most bars and clubs.

wrestling

Recently, when the show was searching for a new venue, they made accessibility one of their concerns so that myself and other wheelchair users could continue attending the events. This level of dedication to equality is frequently neglected by large international companies, who leave ramps obstructed, automatic doors switched off, and allow disabled facilities to be misused, let alone smaller companies.

When you see someone dressed in all black, with plenty of leather, studs, piercings, tattoos, and eyeliner, wearing a wrestling-themed t-shirt, don’t be afraid of them. When someone tells you that they enjoy heavy metal and wrestling shows, even if they don’t look like that, don’t reject them. It is these people who have unquestioningly welcomed me into their midst, and they have warm hearts and unprejudiced minds. What’s more, they are not afraid to help someone in need, such as a young disabled woman in need of companionship.

Deities, not Doctors.

One of the most difficult things to deal with as a sufferer of a chronic illness is actually something that is meant with the best of intentions, that is, prayer for healing.

I understand why people pray; it is something of a comfort blanket to submit all your problems to another being who can take care of them for you, in the same way a small child is comforted by a gentle hug from a parent or friend after grazing their knees during a fall. However, prayer doesn’t have the same appeal for others; it makes them feel awkward and uncomfortable, and I am one of these people.

Most people imagine that prayer for healing only occurs within religious groups of people, but this is not true. While the majority of such prayers have occurred within churches and related meeting groups in my case, I have had a significant number occur completely unprompted in situations that wouldn’t naturally lend themselves to deities. I have even had a total stranger approach me and ask to pray for my healing while waiting outside the theatre for the doors to open before a show.

Whenever someone prays for my healing in my presence, and I don’t immediately leap out of my wheelchair and perform a series of cartwheels, I invariably receive one of two reactions. The first is to blame me for lacking the faith God requires to be able to heal me, which only ever served to push me further away from God, and to distance me from organised religion. The second is to say that God has a plan for me, of which disability is a part, as if that would be enough to stop the pain. Some would even argue that this blog is part of God’s plan; it’s true that I wouldn’t be writing this was I not disabled, but that implies that the decision to try and make a difference to the treatment of disabled people is not my own, and I find that degrading. To be able to deem my efforts virtuous, they need to be the work of my own hands.

I have no issue with people praying for healing, and their kind-hearted and well-meaning sentiments are much appreciated. I simply wish that people would pray for my healing on their own, and would keep their thoughts about why I was not healed to themselves, or that they would let me ask for prayers for healing when I felt ready for them. It is not that I do not want to be healed; I simply wish to have the time and energy to prepare for such a life-changing event.

All disabled people will have very different feelings and experiences concerning healing and prayer, and I am sure that some will completely disagree with me. However, it may be worth asking how someone feels about the subject before immediately jumping into miracle mode, to save the discomfort and embarrassment of everyone involved.

Debacles of a Disabled Scientist

People are often surprised to learn that nutrition is not a pseudoscience about eating your greens, but is in fact the study of the complex biochemical interactions between nutrients and the human body, and how that influences our health. This misunderstanding is only partly explained by the overuse of the term “nutritionist”, which encompasses everything from someone with a 2-day course from a dodgy website, to someone with a PhD and lifetime of experience in nutrition. When I persuade someone to be honest with me about this confusion, they admit that despite the work of all feminists, a typical scientist is still pictured as a man in their minds. Since nutrition is regarded as a woman’s subject, it is therefore not deemed a true science. What is more, once people are aware of the scientific basis of the subject, they remain confused as to how a disabled person like myself could possibly use a laboratory. This is in spite of the fact that one of the most prominent scientists of this day and age is also one of the most disabled people on the globe. It baffles me that after all the publicity surrounding Steven Hawkins, they made a movie of his life story for crying out loud, people still assume that disability means I can’t do science.

Using a wheelchair in a laboratory is not without its challenges. Trying to drive what is essentially an over-sized go-kart down a narrow passage, lined on both sides with precision engineering glassware worth several thousand pounds, is an expensive disaster waiting to happen. Similarly, the height of the workbenches would warrant the use of a periscope, and some students are still not entirely used to the soft whine of motors followed by a gliding ponytail, the only thing visible above the benches, that signals my arrival. Still, once perched on a lab stool with my wheelchair pushed to one side, these issues are overcome, and since I am unable to walk any substantial distance, I manage to wheedle my way out of doing the washing up too.

nutrition-lab

Like any normal student I enjoy the chance to have fun, so when my colleagues were using automatic pipettes to determine just how far an ejected pipette tip could be thrown, I did not fail to join in. However, being an abnormal student also gives rise to much hilarity. When using an atomic absorption spectrometer to measure the iron and calcium content of a cake, we were warned of the dangers of using this piece of machinery, in particular the canister of explosive gas that was used to fuel it.

“If the flame suddenly expands, run,” our lab technician told us. “If it disappears for no reason, run. If the tube running from the canister to the spectrometer catches fire, run…”

I raised my hand; “What if you can’t run?”

The colour drained from the lab technician’s face. Thinking he had offended me, he struggled to find a suitable reply. After leaving a short pause for dramatic effect, I broke into a wide grin, and with relief the technician realised he hadn’t offended me at all, and I was simply and perhaps cruelly making fun of his chosen words.

Similar incidents are not limited to the laboratory alone, for when answering three questions correctly in quick succession during a seminar, my lecturer stated, “You’re on a roll.”

I didn’t even say a word before my lecturer realised his error, turning the colour of beetroot and spluttering an apology before I began to laugh, accompanied by the rest of the packed lecture theatre.

There is no reason why my particular disability should limit my prospects in the field of nutrition. Some people feel that they are too disabled to conduct intricate experiments in a laboratory, and would perhaps feel uncomfortable attempting to do so, but for those who wish to explore science, I hope that you are not limited by the ignorance of others. While there is something to be said for realism, I can’t help wondering how many great scientific discoveries have been missed because people were told that they were incapable because of their disability, gender, race, or sexuality.

The Poppy Man.

While there are many negative aspects to using a wheelchair, and it is undeniable that I am treated differently to an able-bodied individual, sometimes the response of able-bodied people towards me can be uplifting. Take, for example, the smaller front wheels of my wheelchair getting trapped in the gap between the carriage and platform on the London Underground. A stranger saw my difficulty, and completely unprompted helped to lift my front wheels onto the platform, disappearing into the crowd before I had a chance to say thank you.

One such occasion occurred when I was 16 that I will never forget, on a cold, wet, inconspicuous November day about a week before Remembrance Sunday. I had been helping my dad with the shopping, as he is colour-blind and finds selecting ripe fruit difficult, and we were heading towards the adapted till designed for those with disabilities. A woman had spotted the shorter queue at this particular till, and despite the fact that I was clearly heading towards it and have little choice about what till I use, pushed in front of me. I bit my lip as I could tell she was the type of arrogant and self-righteous person who will accept no reprimand, and patiently waited behind her in the queue while she unloaded her over-flowing trolley onto the conveyor belt.

What I had failed to notice was the man selling poppies in honour of Remembrance Day directly opposite the till, who had seen what had happened. When the woman in front of us eventually left, I went to the end of the till, and started to help my dad pack the bags. Upon seeing a movement out of the corner of my eye, I turned my head to see the man standing next to me, holding a poppy; it wasn’t even one of the flimsy paper ones, but one from Pinterest with a knitted with black and red wool, with a safety pin attached to the back.

“I’ve just seen how that woman treated you”, he told me by way of introduction, “and I’m giving you this because by holding your tongue, you kept the peace.” He then handed me the poppy without taking payment and wandered back to his stall, where people continued to ignore him.

My dad of course saw this, and when we had finished packing the bags, he walked over to the stall, thanked the man for his kindness, and bought a poppy. We never knew his name, and he forever became the poppy man.

I kept the woollen poppy pinned to my lanyard, which keeps all my keys conveniently in one place, as a reminder to myself when someone treated me as that woman had, that kindness and empathy still existed. I was devastated when one day I returned from a shopping trip to find that the poppy had fallen off my lanyard, and was nowhere to be found, but even without the memento, the memory of the poppy man will never fade, and deserves no less than to be immortalised in words.

My Superpower.

Why Harry Potter insists on using a special cloak to become invisible is beyond me, because what he really needs is a wheelchair. I have had such an enormous number of incidents involving people stepping over my legs or walking straight into the wheelchair, as well as having heavy doors shut in my face, that invisibility can be the only logical explanation.

One common occurrence for wheelchair users is something we like to call “flat-head syndrome”. This occurs when a wheelchair user is accompanied by an adult whose legs work, and people address questions about the wheelchair user to the functioning human, including “What is wrong with her?” and “Does she want a drink?”. I like to surprise people by answering the question with some unintelligible medical jargon, and leave them dumb-founded while I wander away to do something more intelligent. This event isn’t even limited to when I am with a carer, and has been seen by friends, family, and my other half. In particular, my other half receives looks of wonder, that he is such a hero for dating a disabled woman. The reality is that I’m blonde and I have big boobs, and actually, we’re quite fond of each other.

Another frequent event happens when people are using their phones, usually while looking down at the screen held out slightly in front of them, but also when using phones for their original purpose. People walk straight into the wheelchair, and then blame me, even when I am travelling down a narrow pavement with the road on one side of me, and steps into shops on the other. Some people become so absorbed by the enchanting box of flickering light that they forget the world around them, and let heavy doors go in front of me, leaving me trying to open them from an angle no door is designed to be opened from.

I do realise that some of you may be reading this on your phones, and of course you’ve probably become completely entranced by the elegant writing style and intricate anecdotes I use.  I take no issue with you doing this, it is quite the complement after all, but please try to take in your surroundings while you walk. The most ironic thing I have ever observed involved someone having to use a wheelchair temporarily after suffering an injury from walking into a wheelchair while using his phone, who then got annoyed at people walking into his wheelchair while using their phones.

If you are out and about, and you see someone in a wheelchair, please don’t turn the other way to ignore the blemish on society, or stare gormlessly in their direction which frankly looks terrible, and feels incredibly uncomfortable. Instead, give them a quick smile, stop to help them if they need it, and then continue on with your day safe in the knowledge that today you made a difference, and you made someone genuinely happy.

All Creatures Great and Small.

Everyone seems to take great pleasure in watching animals react to and mimic a human world, and the way in which they react to disabilities is no less charming. It never ceases to surprise me how unafraid many animals are of the large metal frame full of gliding human, and some of the best reactions have been courtesy of cats and dogs.

In my first year of university, on a warm day towards the end of April, I decided to go to the local park as a short break from my exam revision. Naturally the park was full of dogs of all kinds, but there was one Labrador puppy taken straight from an Andrex advert that stole my heart. He was very interested in what, the owner told me, was his first ever encounter with a wheelchair, so I stopped to let him explore the novelty. The excitement must have been overwhelming, because after approximately a minute or so of examining my wheels, he promptly cocked his leg against the back wheel. I have never seen the colour drain from someone’s face as rapidly as the owner’s face did that day; they were mortified. I, however, thought it was hilarious, and was laughing so hard that my diaphragm ached from the effort. The poor puppy looked so self-satisfied that every time I stopped laughing, I had only to look at his face again to be set into another fit of hysterics. I assured the owner that it wasn’t a problem, and had actually made my day, and we continued our separate ways, with my back wheel leaving a faint trail along the dry path.

About 18 months later, I was returning home after a visit to the pharmacy to find the path obstructed by a huge dog that looked like a cross between a Saint Bernard and a husky. I bent down to fuss the dog, who was tethered to a post while the owner collected his own prescriptions, in an attempt to gently move the dog from my path. What I hadn’t realised was that this dog was still a puppy, and in her excited she jumped up, placing her front paws on my lap, and putting most of her weight on my hips. Within a second of this happening the owner came rushing out of the pharmacy yelling;

“Zara, not the disabled girl, oh god not the disabled girl, down Zara, down!”

I, of course, was thoroughly amused, and after reassuring the owner that I was perfectly alright and that Zara hadn’t hurt me, we managed to move her from my path and I continued home.

On the way home from the pharmacy, I travel down a quiet road set on a hill, which is guarded by a cat called Dom. Dom is a black and white short-haired moggy, who spends most of his time sitting in people’s gardens, and chasing birds. Strangely, he seems to be attracted to the sound of the motors on my powered wheelchair, and whenever I travel down this road, I am soon accompanied by Dom, who trots down the pavement on my right side in a scene that makes even the toughest Bradfordians melt.

dom

I often marvel at the ability of animals to overlook disabilities and see the organism underneath, something which some human beings often struggle with. They don’t appear to view the wheelchair as something to be afraid of, and actually seem to like it, which flies in the face of expectation. Perhaps taking a more animalistic view of the world would allow us to appreciate the really important things; food, shelter, and good company.

Introducing…

I was born and raised in Bradford, England, which contrary to popular opinion, is not a bad place to grow up. The city is full of history and culture, and looking down from the top of the valley towards the city centre is a surprisingly charming view. The intricate architecture at the  base of the valley complements the bleak rows of terraced houses sprawling up the hills, and the parks provide small patches of green at regular intervals.

As an only child, I often missed the company of other children my age, instead spending most of my time in the company of my parents, and the cat. I spent many hours winding up toy cars and releasing them from the back door, watching them rush along the hallway and into the lounge with Bramble, our cat, not far behind. When I wasn’t doing that, I was sat in my room immersed in a book with Bramble sat on my feet, or I was playing outside with Bramble sunbathing on the metre-squared patch of land we called a patio.

My primary school had previously been a middle school, and so had it’s own library, sports field, and science laboratory. It had a happy-go-lucky vibe, and despite being quite the misfit, I enjoyed my time there. My time at secondary school wasn’t quite so cheerful, and the bullying although not much worse than the name-calling and occasional beatings I received at primary school, somehow felt more damaging. I kept my head down  and worked hard so that I could leave for university as soon as possible.

Currently, I’m in my final year of my degree, BSc Nutrition, and these past 2 and a half years have been some of the best of my life. The bullying stopped, and as I developed my skills as a scientist, I grew happier and more confident. I made friends with an I.T student who lived in the same halls of residence as me, and we spent countless hours playing pool and listening to rock music together during my first year. In my second year, I bumped into Jarred, a social misfit who enjoyed rock music, Marvel comic movies, and wrestling. Over the following 18 months a relationship would flourish that is mostly based on laughter, Star Wars, and My Chemical Romance albums, and strangely seems to work.

I am now a self-confident 20 year old, whose wardrobe resembles a black hole, and who just so happens to use a wheelchair. This blog is the marker of the next stage of my life; actual adulthood, where I have to start acting responsibly and behaving like a civilised human being. I want to provide an insight into life with a disability, and the small and sometimes hilarious consequences of such a disability, because disability has been a taboo subject for too long. So, get ready to step into my shoes…actually that should be wheels…and prepare to witness both how normal and abnormal my life actually is.