I Think, Therefore I Am Intelligent.

I’m blonde. I’m from Yorkshire. I’m disabled. By any stereotype I should be so lacking in intelligence as to effectually be brain-dead. However, considering that I have a degree I would hope that the opposite is the case; if not, I have wasted far too much money to bear thinking about. Despite the evidence that I am, in fact, an intelligent life form, many people see that I am sat down on some wheels and assume that this somehow drains the knowledge from my brain. I don’t know how or why this assumption has come to be, but it has, and it’s as annoying as a mosquito with a vuvuzela up its backside.

Recently, I ended up in hospital with severe pains around my rib cage and abdomen, which turned out to be gall stones rattling around inside of me like some kind of fleshy maraca. I needed emergency surgery as the case was acute, but when I met with the surgeons before my operation, my mind was not on the procedure. I wasn’t even sat in my wheelchair and they were talking to me like I was two, and as someone studying nutrition, I am perfectly aware of the implications and treatment for gall stones. I took great delight in halting their explanation of what the surgery entailed for my entrails, and described it to them using the full medical term. They looked moderately surprised but to their credit took it within their stride and laughed; it was only then that I realised I probably shouldn’t mock someone about to perform surgery on me.

The surgery was performed successfully, or so they thought, until the pains returned a few days after having the operation. Several scans later they found one last little blighter wedged in the bile duct, and an endoscopy was performed to remove it. My stay in hospital was longer this time, allowing me to develop a system for getting doctors to treat me as an equal; I read “intelligent” books including “On the Origin of the Species” by Charles Darwin and “The Double Helix” by Dr J. Watson, and also kept a puzzle book by the side of the uncomfortable bed. The change in the doctor’s attitudes towards me was remarkable, but as soon as I got back into my wheelchair the original treatment resumed. Had I had the energy at the time I would have taken great delight in sitting in my wheelchair all day while reading one of those books just to confuse them.

I should mention that it isn’t just doctors who treat me like this, but this is something I face most days from total strangers. For example when I was wearing my baggy university hoodie one day, the woman behind me in a queue at the coffee shop asked me if it were my boyfriends’. I remarked that for all she knew I could have been a lesbian and not to make such shallow assumptions about people. The man behind her in the queue found my comment particularly amusing, which embarrassed the woman even further.

Whenever I encounter such treatment, after I have dealt with the situation I often wonder if Professor Stephen Hawking ever has to deal with this. If anyone could disprove the association between disability and stupidity then it’s him, yet I still face this issue regularly and I know that the situation is similar for other disabled people. It’s utter madness.

Uncharitable Charity.

At university I lived very close to my student union and regularly ate in the refectory which saved a lot of effort on cooking and washing up. The dining hall there is vast, with white tables and uncomfortable wooden chairs crammed into every space possible, and a dark laminate floor that makes my wheels squeak when they’re wet. At the end furthest from the kitchens is a small stage that is often used for concerts and shows outside of the refectory’s opening hours, which has hosted The Killers in the early 2000’s, and is where The Who’s “Live at Leeds” album was recorded.

Live at LeedsThe Who

While this stage is fit for purpose for concerts, it has two steps up to it and no ramp. Frustratingly, this was where the union decided to host their charity clothes sale for Cancer Research UK, without providing access for wheelchairs. I had been looking forward to the event for a few days and so when I arrived I was pretty disappointed about the inaccessibility, especially as the union has several accessible rooms where such an event could easily have been held.

Since the stall was quiet at the time, the member of staff on duty wandered over to speak to me. She told me in rather patronising tones that she was “ever so sorry” about the inaccessibility, but that nothing could be or have been done to resolve the issue. This was, quite frankly, utterly ridiculous, as even if they couldn’t have booked an accessible room they could have easily acquired a temporary ramp. Annoyed, I made a snide remark about how my money was worth the same amount as anyone else’s, before heading up to the coffee shop overlooking the refectory to drown my sorrows with caffeine.

Once I was settled with a large americano, I emailed a member of staff from the union who I knew relatively well from previous accessibility quibbles, and despite him being away from his desk for the day according to the automated reply I received, he responded within half an hour by assigning a temporary ramp to the event. A few minutes later I re-appeared in the refectory, ready to raid the clothes stall. This time a different women was over-seeing the stall, and she could not have been more apologetic or upset about what had happened. Her colleague, now nowhere to be seen, was quickly forgotten as I browsed the clothing rails. I picked up a leopard print scarf from the accessories section, and managed to find a beautiful white blouse covered in black swirls from a high-end clothes store that I could never normally afford. Feeling self-satisfied at having spent less than £5, I returned to my favourite table in the coffee shop and downed another americano and a frozen yogurt to boot.

While the attitude of the first member of staff left much to be desired, the attitudes of the man who organised the ramp and the second woman running the stall more than compensated for this. It is not the problem that causes me an issue, but the ability and willingness of people to provide a solution for the problem instead.

Sex and the Sitting.

By the title alone most of you will have guessed that this entry discusses a sensitive topic, although I will not be addressing specific and explicit details at any point. This is simply another entry discussing the taboos that surround disability, which includes the doubly taboo topic of disabled people having sex. I hope that I have dealt with this topic sensitively, and do not offend any readers.

It often surprises my friends when I tell them that I am frequently asked about my sex life because of my disability, often by relative strangers, and completely unprompted. People are intrigued to know whether sex is even possible, what position I have to be in, and whether I can satisfy my partner, and it appears that people believe they are being inclusive by asking these questions. However, if the able-bodied are entitled to privacy surrounding his or her sex life, then surely this applies to the disabled too.

Society’s obsession with sex is undeniable; a small escapade into music videos or women’s magazines will prove this. Being able to discuss sex is no bad thing under appropriate circumstances and is part of free speech, but the problem arises when people misunderstand what is meant by appropriate circumstances. Discussing sex in a sex education class, or after watching films like “Fifty Shades of Grey” which revolve around sexual activity and consent, or after reading this blog entry, is appropriate. Asking someone unprompted about sex when meeting for coffee, after you’ve just met them at a party, or on a shopping spree is not appropriate. Asking someone unprompted about sex purely because they differ from you is completely inappropriate, and yet people often look proud of themselves while asking for being so modern and unprejudiced.

However, despite all this, I understand why people want to know about this aspect of my life. It is not unwarranted to worry about having a future relationship with a disabled person and how to broach the subject of sex with them. So, for the record, sex is relatively uninhibited in my case although there are a few limitations, in particular around the frequency of sex. The fact that sex happens repeatedly should speak for itself on the satisfaction front.

It is worthy of note that sex differs for everyone, and this remains true for those with disabilities. While sex for some like myself differs little from the norm, some will only be capable of particular positions, or may not be able to have sex as frequently as a healthy individual. Therefore trying to evaluate the sex lives of the disabled by asking individuals is futile, as well as inappropriate. On the other hand, accepting that people with disabilities can and do have sex lives would help society to progress in recognising disabled people as equal to able-bodied individuals, and the modern and unprejudiced demeanour desired by so many would be achieved.

Pimp My Ride.

When I meet new people many of them feel very awkward about my wheelchair; they are so afraid to mention or even look at it that it quickly becomes the elephant in the room. It falls to me to break the ice, which I have several ways of doing. Sometimes I’ll use a quick one-liner to put people at ease, but a surprisingly effective technique is to positively draw attention to the wheelchair.

My first wheelchair had a dull grey metal frame, around a dull black seat, and a dull cream cushion. I quickly grew tired of people being so afraid of an awkward social situation that they would go to great lengths to avoid me, although it could always have been my personality of course, so I bought some high-visibility reflective stickers of yellow smiley faces and placed three down each side panel of the wheelchair. Where-ever I went they would make people smile, and in knowing that I was not afraid to play the fool, most developed a more welcoming attitude towards me. Children adored them and would reach out to touch them, before being whisked away by mortified parents.

When I upgraded to my second wheelchair, I purchased one with a red, sparkly frame, which in itself did a lot to dispel the awkwardness when meeting new people. I have applied the same principle to my newest wheelchair, which also has a bright red frame, and is a talking point for many.

Christmas is another fantastic opportunity to assure people that I am an ordinary human being with a sense of humour. Every year I buy some cheap tinsel which I wrap around the frame, and every year I receive lots of positive feedback. Complete strangers even call out complements across the street. However, this pales into comparison with what my school peer and Paralympian, Coral Batey, once did with her wheelchair. She somehow managed to wrap battery powered fairy lights around her wheels, and it was quite a sight to watch her glide down the corridor with twinkling lights beneath her; it certainly had the desired effect. The BBC have even reported on a group of wheelchair users who modified their wheelchairs for Halloween, including one child who wanted his wheelchair to become a Tie Fighter for the day: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/disability-37774000.

It may seem a simple and even immature thing to do, but adding something special to a wheelchair raises people’s interest and they see you in a positive light. Changing society’s stereotypes and taboos does not happen without effort on behalf of the minority, taking time and persistence instead. That is, of course, the very purpose of this blog because people’s opinions and actions towards disability will not change if others continue to live with misconceptions influencing their actions. Therefore a little silliness could be the driving factor behind immense social change.

Rock and Roll.

Anyone who knows me well knows that Green Day are the best band in existence, followed closely by My Chemical Romance and The Foo Fighters. Many hours have been spent lying on my bed, eyes closed, becoming immersed in the music. Each song conjures up another emotion or memory, and the best songs are the ones I remember hearing for the very first time. Music is a large part of my life and has been one of the driving factors in coming to terms with my disability, while also offering me a simple form of stress relief when it is needed.

Most of my meals are accompanied by the radio tuned into Planet Rock, who don’t just play the classics on repeat like most stations, but bring in new and obscure material. It was where I first heard about Green Day’s latest album, and where I first heard many of the singles from that album. When one of the presenters, Wyatt, embarked upon a country-wide cycling tour to raise money for charity, I naturally rushed out to welcome him when he stopped in Leeds. The poor man had cycled more than 200 miles in a little over a day, but when I asked for a photograph with him, he still made an attempt to get on the same level as me. This was despite the fact that his knees were almost completely immobile, hence the awkward pose.

Wyatt

While rock music over speakers is still an experience, nothing quite tops live rock music. I will never forget going to see British Rock bands Yashin, and The Blackout; it was one of the best evenings of my life. The wheelchair space for the concert was on a balcony connected to the stage, where the band that wasn’t on stage would mill around, and I managed to worm my way in with several of the Yashin crew. They were friendly and comedic people, and the surrealism of it made it all the more special. Several photos were taken that evening, and the picture my best friend took of me with Harry, the lead singer of Yashin, is still one of my favourite photos of all time.

Harry and Me

When I bumped into another Yashin member, Kevin, at a different concert, I was a little disappointed that I didn’t manage to get a photo. However, he seemed so genuinely pleased when I complemented him on their newly released material that it didn’t matter to me. He even held the door open for me and shook my hand afterwards, contrary to the stereotypical image of a self-centred rock star. So it seems that the people of rock are much like the crowd at a wrestling show; loud, obnoxious, and warm-hearted.

A Pub Roll

One of the most common aspects of student life is the pub crawl; going from one pub to the next and getting shamelessly drunk along the way. The most popular of these in Leeds is the Otley Run, which goes through 15 pubs and is usually themed.

My personal favourite of all the themes I’ve seen was a Donald Trump theme, where a group of approximately 20 men staggered through the door of a bar in the student union, dressed in suits with cheap red ties and false blonde wigs. The news was being broadcast on a television behind the bar, and when the president appeared on the screen, the entire group started roaring and jumping up and down in their drunken state. However, much as I would like to join in with such an event, there is one small but significant problem; over half of the pubs have steps into them, and wheelchairs cannot levitate like Daleks.

In contrast to my predicament, I am not prepared to sit aside and be excluded from this. I decided to take action and designed my own pub crawl, the pub roll. Jarred and myself started in the students union, in the modern bar called the Terrace, before heading down to the basement to sit in the cosy and traditional Old Bar.

Terrace

After a couple of drinks we headed out into the brisk Winter night, and wandered down to Dry Dock, a bar stylised to look like a boat beached on a mound of grass. Much to my surprise the bouncer held the door open for me, and did the same on the way out, wishing me well as he did so.

I would like to think that although I was a tad tipsy no one could tell, as I did not have to face the troubling task of balancing on two feet, and could rely on six wheels instead.

We crossed the main road and entered City Bar, which was in the union of the rival (and inferior) university, and then headed up to a branch of Wetherspoon’s called the Stick or Twist.

Stick or Twist

When we were done there, we meandered slowly down to another Wetherspoon’s. By the time we were done there, I was seeing three of everything, so instead of progressing onto the Botanist as planned, we dragged ourselves home. Trying to drive my wheelchair in a straight line was something of a challenge, but the quiet streets posed no threat to unsuspecting pedestrians.

I was proud to have done something about the Otley Run situation, that being getting drunk in the name of social justice. It’s always good to know that with a little extra thought such issues can be overcome and it is worthy of note that the shops, pubs, and other venues that make themselves accessible are the ones to receive my money.

 

A Way With Words.

One of the funniest things about being a wheelchair user is just how many phrases in the English language contain typically ablest sentiments, that when said to someone using a wheelchair could be construed as offensive, even though in the majority of cases no offense was intended.

It was mid-summer in 2015 when I bumped into my neighbour as we passed the shop he had just visited. Being British, we stopped to make awkward conversation limited to topics such as the surprisingly nice weather and how clean his car was. At this point he laughed and said that the car was his pride and joy, and he used it everywhere outside of work. I replied, “It’s ok, I don’t walk anywhere either,” which served to break the ice and remove the last of the awkwardness between us.

In September 2016, I visited PC World to help Jarred choose a suitable laptop for his studies. After selecting the perfect machine we went to a desk where we could discuss student package deals including word processing and anti-virus software. At the desk we were told to “take a seat”, and I simply couldn’t resist piping up with “No need, I already have one.” The poor man looked mortified until Jarred assured him that I was evil and took great pleasure in convincing people that they had upset me, which I was in no position to deny.

On one occasion shortly before Christmas I was due to give a presentation about a group project I had been involved with. The room in which the presentation was taking place was small, and a little difficult to access from the wheelchair being an old building, so I decided to use walking sticks to cover the short distance from the reception to the presentation as I was feeling relatively well. My lecturers were aware that it wasn’t common for me to do so, and couldn’t hide their surprise when I walked in alongside my peers. “Christmas miracle,” I said in response to their bemused looks, which consequently lightened the atmosphere allowing the presentation to run smoothly.

Probably my favourite of all such situations occurred during the pantomime in the Student’s Union, which was like a normal pantomime but with crude language and more explicit sexual references. It was based on Aladdin, and during Jafar’s first scene he recited his evil plan in an animated fashion. At the end of this speech, Jafar declared loudly “Not even you will stand in my way”, and pointed directly at me. In response, I pointed downwards and simply said “Wheelchair”. A flicker of a smile flashed across Jafar’s face, but with all due credit to the actor this was his only break of character while the audience roared with laughter at his predicament.

Some people find my attempts to laugh at my situation odd, and suggest that to some it may even be offensive. However, I am always careful to make myself the subject of these jokes to avoid causing offense to others. What I do find is that people often don’t know what to say to someone with an obvious disability, so I try to make light of the issue to make others feel more comfortable. Once they know that I am a normal person who is capable of laughing at myself they relax and treat me like a normal person without even realising it. I get a refreshing glimpse of normality, and others lose their fear of talking to disabled people. I fail to see why this is in any way odd or offensive, and if anything I recommend it to other disabled people as a way of integrating with society. In other words, taking a stand for disability doesn’t have to be aggressive…