It’s Not Easy Being Green.

There are countless political parties, pressure groups, and lobbyist groups in support of reducing fossil fuel consumption, non-recyclable waste, and any other practices that damage our planet. On the whole I am in support of these groups and think we should preserve resources for future generations wherever possible. However, there is one aspect of these groups which I find infuriating. It may not be intentional but disabled people are often victimised and penalised by these groups for needing extra resources.

Take the recent movement to ban the use of plastic straws. These straws were actually created to make it easier for people with various mobility issues to drink independently, and banning or placing a tax on them immediately leaves disabled people unable to drink in public. Most of the people lobbying for the ban simply hadn’t considered the existence of disability, but those who had thought of it waived it off as such a minor proportion of the population as to be negligible. It’s not like we need fluids to survive or anything, and we should all be locked up indoors anyway.

Once the fact that disability is a thing had been realised, some suggestions were put forward. Some suggested using paper straws as an alternative despite obvious flaws such as the inability to hold their structure in liquids, and also the lack of a bend near the top which is the element that enables disabled people to drink. Others suggested buying a pack from the supermarket, having failed to realise that finding them in a shop is difficult at the best of times, and that reduced purchases of straws would result in many shops choosing not to stock them. No one realised that those who didn’t need them could stop using them, leaving those who did to use them in cafes in peace, and altering the supply and demand so as to reduce the production of straws in the first place.

Similarly there has been a movement to ban the use of excess plastic when packaging foods, in particular highlighting the pre-peeled citrus fruits packaged in plastic. For most people this is ridiculously and needlessly wasteful, but what about those of us who have difficulty peeling these fruits? The idea of getting someone to peel the fruit for the disabled person was tossed around under the assumption that everyone with a disability has a carer there 24/7 to do their bidding, and also has no desire for independence. Again, simply not buying these products if they’re not needed would solve the problem.

Another contentious issue is recycling. The bin store in my building has a step in the door so either I have to walk, or it gets left until Jarred has the time to do it. We also cannot recycle glass, instead having to take the trip out to a recycling centre. I would be happy to do this despite the inconvenience, but of course the bins are completely inaccessible. I absolutely would recycle more but if I can’t access the facilities to do this, I have very little choice in the matter. When I admit that I don’t recycle every last piece of glass I expose myself to criticism and verbal abuse, and am told I’m just not trying hard enough. Once again disability is forgotten and neglected.

Finally comes the issue of transportation. I can’t ride a bike, obviously, so if something isn’t within the range of my wheelchair battery I rely on vehicles. The use of public transport is encouraged and, while buses are mostly manageable bar the odd rude customer or having to wait several buses for one where the wheelchair space is available, trains are virtually impossible to use. When disabled people choose to use taxis or their own vehicle, which is of course larger and heavier due to the need to carry equipment and thus spitting out more fumes, we are lambasted for being uneconomical. In one admittedly extreme scenario I have even been told I should be using a manual wheelchair instead of a powered one, and that my laziness was killing the planet. The idea that some disabled people might actually need a motor instead of being able to self-propel was preposterous to them.

The brutal truth of the matter is this; when disabled people are treated as equals with individual needs by the eco-friendly groups, we will be able to support their initiatives. Until then there isn’t a lot we can do apart from let these people know that being green simply isn’t that easy.

Ignorance is Bliss.

Despite having reproduced for millennia, humans continue to marvel at the mind of a child and the way it tries to piece together the coalition of chaos that is life. This often provokes brutally honest and usually quite amusing reactions to social situations, which arise from the ignorance of complex societal norms created by adults with the sole purpose to make other’s lives as miserable as their own. A child’s views on disability are no exception to this, and in particular young children will not treat someone in a wheelchair differently to someone who can walk. They also occasionally think we’re mermaids (https://diaryofadisabledperson.wordpress.com/2017/06/10/the-real-mermaid/).

One summer, I was browsing the isles of the local supermarket searching for a birthday present when a little girl with blonde pigtails and big blue eyes tottered round the corner, almost into my wheelchair. She stopped and looked up at me, before asking in earnest;

“Are you poorly?”

I smiled and confirmed this.

“Will you get better though?” she continued.

“Hopefully,” I said in reply.

“And you’ll be able to walk like me?” she asked.

“Absolutely,” I returned.

Throughout this exchange, the blonde woman who I presume was the girl’s mother looked utterly mortified and desperately tried to coax her daughter away. I looked up at her, smiled, and said it was absolutely fine. I would much rather children ask the questions they want to ask instead of staring silently at me, so as to break the taboo surrounding disability. Children are remarkably robust when facing the negative aspects of life, and are rarely as perturbed as we might have assumed. As such, disability and sickness should not be hidden from children, as it is simply a part of real life.

Sometimes, children have wonderful reactions if they see that the adults they are with have blocked the path of a wheelchair. In many instances children have pulled prams, bags, baskets, or even the adults themselves out of the way, allowing me to pass safely. On a good few of these occasions, the adults have even received a ticking off from the children. My personal favourite occurred after a distracted mother let a door swing shut in my face. Her son, a boy of maybe 6 or 7 years old, came back and held the door open for me. His mum called out for him to stay with her in a somewhat irritated tone, and in response the boy told her he’d only tried to be nice, as she had taught him. He then attempted to say it was “hypocritical” without much success, which fortunately broke the ice and the mother relaxed and apologised.

At other times, it has been me who has been the first to speak to a child if the situation calls for it. I remember on one occasion I was in the local park and a girl was riding her scooter down the hill much faster than her dad could walk. Unfortunately the front wheel of her scooter got caught in a rut in the pavement and the girl went headlong over the handlebars, landing heavily in a messy heap. The closest adult to the fall didn’t bat an eyelid and walked past almost as if they hadn’t seen or heard what had happened. As the next closest adult I went to the child to check she was OK and handed her a tissue to wipe her tear-stained cheeks. Her injuries were very minor, superficial scrapes to the skin, but the shock of the fall seemed to be what had upset her. I remembered doing almost exactly the same thing ten years before, on another hill within the same park, and said as much which made her smile. Seconds later her dad arrived, almost out of breath from trying to stay upright on the slightly slippery path. He smiled and they both thanked me before we went our separate ways. It was not that a disabled person had stopped to help that required gratitude but the fact that a person had stopped to help at all, and I fully believe that they would have spoken to anyone else in exactly the same manner.

The ignorance of these children towards the taboo surrounding disability did not bring bliss to themselves alone but also to me as a disabled person, and I can only hope that as they grow and develop their inclusive attitude is unmarred by the loss of their ignorance.

Bisexual and Almost Bipedal.

I’m a bisexual, female, disabled scientist; so nuke me, Trump.

My identity is pretty much an amalgamation of social rights issues, but that doesn’t mean I’m not genuine as some people might presume. It’s a strange phenomenon, but I do know a few people with disabilities who are uncomfortable about coming out as LGBT because they might be deemed fakers, and I honestly can’t decide whether the problem is with the way disability is perceived or the way the LGBT community is perceived.

There are people out there who assign themselves a long list of labels to do with gender identity and sexuality that don’t actually apply to them, who do so because they want to be perceived as modern and unprejudiced. While the intention of being open about equal opportunities is highly commendable, it leaves those of us who are genuine a little conflicted, because coming out as a member of the LGBT community for most people is simply terrifying.

My sexuality confused me long before I became disabled, but I was afraid to discuss it for fear of disappointing my parents, or being bullied at school any more than I already was. For fear of what being open-minded would make me, I suppressed any feelings I had on the matter, and vehemently denied to myself that I was anything other than heterosexual. This actually got easier when I first fell ill as I had something else to be concerned about, but as the years went by, no matter how much I stamped down on them, my thoughts would turn towards my sexual orientation time and time again.

Leaving home and heading off to university should have been the time when I started to express my sexuality; I lived alone and away from those who had bullied me at school, but I still couldn’t shake off the fear that engulfed me every time the thought crossed my mind. I kept my mouth shut, as I always had done, and tried to move on.

The thing to finally bring me out of my shell was actually Jarred, who was openly bisexual from the day we met. It sounds ridiculous but I saw the freedom he had in being able to express himself when a good-looking man appeared on TV, and I wanted that freedom. Jarred helped to strengthen my self-esteem and boost my confidence, and I began to realise that if I did decide to accept my sexuality, no matter what happened upon being honest, there would be at least one person I could rely on to get through it. However I was used to being scared of my sexuality, that I would be deemed old to “come out”, and that on top of the wheelchair it would simply seem like a plea for attention, that I continued to keep my feelings to myself.

I can’t quite explain it but one day the desire to have that freedom simply outweighed the fear of appearing fake, and with the help of a glass of wine, the truth seemed to just fall out of my mouth. After a quiet moment Jarred said, “I know.” I stared at him dumb-founded, feeling foolish for thinking that I would have been able to hide something of this scale from the one person I allowed close enough to see such a thing.

I would like to be able to tell you that my fears and reservations about being open about my sexuality evaporated in an instant at this point, but that would not be the truth. I gradually began to make my closest friends and family aware of the situation, always a little reticent for fear that they would react badly, but with each positive reaction my confidence grew, until one last hurdle remained. Now I had to be open and honest with the rest of the world.

A simple post on Facebook sufficed for those who knew me who I hadn’t already told, and then I started to declare myself as bisexual on job application forms. The freedom it gave me in being able to express myself without a serious fear of being deemed a faker for social reasons was even better than I could have ever imagined. For the first time in my life I felt like I had an identity that was true to my own form, which encompassed my sexuality, lifestyle, and preferences. In telling the rest of the world who I was I had managed to find myself.

Image description: A classic wheelchair/disabled sign, coloured to look like the pride flag.

Dalek Days.

Daleks first petrified Doctor Who fans in the early 1960’s and quickly took on pop culture status with their inhuman features and grating speech, mostly gaining notoriety for the simple tactic used to defeat them; climbing stairs. Of course when they gained the ability to levitate in the 1980’s, people watched horrified as the Doctor and his companion realised that they could no longer rely on their usual trick of running up the stairs. I remember watching the tense episode in 2005 when the Daleks once again demonstrated their gravity-defying abilities, and 9-year-old-me wondered just how many hair driers were needed to enable to Daleks to do this.

Image description: a picture of a Dalek from Dr Who. It's from the Christopher Eccleston & David Tennant era of the series, as these are the one's I watched growing up.

Unfortunately it appears that some people cannot comprehend the fact that Doctor Who, including the Daleks, is entirely fictitious. I say this because it seems to me that I am often equated to Daleks as a wheelchair user or so the look of fear on people’s faces when the disabled person talks to them suggests, and they assume that wheelchair users also have the ability to levitate. Therefore they see no problem when a lift or ramp is obstructed, or when there is simply no lift or ramp available, and they wonder why I am frustrated or upset.

When I’m out and about,I often find cars parked over the area of the pavement sloped to the level of the road. While prams, bikes, and even a small manual wheelchair might be able to cope with a small drop of a few centimetres, a powered wheelchair is just too heavy to risk such a manoeuvre, not to mention the fact that it’s actually quite painful. If the driver is in the vehicle the usual response to my predicament is to be told that the car will only be there a minute, but of course when I round the corner and find another vehicle doing the same thing for the same reasons, it could end up taking half an hour to travel what is only a five minute amble. I deal with this by setting off ridiculously early for every appointment I have to make, so that if I face an obstruction I can find a route around it, but I still sometimes end up late.

I also have to be very careful when trying out new venues for the first time; I’ve been told to meet someone in a pub who knew I was in a wheelchair, only to find a 5 cm stone step in the doorway and no ramp available. The solution suggested to me was to drive up to it a bit faster, have someone push the wheelchair from behind, or to climb out the wheelchair and have someone carry it inside for me. Any of these could have damaged the wheelchair, which costs the price of a small, second-hand car, and I knew that my insurance policy would not cover any damage inflicted by these tactics. I chose to vote with my wheels, feet would be the wrong word, and went to other pubs that didn’t require you to complete a Paralympic event just to get a pint.

I understand perfectly why the pre-levitation era Daleks had a somewhat grumpy temperament, as I only wished to complete a degree and get a job, never mind world domination (that will come later). Now, having gained the ability to levitate, I have a little less sympathy for them. Admittedly dealing with ignorance on a daily basis is highly irritating, and I guess wouldn’t blame them for bearing a grudge.

It has been suggested to me that I should dress up as a Dalek for Halloween, but unfortunately while I have a creative imagination, my abilities to physically produce my creations are the equivalent of a drunk elephant squaring up to a mouse. I also don’t own a whisk or sink plunger, which is rather the set-back.  Instead I will have to rely on the simple phrase “I’m not a Dalek”, and spend my money in the places that have had the wherewithal to spend their money on providing wheelchair access to enable me to spend my money there.

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.

Image Description: the album cover for The Who, Live at Leeds. It's plain brown with dark blue writing, all capitals, in the top right hand corner of the cover.Image description: the blue commemorative plaque for the Live at Leeds concert, which can be found on the wall of the student union at Leeds University.

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.

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.