International Day of Disabled People.

My blog is called Diary of a Disabled Person, so I could hardly ignore the International Day of Disabled People, could I? I actually marked the occasion yesterday by attending an event hosted by Leeds City Museum, celebrating the empowerment of disabled women. I am only marginally offended at not being asked to speak.

One of the first people to speak to me when I entered the room was none other than the Lord Mayor himself, accompanied by his wife. I was blown away to see such an important figure at such a low-key event, but it was a very encouraging sign. After the mayor returned to his other duties I was helped to a cup of coffee by a very friendly member of staff, who also pulled out a seat to leave room for my wheelchair. That was when the string quartet in the corner began playing Christmas songs. I had great difficulty in stopping my pinky finger from being held aloft as I sipped my drink.

 

The Lord Mayor opened proceedings with a self-deprecating speech about how he felt that he, an able-bodied man, wasn’t the most appropriate opener for an event about disabled women. This set the tone for what was to come perfectly.

First up was British Para-athlete Kare Adenegan, Young Sports Personality of the Year and holder of the world record for the fastest 100 m wheelchair sprint, having usurped Hannah Cockroft’s record earlier in the year. She talked about how she was inspired by Hannah Cockroft’s performance at the 2012 London Paralympics, but that her school weren’t equipped for wheelchair sports, not knowing how to cope with her needs. Eventually she found a coach who did have those resources and skills, who encouraged and trained her. That coach must have done something right as in her first season as a junior para-athlete she was ranked within the top 10 in the world. In 2015 she competed in her first senior championships, achieving 2 bronze medals. In 2016 she went to Rio, where she won silver and bronze medals, just as she had done in the world championships that same year. Finally in August 2018, mere weeks after breaking Hannah Cockroft’s world record, she landed her first senior gold medal at the European championships in Berlin. There didn’t appear to be any hard feelings between Kare and Hannah, as footage shows them holding hands afterwards.

If these achievements weren’t enough to make us all feel inadequate on a Monday morning, she’s also doing her A-levels, and plans to go to University while maintaining her sport career.

As her segment drew to a close, she said one thing which I found incredibly relatable; “Disability has allowed me to have so many opportunities that I wouldn’t have without it”. This is a sentiment I have expressed several times before, and I agree whole-heartedly.

Next was Hayley Mills-Styles, a thread artist who uses and teaches needlework as a form of therapy and recovery. Her art focusses in particular on mental health, with one piece containing 52 small items representing each week of a year living with depression. She received many emails and messages from people who had seen her art exhibits thanking her for her efforts, as they reflected the feelings of others so accurately too. If nothing else, it seemed that people were comforted in knowing that they weren’t alone in their experiences. Hayley has also produced studies of how she ate when depressed, performing intricate cross-stitches of various food wrappers.

One of her projects stood out from the others; the Positive Patchwork project, produced by a group with various eating disorders at a local hospital. Although Hayley herself only contributed a small piece to the patchwork, she taught the patients new skills that they could take forwards as a form of therapy, enhancing their chances of full recovery. While the end product was impressive, she specified that it was the making of the patchwork that was the most important, as this was the therapeutic part.

Hayley was followed by Susan Hanley, a Leeds resident with a similar needlework business called Leep1. Susan is heavily involved in campaigning for disability rights, raising awareness of ableism and tackling hate crime, and regularly corresponds with local political figures. In 2010 she was voted Yorkshire Woman of the Year and is also a graduate of the Tomorrow’s Leaders Programme, a programme that helps disabled people gain skills in activism and leadership, skills she has used as a member of the People’s Parliament. Perhaps my favourite of her efforts though was arranging disability-friendly club nights at various nightclubs around the city, allowing disabled people to go on a night out without worrying about accessibility. It seems that in the midst of all her hard work, fun is a vital element of her life.

Finally came Sue; unfortunately I didn’t catch her last name. At one time Sue had normal vision, but then a viral infection of the optic nerve of her left eye induced inflammation, resulting in the steady loss of eye-sight in her left eye. Then, one morning, she woke up and could only see a solid wall of yellow. It was the last colour she ever saw.

The same virus that had blinded her left eye had now invaded her right eye, and soon her sight was lost. This would be tragic for anyone, but for a talented and passionate artist this could be seen as career-ending. But not for Sue.

Sue realised that she could feel the indentations left on paper by a pencil, and taught herself to draw with her right hand by using her left hand as a guide. Using this new skill she went to college, and then to the Bradford School of Art, but became frustrated as she could never see or fully appreciate the finished piece, only segments of it. Thus she turned to ceramics and 3D sculpture, something which relied on structure, shape, and texture, all of which could be experienced without vision. Thus she graduated with her degree and has continued to produce art; art which often prominently features the colour yellow, a colour indicative of both happiness and disease. Even for someone like me who tends to take things at face-value, the significance of that colour to Sue is clear.

Afterwards I stayed for a while, chatted with those around me and handed out leaflets for my blog. Rounding off the day perfectly was the view I got as I left the museum, before hurrying home to get this written and recorded.