Andre the Advocate.

André René Roussimoff was more commonly known as André the Giant for a reason; standing at around 7 feet tall and weighing over 500 lbs as a result of his gigantism, he truly was gigantic. He is perhaps most famous for his role in the film The Princess Bride but was also a highly successful wrestler for the company we now call WWE. Due to his fame and successful career it is often forgotten altogether that gigantism is actually a disability.

The most obvious disadvantage of gigantism is the fact that the world is suited to smaller humans. Doorways, ceilings, beds, mirrors, and showerheads will all have posed problems due to his height, and utensils such as cutlery, glasses, and various buttons on pieces of technology will have been too small and delicate for his over-sized hands. Finding clothes that fitted must have been virtually impossible short of having everything tailor-made. For André, these were just the general inconveniences of everyday life.

André didn’t just have to contend with a world built for people smaller than him; his gigantism resulted from the excessive production of a growth hormone during childhood and later resulted in the development of acromegaly, continued growth despite the closure of his growth plates, which contributed towards his death from congestive heart failure. As you can imagine this excessive growth left him in almost constant pain and even required surgery to mend worn-down joints, and he took to heavy alcohol consumption to alleviate the symptoms.

While many people would undoubtedly have stayed behind closed doors in such a situation, hiding from the prying eyes and incessant curiosity of everybody else, André turned his gigantism to his advantage. He used his size to become one of the most beloved wrestlers in history, infamous for his ability to flatten his opponents in the ring, and also to land the roles of gigantic men in films. He managed to get paid for people gawping at him, something which they would have done regardless.

Not for one minute do I think André set out to become an advocate for disabled rights. Indeed, he is remembered primarily for his acting and wrestling careers, as he should be. However it is impossible to deny that in entering civilisation and paving his way to success, he proved that disability is not something to be frightened or ashamed of. He proved that people with disabilities are human beings with human rights. It’s quite possible that he inadvertently triggered some enormous changes concerning the perception of disability, particularly in the workplace. So while I think of him as a wrestler and actor, I also think of him as André the Advocate.

Image description: Andre the Giant stood against the ropes of a wrestling ring at the height of his fame.

Special Edition: The Perfect Surprise.

In one of my early posts I talked about a wrestling company whose shows I frequently attended, and how welcoming and accepting the wrestling fans are (https://diaryofadisabledperson.wordpress.com/2017/02/26/an-unlikely-crowd/). These shows have become a staple of the relationship I have with Jarred and mean a lot to us. We attended one such show on Sunday 4th June 2017 and that evening turned out to be an extremely special one…

It was cloudy but dry when Jarred and myself reached the venue of the wrestling show, and we wandered indoors to the area reserved for wheelchair users. As the crowd gathered around the ring, the music was playing so loudly that I could feel my wheelchair vibrating, but the chatter of the crowd was not drowned out, growing increasingly louder with anticipation as the show approached. Then the music stopped and the commentators introduced the show, before the wrestlers for the first match came striding out to their respective theme songs.

After four matches the interval was announced, which mainly served as an excuse to revisit the bar. I wasn’t drinking that night as I’d had a stomach bug and was still feeling a little rough, and Jarred hadn’t finished his drink so didn’t need to go to the bar. Instead, he came and stood on my right side, took my hand, and removed the ring I received as a gift for my 18th birthday from my godmother. The ring had been selected by my godfather but he passed away when I was 12, giving the ring additional sentimental value that no sum of money could replace.

Once the ring had been slipped off my finger, he got down on one knee and asked me to marry him. In the middle of the crowd the proposal was somehow beautifully private, and few people appeared to notice. I nodded before replying “yes” over the music, too stunned to say much more at the time. Jarred then slipped the ring onto my left hand as my engagement ring, kissed me gently on the cheek and we prepared to watch the second half of the show.

At the end of the show we left quite quickly by our usual standards, and meandered home along the pavements. As soon as the door to my flat had closed behind us I rang one of my closest friends. Towards the end of secondary school we had made a semi-serious promise to act as bridesmaids at each other’s weddings. She was the first to hear about the engagement, and was more than happy to fulfil her side of the promise.

The next day was a flurry of phone calls and Facebook posts letting our friends and families know what had happened. The outpouring of well-wishes on social media was almost as overwhelming as the proposal itself, and I knew that this was a moment worth documenting. Although this doesn’t particularly relate to disability, Diary of a Disabled Person seemed the perfect place to write about the perfect surprise.

Image description: my left hand flat on the white tabletop, showing off my engagement ring. It's a simple gold band with 1 diamond in between 2 rubies on top. I have painted my nails black & am wearing a watch.

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.

Image description: I'm sat in my powered wheelchair, looking back over my should at the camera, in the bottom left of the photo. In the background a wrestling ring & barriers can be seen. This was taken just before the wrestling show began, so the stage lights are on giving everything a purple tint.

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.