Recently I watched a documentary about Disability hate crime and how ‘Diablism’ isn’t as recognised or understood as racism, sexism or any other kind of ‘ism’ by society. I love watching documentaries, it’s about the only kind of telly I can tolerate and really informs my understanding of the world and my writing. The documentary was presented by someone with a facial disfigurement and focussed on visible disability and people’s preconceptions and prejudices arising from what they can see. He conducted an experiment to demonstrate how people’s inbuilt prejudices can decrease by spending some time in a room with him- I agree that once people develop more of an understanding of disability, their tolerance and acceptance improves, but without this awareness raising society remains oblivious to how debilitating disablism can be. I would have liked him to explore disabilities that aren’t so obvious and visible, people who struggle but there is no white stick or wheel chair to tell you how. Recently I had an experience at a train station, I have and am entitled to a disabled persons railcard, so when I went to purchase tickets producing my railcard, the lady behind the desk looked at me and said ‘is that yours’. Further training and understanding to explain that you can’t see all disabilities, would make those who deal with the general public more informed and my experience buying train tickets more comfortable.
This documentary got me thinking, about the concept of what it means to be labelled ‘disabled.’ How society views and has viewed disabled people in the past and how these perceptions can change over time. I know from the equality act, that Disability is one of the protected groups, along with race, sexuality, religion and gender. The act defines disability as ‘A person has a disability if s/he has a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on that person’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities’ This is a fairly clear definition, but for years I have questioned whether I can be defined as disabled, it is only recently that I have realised how my Dyspraxia affects my ‘day to day activities’ that the equality act mentions. As an adult it all started to become clear; like the fog was fading from the steamed up window. I’m sure I’ve spent much of my life wandering around in a big cloud of confusion wondering who I am, where I belong and how I can fit in. I have concluded that I didn’t need to use up the head space worrying about such things, but maybe that’s just the kind of person I am to always think about possibilities or circumstances that can never be realised. Labels can conjure up many thoughts. Thinking about myself, I am a woman, a graduate, a dyspraxic, I play the fiddle, I’m a Geordie and I wear glasses.These are all labels that describe me but definitely don’t define who I am as person. We are more than some labels, and I think it is vital to see beyond any labels to find the real person. For years I have strongly contested this label disability, I refused to admit that I was different to my peers, I wanted to feel normal, respected and valued. I have recently been given a photo album that my Grandparents made for me that documents the first few years of my life.
From these early photos you wouldn’t think that I had any kind of disability. I was a happy, sometimes cheeky little girl, enjoying life. My Disability is invisible and hidden, so unless you know me very well, you would never know. This also made it harder for me to understand and accept. When the time eventually comes for you to begin to understand yourself, it makes it virtually impossible to explain to the rest of society. When I started school, children noticed that I was different which caused the start of bullying from around the age of six. They’d notice that I was clumsy, I bumped into things, that I couldn’t catch a ball in PE and how I would often fall over in the playground almost everyday. When I was finally labelled as ‘Dyspraxic’ my parents and I made the unwritten rule that having this label was not going to prevent me from doing things. Having a label does enable you to get the extra support you need at school and later on in life in the work place which I am grateful for. It can also help me start to explain myself to friends however I don’t feel that I fit in with the community of ‘Dyspraxics’ because everyone is so different, and I certainly don’t think that one label fits all. I am fortunate that I went through endless trips to the hospital for tests and scans, to get to the stage to know who I might be. It’s acted as a stepping stone to prove everyone wrong when they assumed I couldn’t do something because of my label. As soon as I was given a label I blossomed, I took up gymnastics, joined a trampolining class, became a very competent swimmer and learned to ride a bike.
I would never be olympic standard in any of these, but I enjoyed myself and they were incredibly good for my coordination and spatial awareness developing muscle strength and tone, issues that affect some people with Dyspraxia. I also learned to play the violin, even with coordination difficulties music was not beyond my capabilities.
As I moved up to secondary school I began to become passionate about who I am and not afraid to stand up for what I believe in, after years of my parents fighting for me, I began to fight for myself. I would stand up to teachers and other young people if I felt injustice or when I knew they were in the wrong.This further developed a reputation or label of me being argumentative and constantly questioning authority. I realised eventually there were some better ways to be heard so I began to write letters to the headteacher and used my English lessons to write down and express how I felt. I wanted to feel that I had a voice and to be listened to and counted without being defined by my label. I remember one of my school reports commenting that ‘Alice has an innate sense of justice and fairness’ This says it all and made me realise that people were starting to notice what I had to say. As I reached 6th form and started to study my A levels, teachers developed much more respect for me and for the first time in my academic life began to see me as an individual and not as ‘the dyspraxic’.