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Guest post: I'm fed up of having to perform my disability
When getting out of my wheelchair to climb into the car I have two signature moves. One is to stand up and to loudly declare to all who can hear "it's a miracle!" The other is to steer my chair level with the seat and move my bum over as if my legs are paralysed. Which one I choose depends whether I'm in a belligerent mood, or a vulnerable one.
I can stand, just not for long, and I can walk, just not very far. I need to use my wheelchair in order to have a hope of going anywhere beyond my own home. Limited as my mobility is, though, I am still made to feel like a con artist for using a wheelchair. You see, society says that to use a wheelchair you must have paralysis.
The only exceptions to this rule are people with broken limbs and the elderly. The movement of limbs is a way to sort the inspirational cripple from the thieving scrounger.
Over the last few years I've become increasingly aware of raised eyebrows when I get out of my wheelchair. A couple of years ago when taking my children out for the day, the woman deciding whether or not I deserved a disabled person's ticket asked me, "are you stuck in there? It's just I need to know if you're one of those people who can just pop in and out". My moral worth was to be measured by how many steps I could take.
A wheelchair is key to leaving the house for people with a huge range of conditions, including those experiencing fatigue, yet we're constantly told we need to justify our usage.
To play along or not?
And so, it comes to this: either I allow people to see me stand from my wheelchair and accept that they will assume I am morally deviant, or I play the game and look like the disabled person they deem worthy enough, and get on with life in the usual way. I often choose to play the part which alienates me and others like me most – the media stereotype of the worthy cripple.
Not all disabled people are automatically hated, you see – not in all situations, at least. There are certain things we are good for. Do you have a media story that needs an extra sentimental push? Roll in the cripple. Are some non-disabled people feeling a bit deflated, and in need of an inspirational boost? Our achievements make perfect memes, especially if we have won a Paralympic medal or swum the Channel.
This creates a paradox: ‘real’ disabled people must be completely bedridden in order for their disability to be legitimate, yet if they want to win respect rather than just well-intentioned pity, they must be capable of incredible physical achievements. We are Schrödinger's cripple, simultaneously high achieving and entirely incapable. That is our Paralympic legacy.
Disability hate crime
I would love to tell you that this begins and ends with what strangers think, but the outcomes are far more serious. I have spoken to many disabled people who fear for their benefits - the money they need to live on - should their neighbours make decisions about them based only on what they cannot see. Disability hate crime has increased in recent years, from street harassment to assault, and this correlates with the scrounger narrative pushed by successive governments and the right-wing press.
They take the fraud rates for disability benefits, estimated at 0.7%, and exaggerate them, so that every disabled person is presumed to have even odds of faking their disability. This distorted link between fraudulence and disability leads to our every economic decision being viewed with suspicion. Those all-too-familiar arguments about benefits being too high if people can afford widescreen televisions, mobile phones, cigarettes and alcohol are constantly thrust upon us.
A self-flagellating disabled person can be donned with a crown of thorns and presumed to be genuine, but one who drinks, smokes and watches Jeremy Kyle on a large television is a scrounger and a faker. One must not exercise consumer choice.
Performing disability, so that our unique needs conform to society's version of what being disabled should look like, is an act of self-preservation - a means of avoiding economic destruction or physical punishment. In order to be deemed worthy we have to abide by certain rules:
- Do not: stand, buy anything, drink, smoke, walk, have a Sky dish, keep your curtains closed (even if you're photosensitive), drive a Motability vehicle, be bedridden, be fat, watch daytime television, be offended by scrounger narrative ("they don't mean genuine people like you"), have children, become a single parent, go to theme parks, live in a council house, get tattoos, claim benefits, get a mobile phone (especially not an iPhone).
- Do: win a Paralympic medal, lose your puppy and appear in the media, become a millionaire, swim the English Channel, and raise millions for charity. See how easy it is to be accepted?
This article was first published in Mumsnet.Click here to read more disability-related guest posts.