Who do you see sat in front of you today? A woman in a wheelchair. What do you know about me? From just looking at me, you can tell that I’m older than you; you might be able to tell from my accent that I’m Scottish; you know from the publicity for this event that I’m a counsellor in Southsea and that my name is Libby.
But what else? What else can we know about people just on casual acquaintance? We can guess, we can make assumptions based on previous experience or based on stereotypes we hold about certain ‘types’ of people - stereotypes like ‘All African men are good runners’ or ‘Blind people have a better sense of hearing to make up for their sight loss”.
Stereotypes can be harmless, but they can also be misleading and even dangerous, leading to groups of people being labelled ‘mentally ill’ or ‘evil’ or ‘poor things’. In WW2, stereotypes about disabled people led in part to them being dismissed by Nazi Germany as ‘useless eaters unworthy of life’ and sent off to the death camps.
Stereotypes can get in the way of really getting to know a person, understanding who they are and what makes them tick.
What we miss when we go by stereotypes are the whys and the hows of a person; why is a Scottish woman like me living in Portsmouth? How does she live her life? Why is she in a wheelchair? How does she feel about that?
These are some of the elements that go to make up a person’s sense of identity; how they answer the questions who are you and how do you feel about that? And that I think is where pride comes in. Am I proud of who I am? I’ll come back to that question later.
So. Why am I in a wheelchair? I became disabled when I was 17; I was riding a motorbike, went too fast around a corner and ended up on the wrong side of the road. There was a car coming the other way and I crashed into it; if it hadn’t been there, I probably would have walked away from it with scrapes and perhaps a broken arm or leg. As it was, I did serious and irreversible damage to my spinal cord which means that I use a wheelchair to get about.
In the space of a split-second, I went from being a member of the able-bodied majority to being a member of a minority group - the disabled. My sense of identity, my sense of who I am changed overnight. And - although I didn't know it at first - other people’s sense of who I was also changed.
Have you heard of the expression ‘Does he take sugar?’ applied to disabled people? It implies that a disabled person isn’t able to speak for themselves - that they don’t have a voice of their own.
This is just one of the stereotypes applied to disabled people. Often, when someone becomes disabled, they don’t realise the stereotypes and misconceptions they actually hold until they find themselves in that position.
There’s a quote that makes this clear: ‘Whatever opinions and beliefs you have about disabled people when you're able-bodied, that will be the belief you hold of yourself when you first become disabled’.
So if you think disabled people are a bit odd, or not able to live independently, or not able to have sex or have kids, or hold down a good job - then that’s what you'll think of yourself when you first become ‘one of them’. And that can be devastating to your self-esteem and self-confidence - and of course to your sense of identity. You might say ‘I’m not disabled! I can’t be! That’s not who I am’.
And that’s exactly what happened to me when I became disabled. My accident was over 30 years ago, and back then, there was no psychological support or counselling for people who had become disabled. So I had to find my own way.
At first, I was just content to get mobile again. I was in hospital for 4 months and for a long time, I didn’t really think much about the future and what my life would be like once I was back home. I was just coming up to my 18th birthday, and I’d been looking forward to starting a course at college later in the year. That was of course on hold.
Once I left hospital and was spending time at home, I began to realise that I no longer knew who I was. I was 18 years old and most of the people I’d been at school with were getting jobs or going to college or uni, or getting boyfriends and girlfriends.
I didn’t know, and didn’t want to think about, how I was going to live my life in the future; would I ever be happy? Would I ever find anyone who wanted to be with me? Would I ever be able to accept what had happened to me?
And then there were the changes to the way I was treated by other people. I’d grown up in the countryside, doing my own thing, playing football with my brother and his friends, riding horses, climbing trees. It was a very outdoorsy, physically active childhood. Everyone knew who I was, because my dad was the local headmaster. My brother and I were expected to get good exam results, go to university, and eventually settle down and have families of our own.
But then I had my accident, and all of a sudden people seemed to start assuming that a lot of these ‘normal’ things wouldn't now happen to me; there was a kind of assumption that I’d always stay at home with my mum, and be on benefits - because “that’s what disabled people do”.
As far as I knew, there were no other disabled people in the village where I grew up other than one or two very elderly people - and I certainly didn’t see myself as being anything like them. I felt very alone and isolated.
I remember one sunny day not long after I’d come home. Mum and I had gone shopping and she’d popped into a local shop whilst I waited outside. As I sat in my chair in the sunshine, two women walked past; one of them tipped her head on one side as she looked down at me, smiled sweetly, patted me on the head and said ‘What a shame’, before walking on. It’s fair to say I was completely gobsmacked.
I’ve had countless complete strangers ask me ‘What happened to you then?’, or ‘Are you a cripple or is it a temporary thing?’ or ‘Are you still able to …you know..have sex and stuff?’. Or they make assumptions such as, when they see me out with my dog, ‘They’re wonderful companions for people on their own!’. To which I always reply: ‘Yes, but my husband makes a much better cup of tea!’.
I used to get really angry when people would make assumptions about me based on the stereotypes and mistaken beliefs they had about disability and disabled people. Back then, underneath that anger was a fear that perhaps they were right; perhaps I’d never find someone who could see beyond the wheelchair - as an employer, or as a friend or as a partner. I tend now to think that education is the way forward and if I can help people learn with a light hearted comment, then so much the better.
I’m happy to say now that those people were proved wrong; I’ve been to university, worked in television and radio, been self-employed as a counsellor, got good friends and a lovely husband.
But sometimes I do still wish that I could ‘pass’ for able-bodied; be less visible, less obviously disabled because sometimes that would be easier than dealing with the people’s assumptions about what being disabled is like. Being a wheelchair-user in a world full of people walking around means I’m always visible, always easy to see. Sometimes it would be nice to be invisible!
What I’ve found as I get older is that I’m a lot less worried about what other people think of me, and what assumptions they make about me. Yes it’s annoying and tiresome, but is it something I really need to worry about? No, I don’t think so.
I also think that the more confident and secure I feel about myself, the more I’m treated by others in the way that I want to be treated - as an ordinary adult! I think this applies to all of us; the more you walk around, eyes down, shoulders hunched, as if you are frightened or ashamed, the more likely you are to attract people who treat you as if you have nothing to offer, or as if you're right to feel ashamed.
For a long time, I felt ashamed of being disabled, ashamed of who I was. Not any more though! Being disabled means you have a lot of obstacles in life to get past - bad attitudes as well as physical objects like stairs. What being disabled has done for me is build up my resilience, adaptability and perseverance - I don’t give up easily!
So going back to that question: am I proud of who I am? Yes! Am I proud of being disabled? That’s a different question; becoming disabled happened to me and it’s part of my identity, but it’s not the only part.
Personal identity is about being proud of who you are, all the different part of you, whether you're gay, straight, white, black, disabled or able-bodied; your sense of who you are doesn’t have to be decided by other people and who they think you are, or should be. I think it comes from the inside, and knowing from the inside who you are. Going back to those stereotypes, don’t let them define you - become your own person, not someone else’s idea of who you are.