For a long time, I struggled with my disability identity (Picture: Samantha Renke)
‘Ah, bless her!’ a woman bellowed in my direction, loud enough to hear over the torrential rain that had suddenly sprung upon us.
It had been one of those days; nothing was going to plan, so I decided to take myself out of my flat for some fresh air.
This little promenade soon turned into a very fancy vegan burger and a large glass of Pinot Grigio sat blissfully watching the world go by on my own.
Messy hair, Ugg boots and no make-up, I was sublimely content and rather proud of myself for being such a grown-up not caring what I look like, happy in my own company.
On my way home, I dodged and weaved through the people on the pavement. More often than not, it was I who had to stop and allow people to pass. The pavement was too narrow or clogged up with abandoned bikes, or rubbish from shops and restaurants, as well as the odd pothole.
They’re all hazards as a wheelchair user, especially when I’m out in my much larger power chair.
As I swerved to make space, I smiled at a group of women who looked like tourists, navigating around the city. That’s when the comment occurred. The fact that I was being courteous and smiley clearly sparked a reflex from one of them: ‘Bless her.’
I sighed. Did she think I couldn’t hear? And, what exactly is it about me that needs to be blessed?
As I deliberated this exchange, I was caught off guard as another woman darted from around the corner and nearly landed on my lap. ‘Oh, I’m so, so, sorry,’ I said – always so British with my reactions even when I’m not at fault! But it’s also down to my internalised ableism at play that tells me to apologise for taking up space as a disabled woman.
Then, to my astonishment, this second lady then said: ‘Oh, bless!’ You’ve got to be kidding me!
In a matter of a few feet, I’d experienced two bouts of ableist microaggressions. As a wheelchair user, I am no stranger to daily comments or actions that reinforce the layers of institutionalised and systematic oppression and negative harmful stereotypes the world has on disability. Ideas that I should be pitied, or that I’m somehow inspirational just for living my life.
For a long time, I struggled with my disability identity and interactions like this really weighed heavily on my self-worth. I didn’t understand where these interactions came from. I was simply being myself, unapologetically authentically me.
I am a grown woman, not a baby or a cute puppy dog or someone who needs to be gushed over or protected, and I certainly don’t appreciate random people taking pity on me. Would you go around saying ‘Oh bless’ or ‘What a shame’ or ‘I can cure you’ to work colleagues or strangers?
I guess for many people, seeing a petite disabled woman out and about being cheerful is in many ways opposite of what we are told about disability
My frustration growing up as an adolescent with a disability came down to not understanding why society had to treat disabled people as ‘others’ – so it was rather a eureka moment when I came across disability studies and learnt about the different models of disability.
Models of disability is just a way of saying and identifying how society and non-disabled people define and explain disability – also how these views impact the lives of those within the disability community.
Not only am I a uber-geek of studying sociology but learning about these models of disability actually empowered me.
I was much more able to articulate feelings I was having. I also didn’t feel as isolated. Disability can be rather lonely at times so to know that what I was going through wasn’t because I was wrong, rather society.
There are many models of disability, but we haven’t got all day, so here are the ones that have resonated with me the most.
The interaction that I’ve described to you above would be in line with The Charity Model: it depicts disabled people as victims of circumstance who are deserving of pity.
I guess for many people, seeing a petite disabled woman out and about being cheerful is in many ways opposite of what we are told about disability; that our lives are miserable and difficult. Or, that we can’t pop out for a glass of vino or live in central London, or have carers and sex appeal, hence the ‘Oh, bless her’ comments.
The charity model is an extension of the medical model, in which disabled people are seen as something to be fixed. I’ve spent a lot of my life feeling like I was wrong or a burden, which at times led me to believe I had to be cured.
For many years, my medical health care professionals thought my life would have more value if I learned to walk. I went through painful operations, braces and time out of school all to achieve this – however, the result was broken bones, pain and loneliness. Instead, I could have simply accepted and respected my life as a wheelchair user.
This is where the social model comes in; it says that, actually, I am only ‘disabled’ because of my environment, rather than my own impairment.
Of course, I have brittle bones – you can put me on the moon and that wouldn’t change. But depending on where I am, it affects whether I am actually disabled.
Take my flat, for example: it’s accessible, so it has automatic windows and doors; I have a wet room and adjustable light fittings.
In my home, I still have brittle bones but I’m not disabled. Yet, when I go out and about, I am met with disabling barriers. So, in many ways, disability is a social construct.
When I heard about the social model, I can’t express how liberating and unburdening it felt to hear that I wasn’t the problem and my needs aren’t ‘special’, rather I deserve to be treated and respected just like everyone else.
Finally, we have the affirmation model. It is a non-tragic view of disability and impairment that includes positive social identities for disabled people based upon the benefits of our lives. For me, this has been a way of being my authentic self by allowing me to say that some days, I don’t like my disabled body, and I experience pain but also acknowledging that being disabled is my biggest strength.
I am more compassionate; I understand and listen to my body more and my career as a role model and disability advocate and activist all stems from my impairment.
All of these things allow me to have pride in my disability identity. I never see my disability identity as a tragedy – rather I love my uniqueness with all its highs and lows.
These social models have different meaning to different people and you may not agree with all of them. But they allowed me to make peace with who I am and take pride in my disability.