Celebrating Cerebral Palsy

Earlier this week, on October 6th, it was World Cerebral Palsy Day. By the time that I realised, it was too late to make any kind of meaningful statement, though I’m proud of myself for taking a moment now. In truth, even my past self from just a year ago would have been shocked that I’m finding something to celebrate. Yet, here I am.

I was born in April of 1997, a whole three months earlier than expected, at twenty-seven weeks. Back then, medical interventions were not what they are now, so my survival was a miracle in itself. I mean, my nurses at the Trevor Mann Baby Unit had a cake when I reached a kilo in weight. One single kilo. Whenever my parents left the hospital after visiting me, I would generally stop breathing. These days, we make jokes that I did this just to be dramatic and get their attention, even though the reality would have definitely been much scarier for them. Eventually, the doctors got used to this routine and discovered that they could bring me back by simply touching my feet, which are still incredibly ticklish now. The idea makes me smile, for some reason. Still, once everything was slightly more stable, attention turned to uncovering how my development might be affected by being born so prematurely. This is where the story gets interesting, I suppose.

It was initially hoped that I would just reach certain milestones a little later than everyone else, especially since my twin brother was ultimately healthy. However, after it became apparent that my situation would be somewhat more complex, scans were able to confirm that I had cysts on my brain. Fun fact: I have only relatively recently discovered that this means parts of my brain are actually now missing. How oddly cool is that? But even getting a diagnosis of Cerebral Palsy doesn’t immediately provide any clarity. There are a few different types, which all present themselves differently in each individual. No person with this disability has exactly the same experience, which is perhaps the most isolating part about it. So, naturally, my parents were hit with all of the worst-case scenarios. They were told that I wouldn’t be able to walk, talk, feed myself or even sit up independently.

If you’re reading this, you know that I have already achieved so much more than anybody first expected of me. My mum had to fight for me to be given a chance in mainstream education, which is maybe why my degree is so precious. Something about it feels very deeply empowering. With that said, I have sometimes felt like the living embodiment of a juxtaposition: so much ability, yet still so dependent. There are so many of the mundane daily tasks that require being able to walk, or at least stand, in order to do them without assistance from anyone else. Whilst I can feed myself, I still find it difficult to cut meals up into manageable bites, despite my best efforts. There is no denying that it can be a frustrating journey.

A screenshot of a Tweet by Eddie Ndopu, which reads: “Ableism doesn’t just dehumanize disabled people, it strips non-disabled people of their own humanity. We’re all harmed by the belief that there is just one desirable way of being human. Disabled people show us more beautiful, more expansive, more honest ways of being human.”
I am working on celebrating the more beautiful, expansive and honest version of this human experience today.

Interestingly, this piece was (at least partly) inspired by mum finding an old copy of HELLO! magazine, which a Young Danielle featured in. Fiona Bruce came to visit Chailey Heritage, where I spent a lot of time growing up, mostly to attend various appointments. As an organisation, they specialise in Cerebral Palsy and other neurological conditions, so she took pictures with some of the children there. In the accompanying interview, she spoke about how she had worried over the possibility of having a disabled child throughout her second pregnancy, revealing that she hadn’t known how she would cope. Although it never happened, she mentioned how spending the day with these disabled children and their families (myself included) had given her cause to reflect upon her comparatively “selfish existence”. I don’t know why, but something about this particular quote annoyed me, even when I tried to think about it from the perspective of society in 2002. See, the implication is that disabled children are burdens. Maybe I could forgive this narrative, except for the fact that nothing has changed. Opinions are still the same.

I used to hate my body and all that it represents. Before you say it, this was not in the same way that everyone dislikes certain aspects of their body. It was gut-wrenching and visceral. Physically painful, at times, too. But now, I have accepted it, in the most beautiful way. Although it’s not the ideal for anyone, it’s my normal. Having Quadriplegic Cerebral Palsy has shaped a lot about who I am, both consciously and unconsciously. You know what? For once, I actually like that person. I think she’s pretty cool.

Owen, loving you is the greatest honour of my life. I am simply never going to shut up about how proud I am. xxx

Learning to Be Okay with Medical Trauma

Friends, a new orthotics consultant referred to my feet as “a deformity” today. Several times. It almost feels like I could just finish the post with this one sentence, hey? Still, I am determined to work through the ugliness of my deepest insecurities here, in a space that continually proves itself to be safe. Let’s start at the beginning, shall we?

The pivotal point in my lack of dedication towards exercise and embracing my disability enough to manage it properly came when I was approximately thirteen. I was beginning to prepare for the possibility of having an operation on my hip, so when my surgeon asked about some background information, I mentioned that I regularly used a stander at home. “What for? Torture? It’s not going to make any difference whatsoever” was his reply, which is something that I have never forgotten. Initially, I was genuinely thrilled by his professional certainty, I’m not going to lie. I mean, it was boring and sometimes painful, so I was willing to accept any excuse not to put myself through that. Pretty quickly, I decided to stop with all of the things that disabled children are supposed to do, including physiotherapy. I couldn’t understand why I should bother taking care of myself in ways that only exaggerated my sense of otherness, if it was ultimately not going to improve my health, you know? For a long time, this approach felt like a Good Thing. If I could function without relying upon these extras, then I was somehow less disabled and therefore living life more fully than anyone had otherwise expected. Little did I know that it would instead take me a whole decade to begin addressing this as internalised ableism.

Aside from the turmoil that I’m going through as I type this: so far, I am having the best year of my life. I am really, truly starting to get my shit together. When I read back through older posts, it’s so clear from my writing, too. For that, I am endlessly proud of myself. However, I have been getting increasingly anxious that this self-improvement has arrived too late, leaving my health set to follow a downwards trajectory from here, no matter what I do. I had been trying to focus on how irrational these thoughts sounded, until today, when I heard: “some of this deformity could have been prevented if you’d had intervention sooner”. Genuine question: what am I supposed to do with that information? It’s not like I can reverse any of the choices that led me here, which means that I just feel guilty about it instead. Fun.

A picture of Danielle with her brother, Jack, from when they were small children. They are in a twin buggy, both wearing sunglasses and blue hats. Danielle is wearing a green jumper with white leggings. Jack is wearing a white top with black stripes and black trousers.
Just a disabled child and her brother wearing funky clothes in the 90s for your enjoyment.

Even before this happened, it’s an issue that I discuss with my physiotherapist often. I suppose that she has become something of a regular therapist, too. But I do get frustrated with my younger self and it’s not always easy to move forward from. When I was growing up as a visibly disabled child, the sense of exposure felt almost violent. I wasn’t represented anywhere by the people that I knew or the environments that I found myself in. I wanted nothing more than to exist quietly and fit into the groups that had always eluded me. Back then, just making it through to the end of every day was difficult enough for my brain to handle, without trying to simultaneously contemplate what my adulthood might look like. Let’s be real: I am living that now and I still don’t have many of the answers.

Since this experience still feels vulnerable on my heart, I’m not entirely sure how to conclude. There is one thing that I’m absolutely certain of, though: the disabled community is not defined by our experiences with shitty medical professionals. In particular, right now, the treatment of Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (also known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome) needs to be radically overhauled without any further delays. Exercising is harmful when your body is not physically capable or prepared for it — and it turns out that symptoms don’t just magically disappear when you talk about them in therapy. Shocker. Sign the petition for change here.

Owen, you have changed my whole life in the most beautiful way. Thank-you for making it all worthwhile. I love you so much and will never allow you to forget how magical you are. xxx

Having Ambitions and Managing Expectations as a Disabled Person

My life is not defined by any of the boundaries that society places upon me. My existence is too full and beautifully loud to be squished into any boxes. At least, that’s what I have been trying to tell myself every day. I am slowly learning, however, that the reality is not always so idyllic.

My lovely friend, Elaine, recently sent me a screenshot from a YouGov survey and brought my attention to one question in particular. It asked whether or not the general population thought that disabled people were “too reliant” on the welfare system to support them. When I last wrote about this in detail, I didn’t articulate myself very well, so let me be clear. In these circumstances, any money that people receive is truly the very bare minimum, yet even this is being reduced further in October. I have been trying not to think about it too much, if I’m being completely honest. It’s stressful and makes me feel kind of gross about myself. I mean, this is happening despite warnings from various charities that it’s likely to push millions of vulnerable people into debt. If that doesn’t tell you everything you need to know about how little our lives — and the things that bring us joy — matter, then I don’t know what will. Furthermore, in response to criticism, Boris Johnson has said that people should see their incomes rise by making an effort independently. In case it wasn’t obvious, here’s why this is so ableist: many disabled people can’t work, for a myriad of different health reasons. At best, it’s not always possible for them to manage working full-time. Secondly, many jobs and workplace environments are physically inaccessible. For example: I have been trying really hard to find a job, truly. My body doesn’t allow me to do much that is deemed worthy of being paid for, but I saw an opening at a local library. Working from home would be ideal, but I was willing to give this a try, until I saw that you were required to be capable of manual labour. I was so disheartened — and this is only one example. Not only that, but many positions require some level of experience, which has never been available to me. Lastly, disabled people are consistently paid less than their non-disabled counterparts. It is so unbelievably draining to constantly take an unflinching look at your body and feel like nothing will ever be good enough.

The other day, I went on a walk with my family to the park, as a small celebration of my brother’s engagement. When we were there, someone stared at me, which is fairly standard. These moments affirm that the (dis)proportions of my body are jarring to those around me. That my obvious happiness is shocking, confusing and worthy of a second glance. Interestingly, it also reminded me of a conversation that I had with my physiotherapist during our last session. We were in the middle of doing even more work than before, when I mentioned very casually that I hate doing squats because “I feel like I look silly”. She told me that many of her patients have expressed similar insecurities, particularly around going to the gym. She said “I have massive respect for anyone that knows other people are going to have an opinion about the way that they are able to look after themselves and choose to do it anyway, even when it’s difficult”. The urge to shrink myself and hide away is overwhelming sometimes. There is both comfort and sadness in knowing that I’m not alone in this.

A black and white photo of Danielle using a hoist to stand in physiotherapy. She is wearing a mask but her eyes look happy because she is smiling at the camera. She is holding on for dear life.
I thought about using a hoist for transfers when I was in secondary school, but my brother and his friend walked in unexpectedly when I was trying them out. I was literally dangling in the air. I remember leaving the room in tears because I didn’t want them — or anyone — to see me at my most disabled. The shame was indescribable. Now, I’m willingly posting this picture on the internet. That’s a win for personal growth.

As I was writing this, trying to think about how to wrap things up and make sense of how I’m supposed to move forward from here, my sister came into the room to help me have a shower. I couldn’t figure out how to log out of the web browser, so just quit the page instead. “You’re going to lose all of your work”, she said. Her choice of words hit me with a clarity that had been lost before. Work. This, here, is work. It might not make me any money, but it’s my something. The value that disabled people have cannot be measured by their contribution to traditional definitions of employment. This doesn’t mean that we deserve to live a life that is smaller and less open to adventure.

Owen, you make it feel like moving mountains to include me will never be too much hassle. I don’t have enough words in my vocabulary to express how deeply important you are. I love you so much. xxx

The Truth about Representations of Disability and Chronic Illness

Recently, the BBC aired a documentary, which promised to explore how damaging it can be when chronically ill people are accused of faking their conditions online. After hearing from the disability community that this was actually dangerously misrepresented, I decided to take a deep breath and watch it myself. In doing this, I wanted to make sure that I had access to all of the relevant information and could articulate my thoughts properly, you know? So, here we are. Let’s sit down and talk about it, please. Education is perhaps most important when we are given yet another reason to stop fighting.

The piece itself is only relatively short, so its narrative became twisted pretty early on. Rather than highlighting the lived experience of this toxicity, it worked towards adding validity to these personal attacks and focused on offering an understanding as to how these doubts might begin to materialise. Alongside this, there was also a conversation about how those with genuine chronic illnesses will exaggerate their symptoms online for attention. Frankly, I still don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

To a certain extent, I am blessed by the fact that I have a permanently visible disability, so my diagnoses are generally taken seriously. Like, I fit the description, right? Being disabled only seems to count when you look like me. Still, just the other day, a new consultant asked me if I ever experience pain in my legs simply from existing. Before my brain had time to properly process the question, I found myself telling her that I was fine and didn’t have too many complex health worries. Of course, that’s not true and I can feel the familiar hum of pain running through my legs as I type this. On Monday, I had a particularly tough session at physiotherapy. So tough, in fact, that I could have very easily cried about it. Yet, whenever she checked in with how I was feeling, I insisted that I was handling the whole thing well. I hate giving the world yet another reason to believe that I am an inconvenience, so would rather just quietly ride the wave instead. I’m working on getting better, but these experiences are important to discuss openly because they are only compounded by issues around chronic illness.

A screenshot of a Tweet by Poppy Field, which reads: “I hate how it’s radical to believe a disabled or chronically ill person, but I believe you. 

Please don’t doubt yourself or internalise recent media ❤️”
It’s not hard to be a decent human being about the things that you don’t understand, okay?

Because Cerebral Palsy is not enough, I also have Ulcerative Colitis. This in itself is not visible, yet it has a disabling impact on my life. When I say that I barely left my bathroom for two years, it’s not an exaggeration. One time, I was fed up of missing so many classes and decided to make an appearance on campus, despite not being anywhere near stable enough for that. It took less than an hour for me to realise that I should be at home, only for my lecturer to run out of the room after me and start asking increasingly invasive questions. This whole experience was deeply uncomfortable, especially since we really didn’t know each other very well. Throughout this time, I was constantly asked to provide letters and test results before any extension on my deadlines would be approved. I had to cancel dates, which always ended with being sent messages saying “you can just tell me if you’re not interested”, even when I tried to offer an explanation. Thankfully, I’m currently on some hardcore medication that has put me in remission. With that said, it does make my hair fall out, which has been an interesting thing to manage. So, what has been the point of this overshare? Nobody would put themselves through this on purpose, truly. It is hard enough. Even though things are significantly better now, I am tired all of the time and it’s a fight every single day not to believe that my life is being wasted. To believe that I can (and will) do more. We should be allowed to search for a sense of community without being doubted. Furthermore, on the very rare occasion that someone isn’t being entirely truthful about their health or the circumstances around it, let’s remember: Münchausen Syndrome is a mental illness and it deserves to be treated with care and compassion. The rest is not a competition.

In conclusion: do better. Also, if you have read this far, please take a moment to educate yourself on Micaela’s story and sign this petition, so that she can stay in New Zealand with her family. I genuinely looked into moving there when the pandemic first began and wasn’t allowed to even begin the process because I’m disabled. Really. This shit happens. Like I said, do better.

Owen, your stories deserve to be heard by the entire world. I’m so proud of you and I love you more than anything. xxx

Let’s Get Political: Inaccessible Workplaces and Why the Welfare System Needs to Do Better

The Government has recently put forward a Green Paper, which highlights the efforts that are now going to be made, aimed at helping disabled people to fully integrate within all areas of society. They are so proud of this, calling it “the most ambitious plan in a generation”, particularly focusing on bridging the employment gap, ensuring that the disabled community are theoretically able to find and keep work more easily. Not only that, but they also placed emphasis on tightening the laws around building accessible housing, too. So, here’s the thing: all of this sounds exciting, right? Some might even argue that it’s progressive. With that said, reaching this point has been so painfully difficult, both locally and globally. For example: just a few days ago, it was announced that the US Paralympic team will be paid the same amount as their Olympic counterparts for the first time ever. Yet, we are expected to be grateful for the bare minimum — the smallest signs of progress —, after consistently being told throughout the pandemic that our voices should remain unheard? Not today, thanks.

When I was in the early years of secondary school, we were once learning to sew as part of a textiles class. I find stuff like this embarrassingly difficult because my fine motor skills leave a lot to be desired, so I had been heavily relying upon help from my Support Worker. I mean, you would think that’s literally what they’re there for, huh? Still, the teacher waited for everyone to leave as the day ended before launching into a speech about how I would never amount to anything if I insisted upon moving forward with a bad attitude and expected other people to do everything for me. She then went on to imply that I was simply too lazy to try, as if she was suddenly the expert in all things Cerebral Palsy, which was an interesting take. I left the room without saying much and she called my mum to apologise before I even arrived home, but the damage had already been done. It’s funny, how quickly you can begin to doubt yourself once this message has been sent your way. Maybe I really wasn’t doing enough. Maybe everyone would get bored of me. Maybe my presence just makes people roll their eyes.

I have many examples like this one, but there’s a lot that this leads into, so I’ll just give one more: when I was later in a wood technology class, I was determined that I could do this independently. I wanted to be seen actively participating, almost as if to prove that I deserved to be there. I remember this distinctly because I was initially allowed to do it independently, after I had been given some gentle direction. I was so genuinely proud of myself, until it was decided that I was being too slow, so the teacher just wordlessly came to finish it for me. Worst of all, he made it took easy. Again, the message was clear: even my best efforts would always hold other people back.

With this, I have always found it hard to settle on a career — or even the idea of one. Do I have enough to offer? Is it actually possible to earn a decent wage on the amount of hours that I’d physically be able to put myself through? How flexible are employers likely to be, really? What would I even be good at, anyway? So many questions. Of course, it’s easy for people to assume that the welfare system is a dreamy alternative, although it’s the opposite. The money that you receive is alarmingly minimal and it’s almost impossible to build up any meaningful savings. I was once told by an assessor that they expect me to only be able to afford a holiday if my parents paid for me, as an example. Of course, that’s without even talking about how deeply invasive and distressing the process is in itself. I was asked to talk at length about all the things my disability prevents me from doing — the very things that I’m constantly pushing to the furthest edges of my mind —, to the point where it made my mum cry. There is no dignity in this.

A screenshot of a Tweet by Kitty Strand, which reads: “it just seems wild to have a minister for disabled people who isn't disabled”.

In summary: we live in a society that equates working with having value, yet are already beginning to scale back on the most accessible remote job opportunities, in light of restrictions being eased. Then, we use this to dehumanise disabled people altogether. Disabled people deserve to live the fullest of lives, no matter what, but employers also need to recognise that we are worth more. It’s really not that hard, okay? It would be nice to be given a chance.

Owen, you will forever be my favourite person in the whole world. I still don’t know what I did to deserve you, for the record. xxx

Finding Disability Pride in a Global Pandemic

Until recently, I have always actively avoided attaching myself to any notion of disability pride. If I’m being completely transparent, I hoped that this defiance might somehow allow me to wake up one morning with the ability to walk — or even stand. There is no logic to this thought pattern whatsoever, I know, but I do still have dreams about it sometimes. It’s hard to describe what it feels like to wake up from these places with the briefest hope that they have become a reality. If you were wondering, the first thing that I’d do in this instance would be to find my parents and shout “surprise!” in the most casual tone that I could muster. Afterwards, I would immediately go for a shower. Independently. What a wild concept. Also, I have always thought that jumping looks like so much fun, even if only on the spot. Is it fun? The simplest of things, really. Yes, I have planned it. Just in case. But when that doesn’t happen, what am I left with? I have spent half my life genuinely believing that it was impossible for me to happily exist in a disabled body. Let me tell you, friends, the ugliness of this pandemic has led to the most beautifully wild and liberating revelation: I was wrong. There will always be a lot of noise to the contrary, but disabled lives are full. Disabled lives are good. Disabled lives are worthwhile. Disabled voices are important, even when (and perhaps because) policy consistently works to suggest otherwise. So, let’s talk about that, please.

Here we are again. In the United Kingdom, most restrictions are officially set to be lifted on July 19th, despite warnings that this could cause our case numbers to reach one hundred thousand per day. But most clinically vulnerable people have been fully vaccinated now, so who cares, right? The amount of times that I have heard this argument within my own social circle is both disappointing and not at all surprising. The fact remains that recent research raises doubts over vaccine effectiveness for immunocompromised people. In all honesty, I have been trying really hard to simply avoid fully processing this information and stay positive about the potential outcomes, which may sound irresponsible, but it’s also deeply important to my emotional stability. Because what type of message is this supposed to send, really? From where I’m sitting, the answer is a painfully obvious one: nobody cares. The lives of disabled people are inherently less valuable than opening nightclubs, for example. Once again, it has been decided by the people in positions of power that we are disposable. Well, excuse me if I’m done being quiet about this bullshit.

A screenshot of a Tweet by Karl Knights, which reads: “Not gonna lie, I am very much not fine. Having the government, and your peers, just outright say that they don't care if disabled people die is as enraging as it is upsetting.”
I am leaving this here because I have A Lot of feelings. The world is especially rough for disabled people right now and it’s okay to just sit in the sadness for a while, if you need to.

See, having a disabled and/or chronically ill body isn’t easy, especially in moments such as these. The subtle ways in which society is ready to tear us down for its own benefit can become twisted into our own brains and leave irreparable damage. But guess what? The idea of getting on other people’s nerves by existing loudly and happily motivates me more than anything else. This year, that is enough to fill me with pride, which I haven’t experienced before. I mean, let’s be real. It requires a lot of Bad Bitch Energy not to give up on yourself when your needs are very clearly seen as inconveniencing the general population. Similarly, it also requires a lot of Bad Bitch Energy to take up space in the rooms where difference is not welcomed. News flash: if you’re reading this, you haven’t given up on yourself, either. What a powerful moment.

To the non-disabled readers, thank-you for caring enough to listen. Thank-you for reaching out and offering solidarity. You give me hope that the future can be better.

Zoe, thank-you for always believing in me and filling my messages with words of wisdom. You are brilliant and bright, even on hard days. Owen, thank-you for teaching me the power behind being unapologetically myself. I love you. xxx

My Disabled Body is Not a Burden, You’re Just a Dick

About two weeks ago, a disabled friend of mine sent me a text, asking if I’d ever navigated the precarious tightrope of feeling like a burden on my family. To be completely honest, the short and painful answer is: every day, without any real explanation. Interestingly, as I write this now, I’m fighting the overwhelming urge to reassure the reader that not everything about my existence is a hassle. Like, I made a list on my phone of all the things that I can do independently, as if that somehow equates to my worth. I mean, why do these details matter so much? I don’t know, but it’s probably some internalised ableism bullshit. As I work through it all, I wanted to allow myself a bit of public vulnerability, in case someone else can relate and is searching for solidarity. So, let’s buckle up.

For context, I am naturally inclined to believe that life is infinitely more fun for everyone else when I’m not invited to participate. The simple yet brutal fact is that existing in a body like this makes everything more complicated, not only for disabled people themselves, but also for those most closely associated with us. In fact, drafts of this post were almost entirely negative, as I became consumed with the idea that I’m not worth the extra effort. I was even ready to give you examples of the ways in which my presence doesn’t sparkle in social situations, validating your decision to not include me. Often, I’m not sure that I deserve it. How sad is that, really? But here’s the thing: disabled people are worthy of a seat at every table. Yes, we might occasionally have to make some noise about it, but so what? We shouldn’t have to limit ourselves just because other people can’t be bothered to make accommodations.

Over the years, I have spent time planning dream weddings with my friend, Kesia. Even during the times when we have both been Very Single. I will always lightheartedly say “I’ll be deeply upset if you choose an inaccessible venue” and she responds every single time with variations of “Danielle, I would simply refuse to get married without you”. What I’m learning, even right now as the words begin to form, is that it’s not difficult at all. I have spent a lifetime surrounded by this idea because so many people don’t care enough to figure it out. Still, that’s their loss.

With this in mind, it feels like a good time to talk about my parents. They have never been given the luxury of deciding whether or not to accommodate their plans, you know? It has been a very direct part of their reality for the past twenty-four years. It’s impossible not to wonder what paths they might have taken differently, if my body had been less reliant on them growing up. For my siblings, also, it has been an undeniably wild ride. As I have gotten older, I have spent a lot of time crying over the idea that they would always feel somewhat responsible for and limited by me, which I would prefer to avoid at all costs. There are parts of these sacrifices that can sometimes be both physically and emotionally exhausting.

A picture of Danielle standing awkwardly from her wheelchair and smiling. She is wearing a burgundy jumper, has short brown hair and wears glasses. In the background, you can see that her bed is messy. There’s also a plant and some weights on the chest of drawers behind her.
Enjoy this picture of me attempting to stand (badly) because it’s empowering to not care what I look like.

There is another side to this that nobody seems to talk about or prepare you for, though. See, having a life of my own finally feels like a genuinely tangible possibility for the future. That’s what falling in love does to people, I suppose. I was always convinced that it would never happen for me. I could only ever envisage getting older in my family home and staying there forever, without reaching any of the usual milestones. I really, truly believed that I was destined to watch from the sidelines. I couldn’t see another alternative, so it eventually became something that everyone else grew comfortable with, too. So, how can my family be expected to process these emotions when my options change so radically beyond anyone’s wildest dreams? What happens to their identities, which have always been centred around whatever I needed? I don’t have the answer to this question, but it’s clear that the transition can be a painful one.

To summarise: if you’re disabled and feel like a burden, please know that this really is a societal problem. You have been conditioned to feel that way by a world refusing to build itself around your needs. Even when you’re surrounded by wonderful people, there will still be moments where this feeling persists. Fight it. You’re worth so much more, I promise. You add value to the lives of others that is beyond your comprehension and they would be lost without you.

Owen, thank-you for always reminding me that coexistence is beautiful, no matter what it looks like. I promise to make space for you in every room. I love you so much. xxx

Reflecting on my Disabled Childhood

Today marks nine years since I had surgery on my left hip, pinning it into place. At the same time, I also had at least one other minor procedure, to loosen the tightness in my hamstrings. In truth, my memory of this time is a little hazy, though I can piece together flashes. Mostly about the pain and throwing up when I was given morphine. I have tried really hard to redirect my brain’s focus over the years, to think about something else whenever June approaches, although this has so far been impossible. The two (incredibly neat) scars on my legs are a daily reminder of how different everything would have been if I was born into another body, you know? Often, this is also visually represented to me through the lives of my non-disabled siblings, too. In a first draft of this post, the next lines were: I find myself craving an adult experience that isn’t dictated by my dependence on those around me, even now. I can imagine that it must be so wildly liberating, despite the fact that everyone else gets to make these choices without a second thought. However, whilst I might never be completely comfortable with the permanence of my situation, it’s important to recognise that different is not always synonymous with better. Things have been intense since this fateful day in 2012, sure, but I’m not going to be defined by my experiences. For the first time in probably forever, I am genuinely and consistently happy. I am slowly learning to be proud of my disability. The heaviness that used to sit on my chest has largely disappeared. I feel lighter. I have come so very far, which is why it’s necessary to look back on occasions like this one.

I wasn’t a nice person when I was fifteen — or really any time before that. Not really. It would be so easy to blame the system for its lack of support, but I do have to hold myself accountable. For a long time, even from a fairly young age, I was more mentally unwell than I’d like to admit. If the help had been offered to me, I doubt very much that I would have accepted it. It’s so hard to explain what it’s like to give up on yourself, without really trying in the first place. I couldn’t be bothered with any of it, I guess. I was convinced that my life would amount to nothing, no matter what I did. I was angry all of the time and I put my family through a lot, which I plan to write about in more detail next month. Some of the memories still make me feel physically sick, though.

I hated my time in hospital. More than that, I have some heavy trauma associated with my recovery, which isn’t something that I’ll ever go into detail about here. When this unfolded, I decided that I had to protect the softness of my heart and be unapologetically good, despite how cruel life can sometimes be. I am so proud of my adult self, truly. I’m always trying to make other people’s lives brighter, which is something that I am relatively successful at. I think. You tell me.

Still, with that said, I hate my legs and it would be a lie to pretend otherwise. I have a new physiotherapist these days and when we first met, she asked if she could take my shoes and socks off. I said, “you can if you want, but my feet are really ugly”. She replied, “I don’t think that anybody has pretty feet, Danielle”. I could have cried on the spot. Last week, she asked me to wear shorts, for practical reasons. I cried about this when I put them on. Like, I cried in the most ugly way that my mum later came home with a pair of jogging bottoms to stop me from feeling gross about leaving the house. It’s a process and we can only do our best with these things.

A screenshot of a Tweet by maya circe, which reads “i think we need to move away from the idea within body positivity/neutrality circles that bodies are worthy of love and respect bc they “work.” disabled bodies dont always “work.” disabled bodies are still worthy of love and respect, no matter if they “work” or not”
I’m leaving this reminder here for myself and anyone else who’s in need of it.

So, to recap: I survived! I am happier than I have ever been. I wish that I could tell my younger self. Not every day is perfect, but I am better able to handle the waves without drowning. That’s something worth celebrating.

Owen, you used to live inside of my dreams before we met, I’m sure. I’m not scared of the future anymore, because you’re here. I love you more with each day that passes, which is both clichéd yet true, so I don’t care. xxx

Reminder: Being Disabled is Sexy

Recently, I read something by a chronically ill woman, explaining how her health issues (and the associated caregiving) had taken away the passion in her marriage. Instead, she was watching her husband clearly view her body differently, consumed by the fear that she was powerless to stop it. For me, the most heartbreaking part of this story was that she seemed to understand the shift in his behaviour, as if nothing about her could be desirable anymore. My first instinct was just to say “get a new husband”, but it’s never that simple, unfortunately. See, I have spent a lifetime alongside these struggles and I’m not sure that they can ever be entirely overcome. With that said, there is nothing more empowering than feeling good about yourself when the rest of the world refuses to be inclusive about their beauty standards. Like, sometimes we need to live in order to spite the people that feel uncomfortable about such levels of confidence.

I started being kinder to myself when I came to the realisation that disabled people are conditioned to feel shit about themselves, in every aspect of their lives, but most especially relating to their intimate relationships. For example: we are surrounded by a very loud discourse that either considers us to be completely asexual or questions whether or not we’re simply being exploited whenever anyone shows even the slightest amount of interest. Of course, these are both important discussions to have, but the suggestion that they are applicable to disabled people as one homogeneous group is very deeply damaging.

When I was at university, one of my greatest joys came from writing an essay about how disabled people should have access to inclusive sex education. I had been really anxious about this at the time, since it didn’t entirely follow the guidelines we’d been given, but I was passionate enough to put any academic concerns aside. After reading it, my lecturer remarked that I had taught him something and gave me the highest grade in class, which is something that I’ll forever be proud of. I mean, the statutory curriculum makes no mention of how to support pupils with physical disabilities. When updating these guidelines, the PSHE Association acknowledged that this group has voiced feeling invisible throughout any relevant classes, without offering any solutions as to how this might be accommodated for. The sources for this information can be found here and here, though it’s clear that not much has changed, at least within the public domain. Looking back, I firmly believe that this lack of representation triggered something in my brain saying “this information does not — and will never — apply to you”. More than that, though, it also sent a subtle message to my non-disabled peers that they were never likely to date anyone with varying levels of ability. So, the cycle continues. This creates an almost morbid fascination around how we have sex — or even if we can at all. Let me say this: the answer looks different for everyone and every experience is valid, even the ones that don’t fit into your ableist and/or homophobic opinions about what really counts.

The point, I suppose, is that we don’t owe you an explanation. You are not entitled to that information. We allowed to have autonomy over our own bodies, thanks. Also, we deserve to explore our sexuality without being made to feel like it’s a scandalous event. The rest is, frankly, none of your business.

A screenshot of a Tweet by nix et alia, which reads “so i went to a sexual health clinic today in my powerchair & i swear to god. 

the woman was already trying to direct me out of the door before i opened my mouth to say i had an appointment. then she stops & goes ‘YOU have an appt HERE?’ 

yes my good binch: crips have sex too *face blowing a kiss emoji*”
I’ll just leave this here. Enjoy.

If having sex when you’re disabled is still a complex conversation, then it’s relatively easy to understand how these same points can be connected to pregnancy. As an example: a few years ago, Tanni Grey-Thompson was heavily pregnant when someone came up to her in the street and declared that the idea of her having sex was disgusting. With this, here are a few reminders: disabled people have every right to experience parenthood as others do, if that’s something they want. Disabled people’s bodies are remarkable — and you don’t get a voice in what’s appropriate to do with them. Disabled people can be (and are) wonderful parents. Go and read a book or watch a documentary, you’ll find plenty of examples.

Okay, I’m almost done ranting now, but I do have a request. In the UK, disabled people often risk losing their benefits and financial stability if they move in with a partner, which is unfair beyond all words. We deserve to experience love (every aspect of it) fully and completely, you know? The fight towards equality is far from over yet, but it would mean so much to me if you signed the petition for change here. xxx

Owen, my love, you understand me in the most beautiful way and I will never stop being grateful. Rachael, you are going to be the most incredible mother. I will forever fight in your corner.

Accepting Help as a Disabled Person

For me, having to accept some level of help from other people with my intimate care is perhaps the worst part of this human experience, especially because I will often feel like it’s some burdensome obligation. I am very deeply aware that this isn’t how adulthood is supposed to look like, you know? With that said, I have been trying so hard recently to become more independent, very stubbornly deciding that I will simply refuse to let my disability prevent me from fully living life. For the most part, I had been succeeding, too. I mean, just a few weeks ago, I was able to cut up one of my dinners without assistance from anyone else. Not very well or anything, but it still felt like reaching a big milestone. Every day was getting better, until I started to believe that the possibilities were endless, with the right amount of work.

Over the past week or so, however, my body has been giving up on me a lot. This isn’t something that I’ll be further discussing publicly right now, simply because it wouldn’t be good for my mental stability, though it has been heartbreaking beyond words. Learning to manage these new expectations has been far from easy — and my brain has been consumed by how cruel it feels. Disabled and chronically ill people are never allowed to get too comfortable with progress in their health. It is impossible to tell how long it will last, so any glimmer of hope can often be devastating. For the record: this is something that we are allowed to feel sad about. That doesn’t give everyone else the right to ignore the good parts of our lives, as if they don’t exist at all.

A screenshot of a Tweet by Ru (she/they), which reads: “the sheer frustration and disappointment at your body when you want to do something but physically can’t because of pain/fatigue is something that can never be adequately explained to a non-disabled person”
It is very easy to feel trapped. I’m not going to pretend otherwise. I’m not always going to have a Good Day.

If it matters at all, I do intend to fight back. I have worked too hard at loving myself to let this ruin my belief that the future can still be bright. But in many ways, that’s not really the point. This fight can be (and is) an exhausting one. It’s not something that I was ready to work with, particularly when things were on such an upwards trajectory. I have every right to take a moment, you know? It can be important to sit with the emotional turmoil on occasion. I will not shy away from talking about the Bad Days in order to make my existence more tolerable for everyone else. Looking back, I’m proud that I can do this now, safely in the knowledge that I’m not defined by these moments. I have never had that before, so I’m absolutely not asking for sympathy. Please, though: I am so happy that the pandemic is largely getting easier and I have even braved visiting a garden centre now(!!!), but let’s not forget that this can be difficult. The world has never been entirely safe for disabled people, but that is especially true in this moment. Let’s take small steps towards better, without forgetting that this can also be associated with a lot of anxiety. Let’s be gentle with each other and not completely abandon virtual interaction. I understand that it is getting tiresome for some, but it’s also a lifeline for others, which I refuse to invalidate. Health is not a guarantee, people.

Owen, you make everything better, always. Thank-you for listening to me cry about it. You are all that is good and I love you more than anything. To my family, thank-you for being on my team at every appointment and offering hugs whenever they’re needed. More than usual lately, I know, but I do appreciate it.

Truly, there needs to be a radical overhaul of support services for disabled young people, which seem to be impossible to find. It would be nice to occasionally feel heard — and it would be nice to find a physiotherapist that isn’t entirely out of their depth when they have me as a patient. I deserve better, but I’m also not the only one.

PS: I look like shit right now, but MAYBE I’ll post a celebratory selfie when things are brighter. My body image issues are not welcome here. xoxo