I was holding what was going to be a gift for someone in my hand, when all of a sudden, a woman came from nowhere and started asking questions. “Did I wear leg braces?” “Could I walk?” “When did I learn to speak?”
I panicked and froze. My ability to speak became impossible to exercise. I didn’t know the right thing to say. Being bombarded with questions about my Cerebral Palsy (CP) inside a stationery shop wasn’t quite what I’d imagined for this day out.
I was just out shopping and didn’t want to be asked about my disability. The woman went on to tell me about someone they knew who also had CP. I felt like I was being used as a source for their hope, for this other person, wanting to know the ins and outs of how I was affected by this condition. I felt that I was being seen as my disability and not as a whole person.
Being compared to others with CP, or disabilities in general, is something that I have witnessed before. Maybe not as shockingly, but I have experienced times whereby a non-disabled person has thought I should be like another disabled person that they know, or that they should be like me.
Considering a person’s disabled experience to be the only experience is something other disabled people can identify with.
“Once a family member argued with me that a friend who was also a wheelchair user regularly goes to the gym and has no problems or pain – despite me explaining that I use a wheelchair due to chronic pain conditions,” says Sarah Alexander-Georgeson, a 34-year-old writer and blogger based in Wellingborough, Northants.
“They simply couldn’t compute that if their friend could go and not experience pain, why couldn’t I also go?”
She adds: “People tell me that they know people that have the same condition as me and don’t use a wheelchair, then ask, ‘so, are you worse?’ To which I always reply with, ’no, we’re all affected differently.’”
Explaining your disability is something you should never have to do, yet it always feels an unquestioned duty. Alexander-Georgeson, who runs the blog From Sarah Lex, uses the phrase “disability is not linear” to remind others how disability does not fit into one box.
Dax Everritt, 25, who lives in Leeds and is the creator of Diary of a Disabled Person, has also experienced the ‘one size fits all’ mentality that some non-disabled people can have.
“Just because I can work does not mean that another disabled person can, even if they have the same condition as me, because disability varies greatly between individuals,” Everritt explains.
“The complex relationships between disability and other factors such as healthcare, education, finances, travel needs, and the accessibility of viable employers will also impact each disabled person’s ability to work.”
The tendency to measure disabled people against each other can also be detrimental to your own mental health – and thoughts of being “not enough” can surface.
“I share my experiences to raise awareness of the types of issues faced by a disabled, non-binary, bisexual adult in the working world,” says Everritt. “I do not share my experiences as a disabled adult for them to be used to shame and guilt-trip others.”
By perceiving disability as something that contains identical experiences, other identities a person holds may be dismissed.
Ashley Harris Whaley, founder of Disability Reframed – a space that discusses issues faced by disabled people – tells me: “Often our experience is portrayed as a homogenous or singular one. In actuality, disability intersects almost every other identity there is – race, religion, gender, the list goes on.”
In cancelling intersectionality, disabled lives are often stripped down to two heavily stigmatised narratives.
“Disabled people are historically portrayed as either tragic figures who succumb or inspirational figures who triumph or overcome,” says Harris Whaley.
“These generalisations are unhelpful to the work disabled activists, writers, actors, speakers, and everyday professionals are doing to reframe the way our world perceives disability.”
These two narratives – hero or tragic figure – also perpetuate the notion that disability is something to treat as a ‘bad thing,’ or something to battle against. The idea that a disabled person couldn’t possibly deviate from this is simply incorrect.
There are other assumptions that are just as frustrating. For example, the idea that a disabled person should try to become the next Paralympian, as if a career in professional sports is something all disabled people can and want to pursue.
Or the perception that we are a small minority, depicted from the frequently occurring question: “Do you know X, Y and Z who is also disabled?”. It’s something that has always been so mind-boggling to me – as if every disabled person should know every other disabled person. There are a lot of us.
In fact, according to Sociability (the app that allows disabled people to find accessible places) one in five of us are disabled. I know we are a fab crew, but that is quite a lot of people to know.
With this statistic in mind, I think it’s fair to say that most people will know someone with a disability, but this is not reflected in the views of some non-disabled people.
If the world was more inclusive, for example if employment, education, healthcare, transport and voting systems were more accessible, maybe the varied life of disabled people would be captured.
Yes, some disabled people may have the same impairment or share common threads of living with a disability, but the way in which any two people will navigate them will be different.
I would like others to know that by not making assumptions about what life may look like, it gives the disabled person the space to tell their story. It signifies to the disabled person that they have been heard, valued and considered as an individual.
Most importantly, I would like others to know that my disabled experience does not equate to the disabled experience.