We Are All Disabled

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Tanya Marlow -Genuine7

As a disabled person in public, you quickly learn to be very grateful, and very sorry.

“Sorry!” I said, as they banged me into a stranger’s legs. “So sorry. Thank you.”

I was on a British Airways plane a few years ago. This airline obviously liked to maximise its money by dedicating the seats at the front to those who paid extra for leg room, and, though they knew I couldn’t walk to my seat they placed us right in the middle, as far from the doors or toilet as possible.

We were last onto the plane. I’d surrendered my wheelchair to the hold, and after the elderly guests had tottered onto the plane, slowly, their canes preceding them, it was just me. The airport staff made ready to go, and I began to panic.

“Excuse me? So sorry to be a nuisance—but I can’t walk to my seat.”

Most airports and airlines have really good systems in place for disabled people—so much better than previous generations when disabled people were prevented from public transport, but sometimes systems break down, or people are unkind.

The airport staff talked over my head in an unknown Eastern European language, and got out a narrow buggy. I sat on it, and pressed my knees together, because it was so narrow.

But there were straps. A man, obviously in a hurry, said nothing as he pulled straps over my head, my stomach. Then he pushed my knees apart, and roughly pulled up a strap between my legs, so that I gasped a little.

“Oh!” I said. “Sorry. Thank you.”

I was pulled backwards like a suitcase in the narrow plane aisle, bumping into strangers, who stared openly at me as I passed, and glared as the buggy bumped their legs.

I attempted my most charming smile, while lowering my eyes to the ground to indicate appropriate humility.

“Sorry,” I said as I passed. “Sorry. Sorry.”

All the way down the plane: bump, bump, sorry, sorry, sorry, apologising over and over for my physical presence.

I fought back unexpected tears as I reached my seat. They ripped off the straps abruptly, and I lowered myself into my seat.

“Thank you,” I said.

***

Like most labels, disability does not come unaccompanied. It carries a whole set of subsidiary labels.

The positive ones: Hero. Brave soul. Possible Paralympian.

The negative ones: Weak. Demanding. Stupid. Incapable of speech. Incapable of thought. A different species. A non-person. A burden. A should-have-been-aborted. (Thanks, Dawkins, for that one.)

Lazy. Disability can generate sympathy, but the sympathy must be “earned.” For example, most people like pizza and chocolate, and pay for the calories by working out at the gym. But if you still like pizza and chocolate but can’t walk anymore, you’ll put on weight. Then people assume your disability must be “just” obesity—and the fat-shaming follows. Voilà! You are lazy and fat, and must be pretending it’s a disability: you are the scum of the earth.

The lesson is this: If you’re going to be disabled, you’d better make sure you look attractive and tragic.

***

When everyone disembarked, I smiled at the airplane staff and waited for the narrow buggy to return.

It didn’t.

I asked a couple of times about special assistance, and received blank or hostile looks, because the aeroplane staff, looking at my relative youth, my non-ill-looking face, and my clear command of the English language, had decided I could walk the length of the plane. They didn’t say this, of course, but their sighs and eye rolls did.

“You really can’t walk to the exit?”

“No, I’m really sorry to be such a nuisance,” I said.

The air hostess raised an eyebrow.

“It’s not that far.”

“I can’t walk it. I’m so sorry.”

I was puzzled why they huffed and sighed so much when they got out the buggy, and why they refused to look at me as they banged me unsympathetically down the length of the now-empty plane.

I could feel the shame rising red in my cheeks—I was such an inconvenience. Maybe I was imagining my neurological illness. Maybe I should have tried to stagger, despite my exhaustion. (I was only glad that I hadn’t needed the toilet halfway through the flight.)

Their hostile glances turned sheepish when they saw there was a wheelchair waiting for me. I finally understood what particular label they’d attached to me: Faker.

In the UK, “Faker” is rapidly becoming the most prominent label associated with disability. The media is full of stories of people who are faking an illness or exaggerating their disability in order to get welfare support. Despite the fact that these stories make up less than 1% of benefit claimants, they have become the new face of disability.

To avoid the shame of having been duped by a non-disabled “faker,” society have instead shamed disabled people by being less willing to help. 

***

Like most disabled people, my disability arrived in adulthood, so it doesn’t feel like the core of me. I have adapted to being called disabled—after all, it’s an objective fact that I can’t walk more than a few metres. Being disabled is but a small part of my identity— though I know other disabled people are fiercely proud to have it as a larger part of their identity, and I respect that, too.

What I would love, though, is for people to strip away every sub-label that comes with disability.

  • I am not a hero just because I can’t walk very far. (But by all means call me heroic for any heroic deeds I may do unrelated to my lack of walking …)
  • When I wear make-up I look well, not ill. But my make-up skills shouldn’t penalise me as a “faker.”
  • I have never been very brave. If I see a spider I’m a quivering jelly.
  • I am as likely to be a celebrated Paralympian as you are to be Michael Phelps. 
  • I will confess that I am indeed high-maintenance, intense and needy. (But my friends can attest that I was already like that pre-disability—and I also have a lot to give).

My lack of walking-prowess does not make me especially weak or needy, manipulative or deceitful, high-maintenance or heroic.

***

So often we look at disabled people—and in that split second we judge. Fearful of doing the wrong thing, saying the wrong thing, or fearful they will depend on us, drain us, we subtly avoid them, adjust our body posture so we don’t have to talk to them.

In those moments of hesitation, we need to remember this:

We are all disabled. We are all weak in different ways. 

We are all occasionally lazy, occasionally heroic. We are all needy, and rely on the kindness of others to survive.

***

So how should we respond to those with disability? Perhaps we keep the label “disability,” because it is a fact, but we rip away all the other assumptions attached to it. We look people in the eye as a person, an individual.

We fear doing the wrong thing, saying the wrong thing, and this is a valid fear—but don’t we also occasionally say and do the wrong thing in all our friendships? We stumble in our relationships every day, but the point is to continue trying to connect and respect.

All it boils down to is treating a person as a person; as someone uniquely created in God’s image, but simultaneously uniquely limited.

And doesn’t that describe us all?

_____________

Author’s note: I’m focusing mainly on limited-mobility disabilities, but of course there are many different forms of disability, from visual impairment, to Down’s Syndrome, to neurological impairment, to severe mental illness. Everyone has different experiences and attitudes towards their disability, and it is important to listen to a whole range of voices on disability.  E.g. some like describing themselves as a “person with a disability.” 

 

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Tanya Marlow
Tanya Marlow was in Christian ministry for a decade and a lecturer in Biblical Theology, until she got sick, and became a writer. She loves singing opera arias, eating dark chocolate and laughing at her own jokes. (Not at the same time). She is the author of Coming Back to God When You Feel Empty, and writes honestly about God, suffering and the messy edges of life at Thorns and Gold. Find her on Twitter @Tanya_Marlow or Facebook, and  get her book for FREE here.
Tanya Marlow

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  • Andrea Stoeckel

    OMG! I don’t know what to say….it’s like when I call for the disabled “bus”, and get down our three steps while my spouse brings/ has brung my walker, and the driver says:” you need to remeber to tell them you have a walker”. I have three Masters and he talkes like I’m 10 years old! ( for the record, for six years I’ve told them that on the phone every time, and it has yet to make the manifest notes)

    Bless you and your patience….

    • URGH! I hate the ‘telling off’ voice. It reinforces this eye-rolling, ‘you are an inconvenience to the world’ attitude that we get so much of. You have my empathy!

  • Helene Burns

    Wow Tanya – this is an eye-opening piece… not only into your personal world, but also into the life of so many others as well, me included. Your thoughts in your final summarization will stay with me…’All it boils down to is treating a person as a person; as someone uniquely created in God’s image, but simultaneously uniquely limited.’ Yes, we are all uniquely limited. Thank you for your generous words today. xo

    • Thanks so much, Helene! When I was writing it, that’s what really stayed with me – that we are all disabled, we are all people. Thanks so much for being willing to see

  • Tasha

    I am so glad you wrote this. I learned new things as I read your humble, authentic words.

    • Thank you so much for reading this and hearing it, Tasha. I really appreciate it

  • K

    Wonderful, wonderful piece. You’re so right, it’s about treating a person as a person. I’m training myself out of apologising and thanking profusely. It’s taken a lot of assertiveness books and a lot of biting my tongue, but I’m getting better at it. If I apologise for being sick/disabled, if I thank someone for meeting my most basic needs, then I am sending them a message that they are doing me a favour, that my needs aren’t needs but preferences, that I am, in fact, an inconvenience. For me, assertion can feel like a tiny death inside – that silence after I say “No” to the question “Can you just walk to…” expands like a canyon beneath me, but oh, it also births something wonderful. It’s not magical, you still have to explain over and over, you still get much of the same treatment, and it’s still draining, but my dignity feels more intact as time goes on.

    • WOW. this. So much. “If I apologise for being sick/disabled, if I thank someone for meeting my most basic needs, then I am sending them a message that they are doing me a favour, that my needs aren’t needs but preferences, that I am, in fact, an inconvenience.” – this is courage, and it is right. Thanks so much for writing this

  • THANK YOU for going first so that we can have this important conversation. Going back to re-read, and I’ll certainly be sharing your words with others.

    • Thank you so much, lovely Michele! I really appreciate you taking the time to hear me

  • Amy Boucher Pye

    Love this.

  • Rea

    “We all rely on the kindness of others to survive”.

    So true. Lord, open my eyes to how I can show kindness to others.

  • Tanya, it’s horrible they treated you that way! Your article is very informative and should help people learn to look differently at someone with a disability. Just because someone is in a wheelchair doesn’t mean they can’t think or hear or speak. “We are all disabled. We are all weak in different ways.” This is the truth! Thanks for sharing, Tanya!

    • Thank you so much, Gayl. It’s strange how it still helps to have the validation, isn’t it? Thanks for always cheering me on x

  • Lizzie Goldsmith

    Thank you for sharing, Tanya, and bringing greater awareness to this troubling issue. Reading about your experience on the plane brought me close to tears. I hope things continue to change to value the dignity and worth of every person.

    • Thanks so much, Lizzie – that means so much. I really appreciate you hearing me

  • Such an important post, Tanya. I heard an interview with Bruce Kramer, before he died of ALS. He talked a lot about how living with disability and a terminal disease helped him realize that we ALL deal with these things (or will) at some point. And that our culture’s avoidance of those with these kind of differences impoverishes all of us. That interview really changed my life, even though I’m mobile and in good health.

    • Oh gosh – that’s real wisdom. I’ve never heard of him before, but it’s so true. It makes me wonder if disability and chronic illness is so stigmatised because of our fear of death and our society’s reluctance to face up to it? But yes – if you live long enough, you will become disabled.

      Thanks for ‘getting it’.

      • “disability and chronic illness is so stigmatised because of our fear of death and our society’s reluctance to face up to it” Yes, I think absolutely. And I think grief is too (or at least is in America, with our relentless optimism.) And it kills all of us, because if there’s no way to express anything but happiness and health and power, we’re all screwed. (You should really check out that interview. His memoir was just okay, but the interview really killed it. On Being, with Krista Tippet.)

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  • Saskia Wishart

    Thank you for offering up your words Tanya, your stories continue to confront my own unconscious behaviour when it comes to interacting with/making space for others. One of your older posts brought the sinking realisation to me that I hardly ever see people in a wheelchair in church, and that our own space would be entirely inaccessible. Now I am thinking back on times when I have felt resentful of being ‘accomodating’ for someone who didn’t appear (in my oh so enlightened opinion) to need it. So confronting. Such a necessary realisation. I can be a b* on public transport.

    Just reflecting on your bio and how you were a lecturer in biblical theology, I have to say that you still are – in a new way and space. Your words are teaching us, and I am so grateful that you are using the limited energy you have, to show up here. It’s a gift.

    • Okay, so you made me cry with that last paragraph – those were perfect words for me at the perfect time, thank you.

      And yes – I also have been guilty in the past of accommodating someone who didn’t seem to need it. And not talking to people in wheelchairs at church. Being disabled has made me realise that disabled people are people (and I didn’t realise before the subtle ways that I made some disabled people less than human in my head, si counting them from society and my circles.) it’s a horrible, horrible realisation to come to – but a really important one, because as you say, it brings ableism into our consciousness, and there’s not much in the media right now that does that. (Think of all the films where an actual disabled person is an actor, rather than an able-bodied person pretending to be disabled… But that’s a whole other rant!)

      Much love to you

  • This was so eye opening. I hate that people look at disabled people as though they are lower. I hate that people have to endure that and go through that. I am thankful for people like you who are open and honest about it! I loved seeing this experience through your eyes. I love this: “All it boils down to is treating a person as a person; as someone uniquely created in God’s image, but simultaneously uniquely limited.” It’s so true and so needed in today’s world!

    • Thank you, Keri, for being the kind of person who’s willing to have their eyes opened. That really matters, and I really appreciate it

  • Sarah

    Thank you Tanya – for being willing to be vulnerable enough to help us think – so true that my push-too-hard and learn-too-slow self, intense (yes!) and introverted, all this predates my disability. This is not cause and effect, it is just me, fearfully and wonderfully made and yet so deeply flawed. Am thinking more about your idea of sub-labels. Hmmm – thank you, for the challenge to think differently, or at least again.

    • Intense people of the world, unite!!! Thanks so much for taking the time to comment and connect here 🙂

      • Love this so much, Tanya. Thank you for going first here.

  • Angela M. Shupe

    “Perhaps we keep the label “disability,” because it is a fact, but we rip away all the other assumptions attached to it. We look people in the eye as a person, an individual.” Your words are so powerful, Tanya. I was tearing up reading your story. Thank you for sharing it. As the mom of a daughter with special needs, I wish so much, that people would see her just as a little girl. Many do…but the reality is that many don’t. It’s heart wrenching. But then, I suppose, I think the people who do and take the time to really just know her, get the blessing of her friendship and joy and mischief. So blessed to read your words!

    • Oh wow – this is totally my wish for your little girl, too. Thank you, Angela <3

      • Angela M. Shupe

        Thanks, Tanya! 🙂

    • Thanks for sharing, Angela. Your little girl sounds like a treasure.

      • Angela M. Shupe

        Thank you, Idelette!

  • This was absolutely wonderful – thank you for sharing! It is so unfortunate that our society sometimes goes out of its way to make life even more difficult for the disabled. Thank you for your bravery – not in being disabled, but in being vulnerable and sharing about your life!

    • Thank you, Joanna! I felt like you really heard me

  • We are all disabled. We are all weak in different ways.
    YES!! Thank you! I too have mobility issues. And yes, because I’m overweight, I get hostile responses sometimes.
    God is so faithful. I’m so glad I found this magazine!!

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  • LD

    I feel like you just described my life. I too am disabled by an incurable disease that I had no control over. I too have experienced the same kind of treatment in an airport. And the stares! The judgmental looks! It makes me afraid sometimes to go out of the house. I wish everyone did realize that we are all disabled in some way. That we need to stop “labelling” people because of what they look like. Thanks for this post. I’m going to share it with some people who I know will appreciate it.

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