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Archive for February, 2010

Flexible lot, we humans. Or at least, so we like to think.

The social model of disability notes that it isn’t physical/mental/psychological/etc. impairments that seriously disable a person. What causes disability is the failure of our communities to adapt to those impairments, to make allowances for them, to fit us in.

There are a few respects in which the social model doesn’t quite work for me – there are no adaptations that anybody could make that would make me able to work full-time outside the home with this level of fatigue, for instance. But there is a lot of truth to it, and a very important point to be made.

The assumption of our society, in which being “abled” gives one significant privilege over those who are not, is that people with disabilities are an aberration, a break from the norm. The adaptations and allowances needed to include those with disabilities are easily seen as a drain on energies and resources, as, frankly, just that little bit too much to ask. Not as the moral right of “normal” people. The perception is that the disabled are a small minority. Add to that the insistence within our culture that there is no middle ground between a grumpy, resentful, “bad” disabled person and a self-sacrificing, “brave” saint who never complains, and you have a deeply fucked-up situation.

It would be fucked-up even if we really were a small minority. However, we’re really not. I’m not going to go into facts and figures now because it is late, and I’d rather quote no figures than the wrong ones. But I think it is fair to say that between physical impairments, mental illness, psychological disorders and learning difficulties, most of us will at some point in our lives suffer from some kind of disability. In fact, the only way to avoid it is to die very suddenly, at a sufficiently young age that none of physical or mental effects of advanced years have yet started to appear. As a thirty-one year old with a walking stick I may be unusual; as an eighty-one year old I would be unremarkable, or even unexpectedly hale. There is a reason why a lot of disability activists use terms such as “Temporarily Able-Bodied” (or “TABs”) to describe people without disabilities. I find those terms somewhat problematic unless I can be certain that the user is counting mental illness, learning disabilities and so forth under bodily impairments, but they still carry an important lesson.

So, what of all of this? Well, a couple of things. Firstly, if you campaign now for better wheelchair/scooter access in your town you may well feel the benefits of that when you are elderly, though I hope that’s obvious. Likewise large-print and audio books in your local library, depression support groups and other facilities, ideally free at the point of delivery.

But primarily what I’m getting at here is that our attitudes as a society towards adapting to the particular needs of individuals within it are in need of a complete overhaul, and a vast injection of flexibility and compassion. Nor do I just mean on an official level, though of course that is an enormous part of it. I mean within social networks, groups of friends, relationships.

Take my friend A, who is a lifelong vegetarian and has coeliac disease. She also loves good food and company, and there is in fact plenty of lovely stuff she can eat, it just isn’t always what people are used to cooking. She is fortunate to have many friends (including myself when I’m well enough to cook, which sadly isn’t very often) who regard catering for those with unusual dietary requirements as an enjoyable challenge, and an invitation to creativity, not as a burden. But the very fact that this is worth remarking on is, frankly, deeply depressing.

Take me. I (obviously) can’t attend late-night social events in the middle of London, especially on a busy night. I sometimes have to cancel my attendance at events at short notice because of an M.E. flare-up. My anxiety disorder is such that conflict can incapacitate me for days, and even the most constructive of criticisms have to be worded carefully to avoid triggering a panic attack. Friends of mine have to allow for these things because I simply cannot function if they do not.

Take my lovely boyfriend. Along with depression and a couple of other things, he has a very serious phobia of smoking and all things smoking-related. He also has PTSD due to an incident at a popular local pub a year or so ago: he now can’t go there, and gets stressed when the place is even mentioned, even though he knows and likes the people who run it. To have a good social life, he needs friends to allow for these things – to not hold all social events at that particular pub, to avoid smoking or preparing to smoke in his vicinity, and so forth.

As many within our society currently view it, all three of us are making unreasonable demands on our friends. I would regard that as an offensively ableist view, obviously. But also a broken one for other reasons.

Let’s add on all the other friends I have with special dietary requirements, physical and/or psychological disabilities – a few of those, with some overlap. And then add those who, say, have particular topics of conversation which are just upsetting for them, or who can’t stay late because they need to get home to the children or the dog. Add LGBT people who may feel unwelcome in certain environments and want to socialise where they know they will be safe. Add those who need their friends to allow for when they are working late or they need to visit their elderly relatives. Add those who are not necessarily disabled, but who are not neurotypical and thus benefit greatly from being communicated with in a certain style that might not be familiar to the communicator. And those are just my friends, a small-ish, young-ish group, ranging from 20-odd to 40-something, for the most part. I am certain there are large numbers of other sorts of allowances friends may need to make for each other, in the short to long-term, both that I’ve forgotten and that I’ve not thought of.

Getting somewhere, am I? Now calculate, if you will, your chances of getting through this life and never having to ask your friends to make allowances for you and your needs.

And the thing is – that shouldn’t be an awful thought. Making life easier for our friends and helping them find our friendships and the world around them more accessible should not be a rare or remarkable thing. It can be complicated, especially when there are lots of adaptations to make at once, but if we’re all working on together then it’s just another challenging and enjoyable and ordinary part of life. We are not a world full of people with no problems, no difficulties, no disabilities. We are a diverse and wonderful people, us humans, and we’ve come so far partly because we’re good at being flexible and we’re good at being strange and because we’re good at looking after each other. So, yeah. Let creativity and compassion reign in our friendships, and in our lives generally. Go that extra mile, and stock that vegan spread and those herbal teas that you don’t drink but your friend does, and check out the wheelchair access and creche facilities at your party venues. And then let’s spread it out wider and try to change our cultural attitudes towards people who need help, and accessibility, and allowances to be made. Because all of these things are normal, and this is what life is supposed to be about. 🙂

Postscript:

After all that ranty idealism, this is not to say that I don’t feel horribly guilty when my friends (and partners) have to make these sorts of allowances for me. Of course I do. I have low self-esteem and of course I’ve internalised all of society’s myths about how heroic and non-complaining and no-trouble-to-anyone I should be. But I do think I should try to feel less so, and encourage others to do the same. Gratitude and reciprocity are much more sensible and much more fun. 🙂

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Apologies, lovely readers, that I’ve not been on here for an awfully long time. I shall attempt to update more often. 🙂

I’m afraid I’m breaking my silence with something fairly frivolous, though I think it says an awful lot of horrible things about our culture’s attitude towards women.

I’ve just worn outside for the first time a new coat – an end line from Nomads, bought from a seller on eBay. It’s a rather gorgeous, long velvet patchwork job with a hood. Open from the waist down, which is possibly going to be sub-optimal when I have period pains, but on the other hand it enables it to be nice and non-restrictive in its length, and it’s big enough to wrap around my legs when I sit down. Being made by Nomads it is also fair trade, which is a big plus.

So far, so good. It’s also pretty warm where it closes despite not being as thick or heavy as I expected, and the lack of weight given my disabilities is a real advantage. I got the large size despite being rather thin, which was sensible as it now fits over four layers. It’s almost too long which may cause problems in the wheelchair, but I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it. 😉

HOWEVER, it has no pockets. Not one. Not even a pair of those rather inadequate, shallow, oddly-angled and non-fastenable pockets that most long women’s coats have and which appear to have been designed by one of Dickens’ pick-pockets for ease of access.

But no, instead, there are no pockets at all.

Now, correct me if I am wrong, but I cannot very well imagine a man’s coat, similarly designed as a warm and smart garment for winters in town, lacking such an essential thing as pockets. I don’t think it would even occur to a designer to omit them.

Are women who wear women’s clothing expected to have no keys? No train or bus tickets? No parking permits or spare change? No gloves? And this even by ethical and talented designers such as those employed by Nomads? The open nature of the coat below the waist *does* mean that I could carry such things in my trouser pockets… except that the leathers I’m wearing today at least also have no pockets, which again I have never seen in a man’s leather trousers. I usually wear a rucksack, but sometimes it is just nice to be able to access my Oyster card or similar quickly, and rucksacks are better for items one does not need to get to in a hurry.

*sighs* I suppose I must conclude that I am expected to conform to the demands of designers and carry a handbag. Despite the fact that those things hurt my shoulders, are difficult to carry alongside a proper rucksack, and are a nightmare to keep secure in areas such as central London. And they are much harder to negotiate when you carry a walking stick, as I frequently do.

Where this particular outfit is concerned, I’ll think of something. And I love my coat sufficiently in other respects that I shall put up with this rather startling flaw. But I shall also be writing to Nomads, because this is just *silly*.

There are so many more important and urgent things for us to be campaigning about that I’m reluctant to start beating the drum too loudly for the need for women’s clothing to have good, secure pockets, designed (as men’s are) to fit with the appearance of the garment. Even so, this does seem like yet another example of the fact that products designed for women are aimed more at the people who are going to be looking at the woman, rather than for *her*.

And I for one am getting thoroughly fed up with it.

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