I was born with a disability. I only have limited vision in one eye, and was born without irises, which makes it rather noticeable. Nevertheless, I’m fairly lucky in that having a disability doesn’t really affect my day-to-day life that much, apart from the fact that I am classified as too dangerous to drive a car without causing a lot of destruction and potential loss of life – which, all things considered, seems fair enough.
But now and again, being a woman with a disability has thrown a light on some of the bizarre and sometimes genuinely insulting misconceptions that people hold. These aren’t things I come across every day of my life, and the people who have said them are pretty much in a minority. I even know that a fairly healthy proportion of them do ‘mean well’. But they haven’t exactly been rare occasions either – and so I thought I’d clarify my position on a few points before anyone else considered that they can guess how I might look, feel or behave based upon my vagina or my eyes, or the combination of both.
So. Here are a few of the most popular statements I have to contend with:
‘I have a lovely friend I could set you up with.’
There is a concern amongst some well-meaning acquaintances that because I am disabled and single, it MUST be because a) nobody has asked me out, or b) I’m too shy and self-conscious to do it myself, and instead must be found sitting at home each Saturday night watching One Day and wallowing in self-pity. Wrong, all wrong. Believe me – I am just as capable of flirting with someone, asking a guy out, or of having a regrettable one-night stand as anyone else. I really don’t need any help. And the reason I’m single is the same reason that anyone else you know is single: because I’m happy about my life right now, without needing to have a relationship in the picture.
‘I couldn’t go out with you, because it’d be too intense.’
Sadly, in the case of some guys I have met, no matter how much we have in common, no matter how much they laugh at my jokes, no matter whether they may find me attractive enough to sleep with, they apparently simply couldn’t go out with me because my disability would make me ‘dependent’ upon them for everything. Never mind the fact that I’m able to work, support myself, and live completely independently, and am in no hurry to rush in to a relationship with anyone as it is – the minute some guys realise I have a disability, they run faster than a member of One Direction from a herd of FeMail correspondents.
Even worse, though, are the blokes who actually get turned on by this bizarre notion that I might need them to shield me from the world. These dudes are the ones who like to believe that I’m this fragile princess who needs a big strong man to march forth before her to protect her, rather than a tough and responsible person who can even get a spider out of the sink all by herself without fainting at the sight of it.
‘I guess you don’t wear make-up cos of your disability/ You’d look so much prettier with make-up.’
And away from the game of love, into that sphere which is definitely not a friend to the disabled community: beauty and fashion. I’ve had a lot of people assume that I don’t wear make-up either because I’m not able to put it on properly (if you’re really interested, I’m fine so long as I’m avoiding eyeliner, because I will stab my face with it) or because I lack the confidence. People make this suggestion as if somehow make-up might be this magic solution which fixes all ills and will probably make me feel better about my poor, poor self. Again, sorry – not true. I went through a massive emo phase in high school in which black eye-shadow was my best friend, and I think that kind of saturated my love of cosmetics, after the dedication of having to slavishly get up at 6am every morning before school to put it on. I don’t often wear make-up much these days because I really don’t care all that much how I look (well, apart from the odd dip in confidence on a bad day), and can’t really be bothered. Sorry to trash your pity party.
‘Have you ever considered contact lenses/plastic surgery?’
This is honestly one of the worst things I’ve had people suggest to me, even if half the time they might think they’re trying to ‘help’ me. But help me do what, exactly? Having a disability is a pain sometimes – that much should be a no-brainer. There are days where it really sucks, even while, in my case, I’m aware there are people out there who have far worse conditions than I do. So why should I really feel the need to change something which is just as much a part of me as the colour of my hair, or my height, just because it happens to deviate from the ‘norm’, or it makes some unenlightened people feel awkward? I don’t see it as very different from the pressure to get breast implants, or get Botox. And it’s bloody depressing that we still seem to think it’d be a lot better if every woman just looked the same.
The fact is, this is only the tip of the iceberg. I could go on for ages about how much people panic when I go abroad unchaperoned (cos I’m disabled AND a woman, remember!) or the weird, awkward way shop assistants talk to me in high-street stores, such as the time the lady in Bravissimo walked up to me while I pondered buying a luridly bright pink bra and said, ‘Um, sorry. The basic styles are over there, you know. Can you see?’ And, no, I still don’t quite know what she meant by that either…
Post-2012 Paralympics, it’s been great to finally see some more positive female role models in the media, valued not for their looks but their personal achievements, who all just happen to have disabilities too. At 16, I could certainly have done with having people like Ellie Simmonds around to look up to. It’s long overdue, and for girls with disabilities, facing the same challenges as I did, it’s a positive step.
But the fact is that we are still surrounded by images that tell us that, as women, we are valued for our attempts to conform to a certain impossible standard of beauty, or for having certain classically ‘feminine’ characteristics, or for choosing to act in a certain way. We talk a lot about this issue in terms of things like weight, age and skin colour – as we should do – but disability seems to all too often get overlooked. Which perhaps isn’t a surprise, seeing as people with disabilities are poorly represented in the media as it is, usually either appearing as subjects for pity or benefit-swindling layabouts (thankyou, Daily Mail).
It’d be a hell of a lot healthier if we could finally start seeing more women in the public eye who are truly representative of women in this country as a whole, including our disabled sisters. Then maybe we could get past some of these misconceptions about each other – and on to the bigger issues.