I wrote this post for International Women’s Day 2020: I hope you enjoy (even though it is exceedingly late!)
I’d be lying if I said I have always been comfortable with my identity as a young, disabled woman. I recall my schooldays with a mixture of sadness and regret, where I spent most of my time anxious, desperately trying to hide any evidence of my disabilities. At an age where you are so set on ‘fitting in’, claiming and taking pride in this element of my identity was not at the top of my priority list.
Disability is not a new thing to me.
Born at 2lb 11ozs, and decidedly purple in colour, I was susceptible to a myriad of illnesses and dangers. One thing that hadn’t fully developed was my brain: initially I was diagnosed with a brain injury of sorts (the details are sketchy), and my parents were never really privy to the details. When it came to ‘reaching milestones’ I fell short, and was easily compared to my twin brother. When the initial diagnosis of lead poisoning was ruled out, we were told I had cerebral palsy. I’d need an operation, physio, occupational therapy and monitoring throughout my childhood.
My parents didn’t ask too many questions: doctors were blasé about this diagnosis, which seeped into my parents’ consciousness. So, though littered with appointments, I was brought up as if there wasn’t anything to worry about. Pain was explained away by doctors as growing pain: and though I writhed in bed screaming some nights, I was told to take some ibuprofen and grit my teeth.
At the age of thirteen, mum took a photograph of me on Floridian sand, where the sea stretched for miles and miles and the sun kissed my hair a golden blonde. This photo unknowingly captured another aspect of my cerebral palsy: my increasingly curved spine. When I got home, try as I might, I couldn’t stand up straight. With tears in my eyes, it was back to the doctors I went.
Being diagnosed with Scheuermann’s Kyphosis – a deformity in my thoracic vertebrae – led to more hospital
appointments. Surgery was banded about, but a spinal brace was the preferred option. Wearing this restrictive plastic shell around school was a real challenge. I couldn’t get into my own bed, my clothes didn’t fit, and my increasing pain was dismissed by consultants. I felt so badly about my body and what it was that I was engulfed by shame: disability was not something to take pride in. It was messy, chaotic and unpredictable. And living with an uncooperative body wasn’t something I wanted.
They say people go to university and ‘find themselves’, and although this is admittedly a little cliché for my liking, I can’t deny the fact that university was instrumental in me coming to terms with my disabled identity. It was here I first learned of disability rights, and of those who came before me and fought for their rights to a happy and fulfilling life, disability and all. I read the work of Rosemary Garland-Thomson, Elaine Scarry and Frida Kahlo, who championed disability, and portrayed it as a variant of ‘normal’. It was here I learnt that disability was not the undesirable attribute I thought. It was simply part of me, and part of who I was. And I finally felt like I had permission to embrace my disabled womanhood.
When we celebrate International Women’s Day, we must remember to be intersectional: we must remember to celebrate all embodiments of women, and what we have achieved. We must remember BAME women, disabled women and LGBT+ women, as we continue to fight for better gender diversity, equal rights, and the right to embrace – and be completely proud of – our identities as women.
There’s no denying that there’s a way to go. We’ve made strides in this space, but there’s always more we can do. We must advocate and champion women from all walks of life around the world. On International Women’s Day I hope you are able to celebrate and uplift the women you know. We each have a story, and have each faced adversity and obstacles. I know that, despite these difficulties, we have the power to shape the lives of women everywhere.