At various points in this blog, I’ve spoken about ableism, internalised ableism and the fact that I’m starting to realise just how much of it I’ve taken on.
That’s a scary thing to have to wrestle with. My view of my disability, something which I had taken for granted and felt secure in, is now so much shifting quicksand underneath my feet and I’m having to reconsider a lot of things. One of the things I’m starting to realise, is just how much I’ve got through by virtue of a coping mechanism which now seems increasingly unhealthy. And whilst there’s not a good word for it, I’d call this mechanism ‘sticking two fingers up to the universe’.
I trace this to much of my time in high school. It is not the whole story, but it is more important than I’d previously have admitted. Looking back with the benefit of hindsight and a newly redsicovered sense of self-worth, I’ve realised the sheer level of shit that I put up with in my teen years. It was (almost) never physical violence, but it was persistent, constant bullying and undermining. It was best to stay sat in my wheelchair no matter how much I felt like walking, because that was a way to guarantee that it wouldn’t be stolen and used by someone else without my permission. It was normal to feel excluded and unwanted and shunned. At a time in life when people typically start discovering and exploring their sexuality, I had the very strong message that ‘this isn’t for people like you’. I was the butt of jokes and consistently mocked at a low-lying level. And the thing is, that when these things are so constant, they become a normal and you don’t realise just how much of it you put up with. I want to make it clear here, that this isn’t necessarily a universal experience for disabled teens, but I know it’s not wholly alien to many either. If you experienced none of this and don’t know what I’m talking about, and you have a disability, then good – I’m intensely glad that it’s not universal!
But nevertheless, I persisted. And I came through. There are more scars from those years than I’d thought, as I’m now discovering – but I did get through it. And much of that is down to sticking two fingers up to the world. What does that mean? It means that I took that experience of being shunned by the majority and saying in effect “OK, fuck you, I’m going to go my own way just to spite you and anyone that wants to come with, is most welcome. And by the way, your views are shallow, vacuous and stupid – and so are you!”. And so I did indeed go my own way. And some dear friends did indeed come with me. I’ve always said rather cynically, but in my case accurately, that as a disabled person, you learn quickly who your true friends are.
So what’s the problem? The problem comes later, as I realise that in sticking two fingers up to the world, I’ve conceded certain things I didn’t need to. I essentially said, “OK, I’m going to grant you at this stage that I’m not welcome in certain social circles, that verbal abuse and mockery are part of my normal and that the idea of my sexuality as a disabled person is an object of ridicule, because I don’t care what you have to say!”. It is an awful thing to realise that one conceded all of that ground as a way to maintain individuality. And that is where so much of my now internalised ableism comes from. The reason I feel ugly when I look in a mirror. The reason I’m still suspicious of being accepted in friendship groups. The reason I don’t address certain things up front that aren’t ‘for me’. The reason I’ve never dated.
I thought that by sticking two fingers up to the world, I was maintaining my independence. In reality, what I was doing was conceding the ground to get by, but maintaining an outer front that I could not be hurt by what was happening. And the parts that I did forge for myself, that to think of such things as body image and sexuality as trivial and something that was the primary concern of shallow people, no longer work. It would be nice to think that I could just say to myself “never mind about what you look like, it’s what’s on the inside that counts and that’s what people really value”. Sadly, that isn’t something I can fully believe anymore. It is a useful lie that I’ve told myself for protection. Because to concede that ground openly would be too crushing. Of course, what’s on the inside really does matter. But I’ve been stared at for too long, patronised for too long, underestimated for too long to think that people are likely to see past the disability very often.
So now I have all this internalised ableism, which has very quickly gone from being a protective outer shell, to being so many knives that twist in me repeatedly. And I realise that in sticking two fingers up to the universe, I was cutting off my nose to spite my face.