"I didn't see anybody who lived the sort of life I wanted to"
One Australian teen writer reflects on life in a wheelchair.
By Hannah Diviney
I am a cisgender, white female, born of Australian and Irish blood. You may think, after hearing this simple statement of fact, that I have everything easily within my reach — but as any feminist will know, I do not. There is a small gap, in terms of the privileges I enjoy, carved out by virtue of my gender. And this gap widens to a chasm when I add that I am disabled.
The fact of my disability — spastic diaplegic Cerebral Palsy — is blindingly obvious. I am, after all, in a lime green wheelchair, one of many I’ve had over my lifetime (I change wheelchairs with the frequency Leonardo DiCaprio seems to change models.)
My disability has always meant a different path for me, compared to those the same age, who would tear around our neighbourhood streets with the reckless abandon and altogether too gangly limbs of young kids. Instead of that path, mine involved appointment after appointment, an endless rotating cast of slightly sterile rooms and scary words like “insertion of metal plate into leg” and “oxycodone.” My childhood also involved looking up to adult women and wondering where the role models were who looked like me. As a little girl, I actually thought something happened to kids like me in adulthood, because I didn’t see anyone like me who lived the sort of life I wanted. When I did see fully grown women in wheelchairs, they were, due to the twisted lottery that Cerebral Palsy can be, utterly dependent on those around them, even for translation of their words into a language the outside world could understand.
Eventually, when I did start meeting older people who could reassure me of a sort of future, they were all bound by a thread that unites Australians in particular. is at the very core of our nation’s identity, that magical five letter word that inspires a fervor like no other: Sport. It began to become clear to me that the words successful and disabled were synonymous with one type of identity; that of a Paralympian.
Now, I should point out that I’m astounded by the pinnacles reached by those who compete in the Paralympics: Kurt Fearnley, Australian wheelchair racer, epitomises breaking barriers, not allowing limits to be confining, and the pure grit that comes with overcoming adversity and having to prove yourself constantly.
But I’ve lost count of the amount of times someone has well-meaningly asked me what Paralympic sport I hope to compete in. And that’s a particular type of narrow expectation that able-bodied women don’t have to deal with.
For the rest of the world, sport is not the only path to societal definition of success. There is nothing wrong with being an athlete, but as a kid whose power and strength lies in words, you do wonder if anyone will even notice and validate your strength when it’s not an activity that leaves you drenched in sweat.
People with disabilities are still hidden from the world, only brought in when certain advertisers and employers want to appear as if they are supporting equality. Think about it: As an able-bodied person, you switch on the TV or settle down with Netflix under a blanket, you see story after story that is,at its core, engaged with the intricacies of being YOU. I, however, do not — and if I do see a person on screen with wheels rolling towards me, they are often able to shed it like a skin as soon as the director yells CUT! because *cue theatrical gasp* they are not actually disabled.
Even in feminist conversations, voices of women with disabilities are missing. Again, we see athletes saying inspirational things about women’s strength and the need for equal pay. We see wonderful women of colour, LGBT advocates, and plus-size models advocating for body positivity. But – with the exception of a few powerful voices, like that of the late and great Stella Young, and the recent #disabledandcute hashtag – there are very few discussions about the intersection between feminism and the rights of those living with a disability.
We still have a very long and arduous road ahead of us in embracing the visibility of disability – both in intersectional feminist conversations, and beyond.
Luckily, my lime green wheelchair and I are in it for the long haul.
Original image: Twitter. Digital design: Grace Jennings-Edquist