Tag Archives: cerebral palsy

A Wheelchair in Gold: Part 1:Self Reflection

I was first alerted to somebody called Kylie striking a pose in a golden wheelchair no less by tweeter Kayla Whaley, otherwise known as @PunkinOnWheels, who I’d recommend you follow by the way. She’s fantastic, sharp and witty.

My initial worry over somebody called Kylie posing in a golden wheelchair was that it could be Kylie Minogue. Although she doesn’t know it, Kylie and I have a special connection. Her album, imaginatively titled Kylie with the first album my mother ever bought me. I should be so lucky! The best bit is she also bought me a plastic drum kit with a flashing set of multi-coloured disco lights underneath. I somehow think Kylie would have approved. So imagine my relief then when I discovered that it wasn’t Kylie Minogue who was striking a pose in a wheelchair after all. It was in fact Kylie Jenner who is part of some famous family. I knew I could trust Ms Minogue not to be that stupid.

Before I turn to the matter of Kylie Jenner and her recent posing, let me offer some thoughts on my own wheelchair.

For me, there was no accident, no broken legs or fractures. My relationship with overgrown buggies, and later wheelchairs was never ‘It’s Complicated.’ Due to cerebral palsy, it has been a lifelong dance. However, the dance partner is silent and yet makes all the moves.

A lot of commentary I have seen has spoken of the love people have for their wheelchairs, and the fact that wheelchairs offer them freedom. For me I cannot dispute that, but is it that much of a taboo to diverge from this narrative slightly?

My relationship with my wheelchair is tempestuous. Mercifully, my wheelchair has never told me what it thinks of me. Why is it tempestuous, and perhaps less so for others? It is something I have reflected upon, and is one of the reasons why did want to rush my response to Kylie Jenner’s photo shoot.

My feelings about my wheelchair range from love and thankfulness to utter contempt and disdain. I went to mainstream school, which was brilliant academically for me, and it made me able to pursue my artistic talents in spite of rather than because of my disability.

However, I also paid a price. I was exposed from a young age to the sense of being different. I became quickly aware of my difficulties and deficits, and sometimes the lack of equilibrium between me and other people.

I believe it is only human therefore to wonder and speculate about what life would be like without the wheelchair. I know it would be infinitely easier. I know my life may have panned out very differently.

Whenever I see a theatre production on stage, and I see people dancing I imagine the steps myself, and I imagine what it would be like to do them. Some will say, “well you can’t so just accept it.” The truth of the matter is that my body has physical limits, but my brain doesn’t, and it is as sharp as the sharpest needle.

The capacity to imagine possibilities and ideas outside of disability are a huge driver for me. I do not concur with the school of thought that says disabled people, rather I am a person with a disability.

I made a new friend recently, a fellow creative and she said to me;

“I wish we could get you out of that chair. I see you dancing in my mind.”

To some people this could be interpreted as being extremely offensive, as though somehow disability made them inferior. From that moment on though, and I must stress that I speak for myself and myself alone I knew this person and I would be good friends.

For as well as being musically gifted, she had the intelligence and wit to see that my disability is not the sum and total of me and the entirety of my identity. It is part of me that is undeniable. But I have talents and abilities which supersede it and long may that continue. I can write. I can play the piano. I can laugh. I can listen to friends when they have problems. So the wheelchair is what I am but certainly not who I am. When my friend said those things, I was exhilarated. In society so many people can’t see past the wheelchair. I love to dance in my friend’s mind. I’m aware that these remarks may be offensive to some. But as a writer I feel my raison d’être is to push the boundaries and explore. I don’t want to just think about what is real, tangible and practical. I am an unashamed dreamer, and while I have breath in my body I will continue to dream.

Clearly I am at a disadvantage when my wheelchair breaks down. It is a machine and things do go wrong from time to time. Have you ever heard the expression “you’re like a bulldog chewing a wasp?”

Well if you multiply that by a million, you have the measure of Hannah Buchanan sans wheelchair, plus a wasp’s nest to deal with.

So of course I miss my wheelchair when it is broken. But I will not bow down in reverence to it, as though it were a supernatural metaphysical object. The truth of the matter is that I would rather not been a wheelchair at all because I’m aware of the vast array of possibilities this would open up unlike Kylie Jenner it seems.

 

If We Checked and Apologised for Every Privilege the World Would Be a Dull Monolith, But……..

Louise Mensch has caused a stir with this article. She appears to favour the American tendency towards social action as opposed to merely splitting linguistic hairs.

In some aspects I agree with her I believe we do need to actually work out as women what we stand for and what we want to achieve. For without such grounded rational thinking the feminist movement is in danger of implosion and disintegration; two things which I feel no feminist would want.

In some aspects I disagree also.

When I was growing up, before I was old enough to have an electric wheelchair I was pushed around in a manual wheelchair by my mother. I would often hear her having subconscious dialogues with herself from above my head about how lucky other people were when they wouldn’t move out the way in a shop to let the in my wheelchair past, or similarly when they parked in a disabled parking space. As I have grown older I have taken on board these difficulties too. Her problems she had negotiating the vast array of obstacles that somebody in a wheelchair encounters are now my problems also.

But I still think privilege checking is something of a moot point. On my down days yes, I do think that other people are lucky to be able to do all the things that I would want to do, and echoing the words of my mother how lucky they are.

But that does not mean I want them to constantly have to check their privilege and look over their privileged shoulder. This engenders a feeling of guilt in people. It makes them feel guilty for something that is part of circumstance as opposed to a vendetta to single you out.

It is like when people ask the question “why me?” I think a far better question to ask is why not me? What is so special about me that my life should be rose tinted in comparison to other people’s?

Implicit too in the notion of privilege checking is that privilege is something that, as well as being acknowledged and apologised for that it is something that can be changed. That is to say that a person should want to reduce their privilege in order to restore equilibrium to an unbalanced system.

However people cannot help how they were born. I may think at times my able-bodied friends are lucky but I don’t have a chip on my shoulder and spend my life resenting them. That would be counter-productive and only lead to my own needless suffering.

Everyone has some level of privilege. For example even though I am disabled I have speech. For the technological nerds amongst you I am dictating this article using speech recognition software. Yet nobody tells me to check my speech privilege. It is important that we know what our privileges are and be proud of them and own them.

But I am also trans as well as being disabled and lesbian. Therefore I am part of three minority groups. I could regard these as an ocean between me and the rest of society. I could promulgate the misery narrative and the suffering narrative but I don’t. I choose to use my experience to help others and to empower them to live a life of their choosing.

Louise picked up on the word “cis” short for cisgender. The use of this word as some kind of in group special vocabulary ironically seems to anger a lot of the people it describes, for they say they would not use it to describe themselves and resent other people using it when talking about them.

Here too there is the notion of “cis privilege”. Now this even as a trans woman inherently worries me. It worries me because it assumes that because women are not trans, and they have been born women that therefore this is somehow something that should be grateful for. Surely it is obvious that when one transitions into womanhood that they are not transitioning into a privileged position. The female narrative is one of struggle and hardship. Women suffer greatly in society. They suffer discrimination and domestic violence at times at the hands of men.

My mother brought me up on her own single-handedly. The trials and tribulations of being a woman are not easy. Whilst I may feel jubilant and authentic at last I must be sensitive to the fact that being a woman, or indeed being a man is not always an easy ride.

By the same logic just because people are able-bodied and not in a recognisable minority group it does not mean that they do not have problems of their own. Conditions both economically and socially are tough right now, so we should be careful when accusing people of privilege.

Being born cis is definitely  not a privilege. Ask women in developing countries, or in situations where there is war and conflict whether they feel privileged. I think we must be careful at times even though our own circumstances matter greatly to us not to freeze out the narratives and personal experiences of others.

The issues people face go far beyond language as well. It is not only what people say but what is done in society that counts. Which is more ableist? Is it a person using the word walking or a car obstructing a dropped kerb? In other words, which of the two is the greater problem and which needs the most urgent attention?

It is not a trick question I am posing here. It is a question of priorities. Do we want to police everything and control every infraction or do we want to pick our battles wisely and concentrate on the most important issues facing feminism?

This is rather reminiscent of the Twitter storm that my colleague Helen Lewis at the New Statesman became unfortunately embroiled in. She stated that if she used the and in turn phrase “walking out the front door” she would get a Tweet telling her that some people can’t walk and can’t leave their houses and by implication she would be accused of being ableist.

I was incredulous at this. I, Hannah Buchanan, disabled woman have used the phrase walking to describe my kinetic movements all my life. How intersectional is that? I think I deserve at least a round of applause. I am assimilating with the able-bodied population. Heaven forfend, even integrating!

All of this brouhaha sounds alarmingly similar to the brown eyed blue-eyed experiment created by the feminist Jane Elliott. She divided the children in her class up and gave the ones with brown eyes more privileges than the ones with blue eyes and vice versa.

What this was meant to show in essence is how people in minorities feel. It is hard to watch other people doing things you can’t do, going to places you can’t go and having experiences you cannot share. However it is not a question of privilege checking for people cannot help their birth. It is a question of living successfully and beautifully as a minority in a majority world. I do not think that people who can walk and who are not trans are more privileged than I am. They may experience problems of which I am not aware so I shouldn’t judge and manipulate their majority status as a stick to beat them with. I do not want people to have to walk on eggshells in my presence and apologise for their moving legs or for their not being trans. I want them to feel comfortable  and happy around me.

Privilege checking is useless on its own without action to back it up and without dialogue in a non-aggressive manner.

It is not only a question of policing and telling people when they get things wrong but also when they get things right. Language is a fixation and does matter while sticks and stones matter too. Physical obstacles matter as well. It is important that we use the privileges we have in the right way to benefit society as a whole.

But that said, I am an intersectional being and I am proud to be so. My lack of privilege gives me a vast array of insight into issues that more privileged people may lack. So what then is privilege really? It is a subjective phenomenon based on individual experience. I have also had a University education, but that doesn’t negate the issue of not being able to walk.

There have been times when I have heard people complain about small minutiae, and felt aggrieved. But checking privilege and telling people to do so. is meaningless alone.It’s like checking the price of Corn Flakes at the supermarket.

What I want is for privilege checking to be an agent of social and cultural change.That’s when we will know things are changing for the better.

For Louise Mensch, privilege is something to be proud of. It is how you use it that matters.