I cannot begin to think about International Women’s Day, or indeed the experience of being a woman, without first acknowledging the role that disability plays in my life. I am a woman with a disability, a disabled woman.
Both identities have been difficult for me to embrace and even to accept at different times in my life. I never felt like I fitted in with other kids who had disabilities. They all seemed so at one with who they were. I felt like I had to fight against being disabled because of what I thought having a disability meant. It was a negative thing to me. I had been through a lot of painful surgeries, many of which were traumatic. I also had feedback from adults who would try to give me money on the street, as a way to lessen my burden, I suppose. Or they’d tell me how sorry they felt for me. I didn’t see that having a disability was in any way a positive thing.
Being a girl and a woman has never been easy for me either. I have been what in contemporary vernacular is referred to as ‘gender non-conforming’ since I was a child and I knew I was a lesbian before I became a teenager. Before I had any control over what I wore or how I might present myself, I would fantasise about getting my hair cut off into a neat buzzcut and wearing well tailored suits. Of course, in my fantasy, I was standing. A strong, tall and confident man in a business suit working with equally important people. If I were a handsome, besuited, white, able-bodied, heterosexual man, I could be important and successful.
Integrating my disability and being a woman into my identity and sense of self has been a hard fought and ultimately rewarding experience. I happily identify now as a woman with a disability, though neither way of identifying myself has ceased to be unproblematic.
Being a woman with a disability meant always wondering just how much harder I was going to have to try, to reach the level of my peers. It meant watching those same peers get ahead on an upward trajectory that I fell off over a decade ago. It has meant realising after I had tried and tried and tried, that I was never going to be able to work hard enough or be good enough anyway. I have to recalibrate my self-worth and my definition of success all the damn time. Eventually I realised on my own that none of this is my fault. All the cards were stacked against me.
The most insidious message women with disabilities are taught from a young age is that we have to be better than everyone else to succeed. This is a not-too-subtle reframing that places the responsibility on us as women with disabilities for the problems that society has in accepting us for who we are. I have very nearly died on several occasions because I thought if I just tried hard enough, I’d ‘get there’. I just had to stop trying to succeed on society’s terms in the end because it really was going to kill me. I mean that quite literally. Something has had to change in order for me to stay alive and since society wasn’t going to in a big hurry, I’ve had to.
I applied for so many jobs when I graduated and in the years following. Many of these were jobs in the disability sector. Not only was I well qualified for the positions but I also had what I know to be valuable insight into what it actually means to live with a disability and the skills to apply that experience to the work I might have been asked to do, if I’d only been given a chance.
I’ve been on the other end of a phone call from a woman who wanted to give me a job in the intersecting disability and education sectors. She had to explain to me that the two men on a panel of three had decided to award the job to a young able-bodied white man who personified exactly the person I had fantasised myself as being when I was a child. She offered congratulations and implied that it was progress that I had got so far.
That was the first full-time job I ever applied for, back when my health was not a mitigating factor in my ability to work. I sometimes wonder if I’d had a job back then, whether my health might be better now. It’s not worth pondering for too long. I had several other job interviews in my 20s for similar positions. I came second in all of them. I changed my strategy, I lowered my expectations, I embarked on further study. Nothing worked. Then my health started to fail. My turn was over and I wouldn’t get another one, I couldn’t play anymore.
Having tried over many years to find work and having worked in a number of part-time and voluntary positions, I set my sights this year on a teacher aide job. I’ve had some schools say they will get back to me if something comes up. I really hope they do. I do wonder how many schools I’ve sent my CV to have since given jobs to able bodied people that could have been very capably done by me. I can never know this of course. Discrimination is much more tricksy these days than it ever was. People have learnt that it is not ok to discriminate, so they are much more clever about it. Now, we all know it’s happening but it is done behind closed doors and out of earshot of anyone who might be able to corroborate our stories and experiences.
Being a woman with a disability is exhausting.
How great would it be to have more women with disabilities working with youth, mentoring them, making it known that we can help each other? I say women here because in my youth, I remember very few women who were put forward as role models and mentors for young girls and boys with disabilities. If we saw anybody at all with disabilities as public figures, they tended to be young disabled men who had the same focus on physical fitness and sporting prowess as the able-bodied men who were offered up as our most valued role models and representatives of national pride. I don’t believe much has changed.
I want to live in a world where a young girl with a disability can realistically aspire to be a successful woman with a disability, on her own terms. Being a woman with a disability means loving myself for who I am and not what society wants me to be but will never let me be.
Chelle Hope blogs at To be Perfectly Honest ...