For the greater part of my life, I was a self-hating disabled person. I hated everything about my disability and would try to cover it up as much as possible, with clothing, loudness or long-winded medical excuses; anything but use the word disabled. A couple of years ago, a really crap Irish comedian told me, after persistently asking me why I was in a wheelchair, “I just know that I wouldn’t want to be in a wheelchair”. It takes that sort of ignorance to wake you up. If I wasn’t in the wheelchair and if I didn’t go through everything I did before the wheelchair, I wouldn’t be who I am and I’ve finally come around to liking who I am. At 28, I now like myself.
The first time I realised that my body was different from others was when I wore my first bikini, aged 13. The curve of my spine and scars from other operations, like the one when I was a tiny baba where they took a bit of my left shin so they could help construct my right hip bone, were all on show. I’ve had so many surgeries to straighten my spine and to lengthen out my right, lifeless leg that my body is just patterned with scarring. This collection grew over the years. I added two more spinal fusion scars, jellyfish-like scars from water blisters the size of clenched fists that curiously appeared on my right leg when I was 11, scars from surgery to mend a broken femur and – the crème de la crème – the scar from when I had my right foot amputated. I’m forgetting approximately 10 operations but their tales live in my flesh and bones.
That is a body that is shunned by society. A body that is rarely – if ever – represented in movies, TV or fashion. Last year, I was asked to take part in the Science Gallery’s Trauma: Built to Break exhibition. Ted Meyer is a wonderful, soft-spoken artist who takes prints of people’s scars, leaving bright paint on their skin and takes a portrait photo. He wanted to take a print of my amputation scar. This would mean that my portrait photo would show my legs, or my lack of leg.
Despite the name of this blog, I have never been comfortable showing my stump. Probably because it’s called a stump. Being afraid of letting someone down at the last hurdle, I agreed to do it anyway so I wore a pair of denim shorts, removed my prosthetic leg and I let him take the photo. Having someone touch and hold, paint and admire my stump and its scar was new. Seeing the print and the portrait beside each other made me realise something; even though my stump looks like a penis sometimes, it’s sort of beautiful and that was a big turning point for me. The exhibition is on until February 21 and it’s fascinating. Go see it. And take a selfie next to my photo. G’wan.
Two women I follow on Twitter and Instagram and two women I absolutely adore are Cat Smith and Karolyn Gehrig. Through them, I’ve learned the importance of visibility when you are disabled. Even though I denied it for so long, being disabled is a big part of my identity. Even my language has changed. I no longer refer to myself as a person with a disability, I am a disabled person. Admitting those things aloud meant that I was not alone; I am part of the disabled community. There are so many people out there and on Twitter who want to bat ideas back and forth and I spent so many years isolating myself from them.
Selfies are slagged to oblivion by so many people but there is a huge powerful force behind them. Gehrig’s Hospital Glam series is one of my favourite things to look at. When you are in hospital, you leave your personal identity behind. I know I wear loose baggy clothes when I go for check ups because I need to remove my prosthetic leg easily and undress for x-rays and examinations. My black skinny jeans – my uniform for the last 10 years – and patterned jackets have never crossed the threshold of Cappagh Hospital or the Mater. I dress like I am sick when I go to hospital, even though I have never actually been sick. If hospital appointments take up most of your calendar year, it’s easy to play the patient but Gehrig’s photos have helped me realise that we can retain our personal identity, even in a nasty hospital gown.
Smith often posts pics of her amazing outfits taken in the reflection of a mirror in a wheelchair bathroom. I love her photos, partly because she has incredible taste in clothes and her hair inspires me on a daily basis but mostly because it’s all her. I used to crop my photos, leaving my wheelchair out of the frame. With her photos, we see her full glory in her wheelchair with all of the bars and rails in the bathroom visible. I’ve followed Smith for a couple of years and whenever I liked her selfies on Instagram, I always wished that I could do the same but I was afraid that people would think I was full of myself or delusional.
People often say that selfies are for the vain or the self-obsessed (read Rachel Syme’s SELFIE if you still think that by the end of this piece) but I have spent 90% of my life thinking that I should be unseen, truly believing that I am not to be a thing of admiration for anyone. If a man liked me, I always added a BUT into their intentions. “He likes me BUT he’s not into the whole disabled thing”. “He likes me BUT I must never let him see my stump”.”He likes me BUT he’s probably worried about what his friends will think”. I’ve asked men I’m with not to tell anyone we’ve hooked up because I didn’t want their friends asking about my body. If a woman complimented me, I knew she was thinking “…BUT thank god I’m not in a wheelchair”. Christ. How the hell did I function with all of this self-doubt? I certainly never had a honest relationship with any man as a result.
Even though I long buried my self-hating disabled persona years ago, my selfie-hating disabled persona took a little longer to kick the bucket. However, she is finally on the way out because of those two women and what their selfies represent. At the start of January, I posted the pic below with the intention of taking all selfies with my wheelchair in full view. My wheelchair and disability would no longer be cropped out of my photos or my life. I am embracing this as my full and true identity.
Posting selfies has opened up a new confidence in me. By posting a selfie, I am declaring that I am happy in myself and A-OK with being in a wheelchair. When I look at my reflection, I used to only look at a certain part of my body, ignoring the wheelchair, and my old photos represented that. It was a strange sort of denial. My new photos are liberating because I’m brashly saying that I am happy with how I look, even though society thinks that I should be looking for a way out of my wheelchair. I’m not. This is me. I’m good.
Of course, that won’t stop the majority of people thinking that I am hideous because of my disability, pretending that I am invisible or some people from saying “she’s pretty for someone in a wheelchair”. The selfies are for myself. They make me visible. I may not be in movies or on TV but on Instagram alone, it’s the art of the selfie – believe me, with the angles and the lighting, it’s an art – that’s helping me and other disabled people be seen. And I never want to go back to being covered up.
Thankfully, it’s been three years since my last surgery or invasive procedure but this clear run won’t last long. Next time I’m in hospital, being poked and prodded, I am going to be me and not the hospital me. My self-hating disabled and selfie-hating disabled personas are no more. I am disabled. I am finally myself. I’ll wear the clothes I want, I’ll wear the make up I want and I’ll take a fucking selfie.