“No offer of help. 50 yards of cobbles.”
That was one of Anton Savage’s tweets from his 24 hours experimenting as a wheelchair user. Those eight words fogged out everything else going on in the world as I furiously tweeted why putting a non-disabled person – a famous and well-recognised, non-disabled person at that – in a wheelchair limits our views on disability.
When a disabled person goes out, either for lunch, dinner, visiting friends or getting hammered, they do a lot of research so that they can enjoy themselves. This is where we differ to you; we have to put every social event under a magnifying glass to see if it suits us whereas you guys just rock up and go with it.
No offer of help. As a wheelchair user of five years and a disabled person my entire life, I do not wait or expect help to be offered to me until I ask for it. I know that a number of non-disabled people worry about this aspect because I’m asked about it almost any time I am interviewed about disability. My reassurance to those without disabilities is that if you see us out and about, you do not need to worry about us. Interjecting with unwanted help or not taking ‘I’m grand’ for an answer diminishes our independence, something we have fought so ferociously for. And besides, it is Anton freakin’ Savage in a wheelchair. You’re famous, mate. We know you’re not actually a wheelchair user so why on earth would we drop our groceries and help you across 50 yards of cobbles?
Oh, yes. 50 yards of cobbles. You’d have to be born yesterday to think that cobblestones are in anyway wheelchair friendly. I map Dublin’s city centre out in a number of ways and I consider places like Temple Bar to be a black hole because of the cobblestones. I avoid them. The cobbles are an almighty pain in the arse and completely unnecessary so when you are a wheelchair user, you know to avoid them and that’s exactly what these experimental pieces overlook.
24 hours in a wheelchair is not a realistic way to learn about disability or being a wheelchair user. I wrote a similar piece a number of years ago, when I was younger, naive and not totally sure about what my own disability meant to me. I was coming to terms with my disabled identity and I didn’t have the social cop on to realise then that I did not need to put an non-disabled person in my shoes – or wheels, as it were – when I have a voice of my own.
I’ve been on the Anton Savage Show a number of times and I know that this slot is well-intentioned but it’s also an angle that’s been done to death. Almost every minority group in the world has been subjected to A Day In My Shoes piece, even though we have millions of voices raising very different and very real subjects across the world every single day. Unfortunately, as often is the way, some of these issues aren’t taken very seriously unless a white, straight, wealthy, non-disabled man comes along and wants to fly our flag.
But shall we try something here? Listen. Listen to us. No one knows better than we do. When I tweeted “I do not spend my day going “woe is me”. Yes it is a pain in the hoop but these experiments always overlook the tenacity of wheelchair users” earlier, one woman asked if I could speak for all wheelchair users. She’s right. I can’t. And that’s important to understand. These experiments offer a blanket opinion on disability when disability is just one term to cover a multitude of disabilities. When you live with a disability, you develop a thick skin as a result of being excluded from so many elements of society. Even though I cannot speak for anyone but myself, I cannot deny the tenacity of any disabled person I know and our voices need to be heard.
The Freedom of a Ponytail by Keah Brown was an incredible piece I read during the week that perfectly captures individual achievements when you have a disability. One of my biggest coups was figuring out how to lift my wheelchair into the car without hitting my face so when Keah figured out how to tie up her hair by herself, I cheered. When you are disabled, you learn how to do things differently so when Anton couldn’t make it into O’Briens today for lunch, his tweet made it seem like he just gave up. That’s not how I react. When I’m looking for lunch, I set out an extra five or ten minutes just in case the first few places have steps into them. That’s how I have to react to a city that forgot about me in the blueprint stages. I do not give up. I do not for a second pity myself. Also, I have a huge range of lunch places reviewed here on the blog. I’ve got your ass covered.
This world is not designed for disabled people and Dublin is certainly not designed for disabled people. I’m pretty sure all of the folks in Dublin City Council know this too and these radio pieces or this blog aren’t going to rile them into action. Someone recently told me that I am the only disabled person that they know. I immediately called them up because thanks to the 2011 Census, I know that there are more people living with a disability in Ireland than there are Protestants. Isn’t that a fun stat? We are everywhere and yet people seem surprised when we show up.
The tenacity that I addressed on Twitter means that we navigate our city differently to yours. We know all the raised curbs, potholes, cobblestones, alleyways and hills that make Dublin. We are basically an ordnance survey map. The city we live in is different to yours because someone decided to make it inaccessible. The city we live in values protected buildings over disabled people and that shows no sign of changing. The city we live in is different to yours because it is a smaller city. We can’t get into all of the buildings you can but we are certainly not giving up too easily and that is what makes us tenacious.”No offer of help. 50 yards of cobbles.” We know better than that but you’d know that if you just asked us.