Owning my (dis)ability in public: Experience, mindset & thoughts.
“The UK disability survey found that over half of disabled respondents were worried about being insulted or harassed in public places. The same amount said that they’d been mistreated because of their disability" – Mind Charity, 2019.
Shocking, right? Although I’m fortunate enough to have not experienced being seriously harassed or insulted in public because of my mobility differences, I have been made to feel very uncomfortable at times which has knocked my confidence and made me feel anxious to go out as a result. And when I shared these findings on my Instagram story a few months ago, a lot of you felt the same. However, although I can’t speak on behalf of every (dis)abled person, not every experience or interaction is a bad one. And to be quite honest, I think the bad experiences are the ones that seem to be remembered more so than the good. In today’s blog, I’m going to share my experiences, how I normally respond (which is quite often determined by a multitude of factors) and how members of the public can better interact with (dis)abled people going forward.
A few of my own experiences:
Setting off on my first solo walk in the local woods with my walking stick and splint back in September 2020, I felt so happy and free. Suddenly, the fact that I walked differently, and that my arm was tensed up at a right angle didn’t seem to matter. I was strolling through the same woods, appreciating the same scenic views, and feeling independent just like before my stroke. This feeling was like no other. Until an approaching stranger, without even saying hello asked me, ‘what happened?’. I’m sure this stranger meant no harm, but the feeling of temporarily escaping from my (dis)ability came tumbling down and for the rest of the walk I felt anxious to bump into someone else who might rudely ask the same.
Another time, I was walking around Windsor with Richard, quite happily ‘blending in’ with the crowd as we slowly strolled past the castle on our way to grab some lunch. Carefully minding my feet and avoiding tripping over, I was caught off guard as a stranger shouted quite offensively, ‘what happened to your leg?!’. I jumped out of my skin and tensed up significantly due to the response of the muscle spasticity, which then affected how I walked and consequently made me feel even more vulnerable. Thankfully I was with Richard, who made me feel safe, but there have been other times when I have been alone and felt very intimidated in public.
On the flip side, I can also think of several examples where strangers have gently approached me and asked if I need help. Like the first time I ventured on a solo train journey from Reading to Manchester and someone politely offered to help me with my bags as we got on the train. With a small suitcase in my right hand and my left arm not being of much use, I felt vulnerable being in public with the responsibility of my bags and the extra caution of not tripping over. But this member of the public, without even realising, made me feel safe. This was an important reminder that not everyone is out to get me and that there are many kind people out there.
Over time, having experienced a broad range of interactions with strangers in public surrounding my (dis)ability, I’ve noticed that there is a correlation between how I am feeling about myself and how I respond to these public interactions. The more I’ve gotten used to being in this ‘new’ body, the more comfortable I feel walking in public and the less bothered I am by the comments of passers-by.
However, my response often depends on:
Who it is.
How they interact with me.
What mood I’m in.
Let me explain.
Who it is:
Over the last couple of years, I’ve noticed that there’s a variety of ‘types’ of people who might ask or point out my mobility differences in public. You’ve got the rude ones who probably get a kick out of picking on anyone who passes by, (dis)abled or not. The nosy people who tend to speak before they think and assume it’s okay to ask about your injury or walking aids before realising that it could be a triggering question for someone whose place in public is a form of temporarily escaping their reality. There are also the ones who stare, some who probably don’t realise they’re doing it, and others who seem to forget that the (dis)abled person they’re staring at is also a human and notices these things. But you’ve also got kind strangers who look past your (dis)ability and treat you the same as anyone else. These people might even appear to not notice your differences because they’ve made you feel so human. And then you’ve got the other caring strangers who, after building a good rapport, might ask ‘is everything okay?’ or ‘do you need a hand with that?’. The kind strangers are the people I often, without thinking, will give a response to. But I’ve also come to learn that I don’t owe anyone an explanation. Sometimes I’ll tell you I had a stroke, other times I’ll say I’ve just got a bad leg, and sometimes I’ll tell you it’s none of your business.
It's impossible to categorise everyone into these boxes, but these are just a few of the common themes I’ve picked up in my own experience.
How they interact with me:
If someone asks me ‘what happened?’ without even acknowledging me as a human first, I’m probably going to ignore them or make it very clear that they probably shouldn’t go around being so nosy. If I’m stared at in a way that makes me feel uncomfortable, I’ll probably simply ask, ‘are you okay?’ and reflect the uncomfortable feeling back onto them. If we’ve built a good rapport, I might take the time to share my story with you if I feel like it, or I might politely change the topic of conversation or avoid the question.
What mood I’m in:
This all depends on my mood too, of course. When I’m feeling good, I’m more likely to brush things off, or even view the way someone interacts with me from a more open perspective compared to when I’m feeling down. As I’ve become more used to the way my body now moves because of the stroke, I’ve had fewer ‘bad’ experiences in public which I don’t think is a coincidence. I’ve come to learn that I can’t control how the whole world engages with me, but I can choose how I respond. The more I let a stranger’s comment or body language get to me, the more pain I inflict on myself. So, I’ve learned that it is easier to just let things go. If I’m feeling playful, I’ll make up stories as to why I walk differently, just for the fun of it. Other times I’ll give dagger eyes and sometimes I’ll happily straight up explain what happened.
Photo from September 2020 - a few months post-stroke.
If you’re out in public and feel intimidated or uncomfortable by strangers because of your (dis)ability, it’s important to remind yourself of how far you’ve come just to *be* outside. At one point, going out wasn’t even an option or if it was, it might have been a goal that felt so far away. Remember where you were and where you are now. Remind yourself of what you’ve been through and be proud to wear the body you do. Often the people who make us feel the worst about ourselves are the ones with the biggest insecurities, and by owning our (dis)abilities and feeling proud of the body that we inhabit gives us the power over
how a stranger can make us feel. If someone makes me feel intimidated or I can feel myself getting worked up, I have learned to use this as a cue to think ‘f*** you, I’ve had a stroke, and look where I am now.' This empowering reminder gives me the boost of pride and confidence I need at that moment to not let it affect the rest of my day. Okay, I don’t move like a normal person, and I might be wearing a strange device to help me walk but what’s ‘normal’ anyway? I’ve also come to understand that sometimes we think that all eyes are on us because we have a (dis)ability, but sometimes a stare is *just* a stare. I could be fully functioning and still receive the same uncomfortable look from that stranger on the train.
Wearing shorts for the first time in public this summer - 2 years post-stroke.
Advice for people who do not have a (dis)ability:
No matter how visible someone’s (dis)ability is, you never know what someone is going through, or has been through, and so it is important to remember this before talking to a stranger about their ‘differences'. Below are a few tips for those who might be wondering how to interact with someone with a (dis)ability and not make them feel uncomfortable:
Try not to stare.
If you see someone struggling, offer help.
Acknowledge the person and treat them like you would any other human being.
At the end of the day, it really is none of your business to know what is wrong or what happened.