In August I will be celebrating my fiftieth birthday and this has led me to ponder how attitudes to disability have changed over the years.
I was born in the Summer of Love and as a result of a breach birth have cerebral palsy. The doctors weren’t exactly optimistic about my future and told my mother and father to expect little. To their great credit my parents paid little heed to their advice and constantly encouraged me to achieve the milestones expected of a non-disabled child, albeit in a sometimes roundabout way.
Despite detesting any kind of physiotherapy from as early as I can remember, I learnt to walk (albeit rather labored) around the age of three, was the proud owner of a trike from aged four and attended primary school from five. It was not all straightforward though – handwriting was hard work and I learnt to type on a huge IBM typewriter – which was virtually impossible to carry from classroom to classroom and meant I started to get behind academically.
Resisting pressure from the ‘experts’ to send me to a special school my parents set up a school in the shed at the bottom of our garden. The four other children who attended were all non-disabled but had, for various reasons, opted out of mainstream education. Each teacher would turn up, give us a couple of hours tuition in their particular subject, and then go home before the next one appeared. Dividing their hourly salary between 5 made it doable financially as well. It meant my IBM typewriter could stay put and the arrangement continued until I was sixteen and had taken my ‘O’ Levels. I returned to mainstream education (with the help of a Dictaphone) for my ‘A’ Levels and went on to University and became a Social Worker.
It was only in my thirties when, due to an undiagnosed compressed spinal cord, my walking started to deteriorate that I started to identify myself as a disabled person. I realise this was, in part, due to the fact that with reduced mobility I encountered more physical barriers (for example, inaccessible buildings) whereas up until then I’d only had to contend with some negative attitudes and difficulties arising from my speech impairment.
Accepting my disability has been liberating and, whilst I’ll never be an activist, I am a strong proponent of the Social Model of Disability and the importance of disability awareness. In my lifetime huge progress has been made and, the young especially, are far less judgmental. Although only anecdotal, I can think of many ways things have improved – I rarely get the ‘phone slammed down on me when I have to make a cold call (I used to abhor the telephone), Blue Badge parking bays make life a lot easier, I can fly my mobility scooter around the world and on-line shopping means my insatiable thirst for new clothes is all too easily fulfilled. There is still a long way to go, but we are going in the right direction.
And being fifty? Probably the worst seen is being seen as mature and sensible when in your head you still feel eighteen and reckless!!!