Read and Recorded by Bernice Friesen
The first time each of us need a wheel(ed) chair, we are too young to remember it.
When I was nineteen, I got Achilles tendonitis for the first time. It lasted months, my doctor telling me, in frustration, just to stop walking and it would get better—whatever you do, don’t do stairs and don’t run; I was obviously a very bad patient, and not following his orders if I wasn’t getting better.
My friends in art school piggybacked me up the stairs in our building. I eventually had to beg for a key for the service elevator because certain floors didn’t connect to other floors for the general public—the “normal” people.
The tendonitis hung on for years, and I blamed myself.
I’m not sure when the doctors started ordering x-rays and cat scans. Decades later, more tendonitis, and bursitis, and carpal tunnel, and overuse syndrome, and physiotherapy, and orthotics—and tennis elbow and golfer’s elbow at the same time, and an knife-pained tendon in my knee that doctors didn’t even have a name for—and I’d long known that this was just the way my body didn’t work.
Attempts at a sport or fitness activity usually injure me anew; even clapping is a dangerous activity. Sometimes I wear wrist braces and an elbow brace just to type at the computer. Joint hypermobility syndrome? Marfan’s syndrome? Once a doctor gave me a name for my condition, but I’ve forgotten what it is, perhaps because I can’t be fixed; naming it seems a useless exercise.
I still thrash myself internally for not limiting myself more, for being so stupid to have walked there in
those shoes, used the scissors too much, dug in the vegetable patch, or clipped back some blackberries. By not limiting myself, I have to limit myself even more to get over the damage I’ve done. I can wreck my hands for weeks by stirring a difficult jar of peanut butter.
Once, I was so angry I stamped my feet—what for me is deliberate self-harm—and sent myself back to
the physiotherapist. I account it with shame, but also with a whole body’s worth of bound rage.
What a delicate creature I am, who wants to punch holes in walls, who wants to be as fragile as a
train wreck in progress. How I hate my own body at times, at the times I need to take the most care of it,
when I need to cosset a newly wrecked tendon—injuries whose origins are often a mystery, injuries I
sometimes get in my sleep.
But I can pass. I don’t look disabled.
One in every four of us will be “officially” classified as disabled by the end of our lives as our bodies change, age, suffer accidents, and wear.
We will be deaf, blind, paralyzed, or unable to remember our names if we are lucky enough not to die young.
Those of us with spinal cord injuries, multiple sclerosis, or certain mental disorders commit suicide at a greater rate than the general population. The argument is that this isn’t because of the disability, but because of the disability of society to support us the way we are—and the gut reaction that springs from society’s fear and ignorance:
Geez, if that ever happened to me, I’d kill myself. The only time disabled suicide is in the news is in relation to the right-to-die movement; people think those of us with disabilities need more help dying, because it is natural to want to die if you’re like us. It’s society’s attitude—the attitude of the hive we are born into, the hive that is supposed to sustain us—that kills.
But we are also the ones who can tear down culture and build it back up again to suit us. We can change the rules and expectations, if not our own instincts and genetics. What kind of a hive do we want to live in?
Peel back the pages of this magazine and you’ll find disabilities, yes, but teasing, too, and flirting, and making love.
You’ll find teenaged girls laughing, driving a wheelchair through the pouring rain.
Bernice Friesen, Editor