Sunday, 19 May 2013

Only Our Minds Disable Us

Of the hundreds of tweets that have floated past my eyes recently, one in particular stood out for me (I'm going to gloss over the one about 'cockwombles').

It went like this:

"Never a fan of hearing 'only our minds disable us' coming from anyone, especially high profile disabled people. It's not a helpful message"    @pseudodeviant

It is a comment about the view of disability that portrays people with disabilities as able to achieve powerful things by determination alone. I was utterly glued to the Paralymics this time last year. I was transfixed by the incredible feats of athleticism from people who only a generation or two ago might have spent their lives in institutions. Let's take the wonderful Sophie Christiansen OBE as an example. Sophie is 25 years old. She has competed as an equestrian in three consecutive Paralympic Games, winning medals at each one, including five gold medals in London last year. Not content with being a phenomenal athlete, Sophie also has a first-class masters degree in maths. 

I don't want to take anything away from Sophie and the other Paralympians, who have obviously dedicated themselves to their sports, and all the commitment and mental and physical strength that entails. Winning a Paralympic medal (or heck, even just qualifying for a Paralympic Games) is an awesome achievement. 

However, in my experience, there is a tendency for people to make comparisons. Often, the comparison is not very specific. I am perhaps one of the least athletic people in human history, and yet I couldn't count the number of times I've been asked if I've considered competing in world class sport, simply because I have a visible disability. For the record, no, I haven't considered it. Day-to-day life is more than enough of a challenge for me. 

During the Paralympics, the message of hope was repeated like a mantra: set your mind on it, and you can achieve anything. 

In my own personal experience, that just doesn't ring true. One of the things that I find most difficult about my condition is its unpredictable nature. Almost every day I am determined to do things, and almost every day my body rebels, leaving me flat on my face, flat on the sofa, or in hospital yet again. I push myself to socialise, bake, knit and read, and most recently, to go out every day. Sometimes it works, and I appreciate the wisdom of those motivating chants. Other times my body insists on full payback. It is during those times that I struggle most with feelings of inadequacy and guilt. 

I try to be forgiving of my body's weakness, working patiently to increase my strength and stamina, despite the symptoms that I experience of a daily basis. Improving my attitude is a big part of increasing my quality of life, but it has to include acknowledgement of my disabilities. My achievements are made with the body that I have. I have to know my weaknesses and work with them. 

I have encountered plenty of people with negative attitudes towards their disabilities. Those who drop everything and wait to get better before they can get on with their lives; those who refuse to do anything for themselves; those who allow their condition to take over every aspect of their lives, or who become bitter and angry. These people, although their disability is in their body, also shackle themselves with their minds. 

Disability is not all in the mind. A good attitude is unlikely to produce miracles, but a bad one will always drag you down.  As one of my friends used to say, "Love life. Dream big. Be positive!"

1 comment:

  1. Old post, I know, but I had to comment! I couldn't agree with you more. I have EDS as well, and I've been frustrated by people telling me that with determination alone, I can overcome my physical limitations. I see the empowering message there: attitude is hugely important, and a message of hope is a powerful antidote to self-pity and giving up on life. But unfortunately, attitude is not everything! Sometimes your condition just don't cooperate.

    I also see a less sunny corollary to the 'all you need is a good attitude' mantra: doesn't it also imply that, if you don't manage to overcome a limitation, it's your fault for not believing in yourself? I'm sure no one means that when they counsel positivity, but it's a conclusion that we might be tempted to draw. And of course, that's the opposite of empowerment.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post!