27 November 2020
What is disability? I don’t regard myself as disabled – I am more of a person with disabilities. I count myself amongst those who have lived with disabilities all their lives. We have either found ways around them or, in later years, made it clear, albeit as politely as possible, that there are some things we cannot do without some assistance. At one time, when I was much younger, my peers would make life difficult for me – I know of some folk who have said school days were the happiest times of their lives, but mine were not. Happily, most of the people I encounter nowadays listen to me and don’t try to make me fit into a category, like being of a certain age, a certain weight and therefore physically capable of doing those things that others of my age can do. It is probably why I have so often wanted to do things on my own, without help from others – but in the last few years I have learned to accept help gracefully.
When someone has a huge plaster cast on their arm, or is in a wheelchair, it is natural for us to relate those things to experiences we may have either had ourselves, or seen with family and friends. The broken arm – a skiing accident perhaps? The wheelchair – a car accident, maybe? In such cases we may be right – but we may also be very wrong! So, what about the people you see walking along, apparently ‘normal’. Beware please, all may not be as it first appears! Allow me to expand a little on this point if I may, through some of my own experiences. It may come as a bit of a surprise to some of my former work colleagues who are reading this, or perhaps not! But here we go.
I have had, from birth, a muscular weakness all down my right-hand side. As a result, I am left-handed and when singing in the church choir I found it impossible to hold a hymn or prayer book in one hand and turn the page with the other. So I found an alternative method – put the book down and sing largely from memory. I didn’t know it at the time, but this really was invaluable training for me for later! I learned to carry the cross during church services, to assist the priest during communion, but I learned ‘alternative’ ways of completing these tasks.
At school, my love of music continued and I learned to play the cornet and then the trumpet – except I used the fingers of my left hand to work the valves, not my right. It may have looked awkward, even strange, but it worked for me. One year I was given a camera for Christmas – I was around twelve years old. The camera used a drop-in cartridge film, rather than the standard film that had to be threaded into the camera in order to make it work. My parents had recognised that even at that age I was getting rather proud, even stubborn, about not wanting to appear ‘different’ to others at school, so they found ways of managing these difficulties without making it seem too obvious to me! For some years I was doing various therapeutic tasks, like squeezing a rubber ball in my right hand in order to give it some strength and some use. I was given Airfix models to build, the old ships, like HMS Victory, with literally hundreds of very small cannon to fit onto the ship, as well as the gun port covers for each gun. It was good therapy – it also kept me quiet for hours on end!
A few years went by and I started work. It was a big shock to me, learning what work was, but I learned. After a while I was moved into a different department, but the work involved using my right hand and whilst on holiday about three months later, I had an epileptic fit. I was diagnosed with epilepsy and also given tablets to control the condition. On my return to work, I did other work that did not involve me using my right hand as much. I was now earning money and so bought a better camera, finding one that I could manage and where I could operate the shutter button with my right hand. I also started singing in a couple of choirs, as well as continuing to play a trumpet, first in an orchestra, and then in a brass band. With one of the choirs I was asked if I could sing from memory, rather than holding the music, but that was easy for me.
Being left-handed meant that my writing was not the best in the world, under any circumstances. At school we used old-style ‘Quink’ ink, which smudged easily and meant that my written work was covered in blotches. I learned to angle the paper so I was writing across the paper, rather than along it, and that made things easier. Whilst working at BT I found that others had similar difficulties – one chap would even write with his hand facing the opposite way, so it looked like he was writing backwards, but it worked for him. That, along with other things, helped me immensely – I felt I was no longer alone in facing these challenges – others were, too. But bigger, better things were to come!
When I first started at BT, I was just sixteen and my manager was an ex-army major who everyone called ‘sir’ or Mr. No first names were used in those days! Most of the time I didn’t speak unless I was spoken to and I waited for others to finish speaking before I spoke. A few years passed and both my knowledge and personal confidence grew as I was moved around a few more departments in order to increase my knowledge of the business. I gained a promotion, and a while later was moved into the Sales office. A little later we were advised that new technology was soon being introduced – computers! I went home and talked to my dear Dad – it might be difficult for me to learn and use this new technology, as not being able to type might jeopardise my work, even my career! I borrowed my Dad’s typewriter and learned the standard keyboard layout. Typing with one hand was quite easy for me now. Then new technology was introduced and to my delight, I picked it up instantly – even my good keyboard skills were commented upon. Over the next few years I learned more sales skills, joining a team of people staffing various exhibitions before finally gaining further promotion and moving first to Leicester, then I was in Nottingham, Birmingham and Sheffield. These years also saw me married, then divorced, it saw the real birth of home computers, my skills and knowledge of these increased before seeing me in Sheffield as a tutor/trainer on some of BT’s computer systems, as well as doing the odd piece of what could be classed as ‘professional’ photography work. I finally found my way back to Leicester, still as a trainer with BT, before being made redundant in 2007. After a few years looking for other work I found that my age and medical situation, including a heart attack in 2010, meant that I was unlikely to get work easily. So I started up my own photographic and training business, teaching people how to take photos and use social media as well as computer programs to adjust and share their photographs.
But the question still remained – was I disabled? Over the years I acquired the skill of almost ‘hiding’ the limitations of my right hand. It still became apparent at times, especially when I needed to carry multiple items at the same time – when others would use a tray, I did not. In fact, I couldn’t, the weight was far too much for my right hand. Entertainingly, when I visited old friends we would walk to the nearby pub for a few beers. I would get the first round in, as there were usually three or four of us and I couldn’t carry several pints all at once, even on a tray! But this way, my friends were still standing at the bar so I could pass their drinks to them. Once settled in Leicester, a good friend of mine said they were sure I ought to get something from the government for my disability. I enquired about this but was told that I had overcome my disability and so did not need help in any way, and nothing in the way of financial support would be forthcoming. As a child, my dear Mum wanted to always buy me slip-on shoes, as I couldn’t do up shoelaces. My dad, however, knew that was not the best thing for me. I found an alternative way of tying shoelaces, a method which (with minor modifications) I still use today. I therefore had the ability to complete this task. As the years have passed by, new challenges have been put before me and most of the time I have accomplished them – though as I said at the beginning, nowadays I accept that I do have my limitations.
There is a quote from one of the Harry Potter films, spoken by the headmaster of Hogwarts school, Albus Dumbledore, who says “It is not our abilities that show what we truly are – it is our choices”. My right side is physically weaker than my left, so that really is a disability. But I have chosen to live my life, not despite these physical limitations but with them, recognising them for what they are. I have the ability to complete these tasks, whether by my own hands or with the help of others. I firmly believe that not accepting the limitations we might have is the disability – accepting them and not being ashamed or afraid of them gives those of us who others might sometimes consider as ‘disabled’, a greater ability than anything else can do.
This week, I have a quote. I am not sure who first said it, but it is this:
“Family isn’t always blood. It’s the people in your life who want you in theirs. The ones who accept you for who you are. The ones who would do anything to see you smile and who love you, no matter what.”