by Sofia Brizio
December 3rd was International Day of Persons with Disabilities. For the last two or three years, this date has represented an opportunity for me to think about how far I’ve come in my life. I was born with cerebral palsy, a condition that makes me unable to stand or walk without support. As a result, I use a walker and a wheelchair on a daily basis. My disability also comes with a wide range of other symptoms, such as strabismus, lack of spatial awareness, chronic fatigue, and hypersensitivity to noise and artificial lights. On top of all this, it takes me approximately twice as much energy and time as an able-bodied person to carry out even the simplest tasks such as getting dressed or having a shower.
It’s clear how from the standpoint of an able-bodied person, not much can be expected from me. If I need a four-hour nap after only making my bed and doing the dishes, what could I possibly achieve in life, you ask? The reality is I go about my day like everyone else: I live life with a disability and I don’t know any different. I always thought I was ‘normal’ until society made me feel like I wasn’t. I thought I was ‘normal’ until I realised other children were giving me weird looks; I thought I fit in quite well until I was left in a corner during P.E. because I couldn’t play ball like the other kids; I thought I was like everyone else until someone in primary school started calling me names and tried to take my walker away to make me fall. This isn’t to wallow in self-pity and say I’ve had a hard life so far; I haven’t. But it hasn’t been a walk in the park either.
I grew up in Italy, a country where the stigma around disability is still very present and is reflected in a lack of support when it comes to specific needs. The overall inaccessibility of my hometown made it impossible for me to have a completely normal adolescence, since I couldn’t go anywhere unaccompanied. By the time I got to age 18, I was angry and craved my independence. Going to university in another country turned out to be the perfect solution. I fell in love with Cardiff straight away: I could go anywhere quite easily, and thanks to the amazing support from the University, I felt like I could express my full potential without having to worry too much about accessibility. My new independent life made me realise that it is no longer acceptable for me to compromise on my autonomy and freedom and that there is no excuse for inaccessibility.
Although I do feel adequately supported and accepted at university, there are still challenges I face on a daily basis: I have to carefully monitor my energy use to make sure I don’t get too tired, which means sometimes I’m forced to miss out on fun activities with friends because I need to take care of myself first. I don’t feel safe walking home alone late at night because my walking aids often attract unwanted attention, which adds to the vulnerability of being a girl. This is why feminism is important to me just as much as advocacy for accessibility.
Being female and disabled, I find myself in a condition of what Jenny Corbett calls “dual oppression”, which means I face barriers imposed by society as I’m part of two disadvantaged groups.
Being female and disabled, I find myself in a condition of what Jenny Corbett calls “dual oppression”, which means I face barriers imposed by society as I’m part of two disadvantaged groups. Although university is in many ways a more protected and understanding environment, misconceptions about disability still exist. I’ve been called “inspiring” for simply getting out of bed and turning up to a seminar; people meet me at the swimming pool and tell me things like: “It’s nice to see you out of the house, I bet you don’t do that a lot”; or “if I had your disability, I just wouldn’t know what to do. You’re so brave!”. I also get comments along the lines of “you’re surprisingly beautiful for someone who has a disability”. Although these are rare exceptions, sometimes I think that if I were a man, I would probably get less of these patronising comments, and that’s why I believe in the importance of intersectional feminism. Many assume that I’m vulnerable because I have a disability and I am a woman. And it’s true; I am vulnerable, but only because society makes me.
Overall, my experience as a disabled woman at university has been everything I could have asked for and I wouldn’t change it for the world. Nevertheless, life with a disability can be challenging, because people around me who don’t share the same experience will never be able to fully understand it. When even in a university context I find myself having to remind people that I struggle with something as simple as opening a door*, I can’t help but being terrified about what’s going to happen when I step into the ‘real world’. Earlier this year, I was refused a place for a summer programme at a prestigious UK university because the lecture theatres were not accessible. If even a university fails to provide access, getting a job promises to be a nightmare. According to a recent study, 77% of disabled graduates choose or are advised not to disclose their disability on their CV or job application for fear of discrimination. Because apparently, I’m “inspiring” if I manage to cook my own dinner, but that degree on your CV is worth more if you have a fully functioning body. It is essential that we fight to erase the stigma around disabled people and the contrast between what’s considered normal and what’s not. I am normal. I just happen to be standing on two feet and four wheels.
*side note: the new, state-of-the-art Journalism building (which I was granted was going to be more accessible than the old one) has countless heavy doors which require card access and are not automatic. Try open them when you have to constantly hold on to a walking frame in order not to fall…