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On having a (temporary and minor) disability

Yesterday I was changing trains. As I came down the steps, I walked past a lady who was slowly and painfully descending, bumping her child in a pushchair from one step to the other. Normally, I would of course have offered to carry the pushchair with her. But I couldn’t – I have recently undergone an operation which means “no heavy lifting”. It was embarrassing: I don’t look different, and i don’t feel that different. But there are some things I just can’t do.

It’s a new and unusual situation for me, but of course it is the norm for many – including many of you reading this blog. My brief brush with disability, which will (I hope) last only a few weeks, has given me a new respect for people who live with disability day by day. It’s not only the inability to do certain things, or even the embarrassment of needing help. What I have been very aware of is that nagging feeling that you don’t quite fit. The world is constructed around expectations of a certain level of ability, which differs according to your age, and possibly other less reasonable factors like gender.

If you can’t do the things that you “should” be capable of at first glance, you feel as if you should be apologising for yourself. Certainly when I was going down the stairs at the railway station I felt an irrational desire to apologise to the woman with the pushchair, to explain why I was unable to help her, maybe even to show her my scar!

I’m not sure what can be done about this; I suspect a lot of it is hardwired into us. It would seem a little extreme to inflict temporary disability on everybody in order to understand more of what it’s like, but that might be the only thing that would overcome our unconscious judgements on others.

2 thoughts on “On having a (temporary and minor) disability

  1. Your thoughtful piece interests me, Jonathan, because I have lived with a degree of disability following a stroke eleven years ago. Having been paralysed down my right side, I learned to walk again but my arm and hand have remained paralysed. I live on my own, and have developed coping strategies for quite a lot of everyday activities. I tried from the outset to be positive, not to be apologetic and to be straightforward in asking for help if I need it. I have found this works well, on the whole. There are some people who need, for some of the reasons you hint at, to offer help when it is not helpful, but most of the people around me now either know when it is appropriate and essential to offer assistance, and when (most of the time) to act ‘normally’.

    For what it’s worth, the result for me has been that I returned to parish ministry as a priest, and (now in semi-retirement) have a full and relatively active life.

    You are right about what triggers the awareness … I recall being parked outside Boots the Chemist in my wheelchair, in the early says of my recovery, and noticing in a ten minute period what a large proportion of passers-by had some form of visually obvious disability. But I was sure I had only really become aware of that because I had myself become a ‘disabled’ person. Surely the main lesson for everyone is to learn to use all the opportunities of life, negative and positive, to see the world around us in new ways.

    [You may remember me from the delights of post-ordination training in the 1980s!]

    1. Thank you Richard – and great to hear from you. Having now heard the grumbles and (occasional) praises of POT from a generation of curates, I remain grateful for the time and space you gave to me in my early days

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