Thursday 2 August 2018

Show and tell

[Image: Michelle, a white woman with red asymmetrical hair, sits in a red garden chair leaning towards the camera. Behind her, a red chook shed can be seen and a green bush is seen to the left of frame. Her right hand is holding a clear walking stick. She wears red accessories, black cats eye glasses and a green floral vintage-inspired dress.]

You can't miss my walking stick in the picture above. It may be clear but it still stands out. It is a thing of beauty. The bubbles floating throughout the clear lucite catch the light. Pop a LED in the base and it shines like a line of fairy lights. It sparkles in the sun. And showers the ground with the dots of light. It is a little piece of magic that I carry with me every day.

It can be seen in my photos. At times it is lying on the ground beside me. It leans waiting against tables, walls and doorways. It rides in the back of my powerchair, Lucille. I lean upon it. At times, on a good day, I use it as a tiny point of balance. Just enough to stay upright. A fraction of finger resting. Other times it is tangled in my dress, my legs, between chickens and dogs. A momentary photo caught before I end up on my bum or miraculously stay upright if with tweaked muscles and jarred and subluxated joints. It begins with practical usage and ends in an incidental point in the composition.

Similarly, Lucille, my powerchair, is present in photo after photo. It's hard to take her out of frame when my legs aren't playing ball or my blood pressure so perilous that standing is just asking for a topple to the asphalt. So instead she takes me down to the port to take photos by the boats. Or down to the wetlands so I can sit in my ball gown and Christmas decoration wearing splendour, gazing out over the reeds, trees, and marshlands. Like my walking stick, her everyday practicality makes her an incidental component in my photos, just like my life.

[Image: Michelle, a white woman with asymmetrical hair sits in her red powerchair on a curved wooden boardwalk. In the background tan reeds and grey-green gum trees can be seen. A dark stormy sky is threatening. She is wearing a red velvet and taffeta ball gown, black floral boots, fishnets, multiple rows of gold Christmas baubles, and black sunglasses. She is sitting with her right leg up on a wooden rail and the left leg bent down. She is pulling on the beads with her left arm and looking to her right.]

I have included my mobility aides in photos for years now. Initially not for any particular reason other than they were there at the time. Purely incidental to the image's intent. And to an extent, this has continued. Their incidental placement frequently occurs when I am taking photos for #UpAndDressed as they allow me to stand to show off a fabulous flared skirt, or roll to a great location.

Primarily I am taking photos of my outfits. Fabulous new dress? Photo. Mix and match from my wardrobe? Photo. Vintage? Photo. But in all my mobility aides are present. As are my compression stockings, bright or patterned. Incorporated into my overall look.

[Image: Michelle, a white woman with asymmetrical red hair, is sitting in her power wheelchair in an alleyway in between photo shoots. Ivy is covering part of the wall on the left of frame, trees, building and cars can be seen in the background along with a No Entry sign and 3 people. She is sitting side on to the camera and is wearing black cats eye glasses, a vibrant glittery green top with a bow, blue velvet shorts, yellow compression stockings, and blue velvet boots. She looks tired and flushed from the heat.] 

At times I am more overt in their placement. New walking sticks or fabulously coloured compression stockings must be shared. They can be hard to find so I want to let others know. Or I am clear and direct in my message (usually prompted by an unpleasant ableist incident) that there is nothing embarrassing about using mobility and other medical aides. That these aides make life easier, not harder. That it is not these aids that confine or bind, or mark us as less, but a society that views disability as less and access as an afterthought.

But more than anything it is that they simply are. Ordinary. Workaday. Average. With the odd bit of pizazz, but at heart a tool that solves an issue. They hold no implicit judgement except that which we place upon them.

Walking stick, wheelchair or compression stockings, are analogous to a pair of glasses. 

Walking sticks, wheelchairs, crutches, and walkers help with mobility.

Compression stockings help to keep the blood or other fluids flowing in our limbs.

Glasses help us see.

The only difference is that we continue to see glasses as a normal or even fashionable accessory, while mobility aides, compression stockings and other medical aids are seen as signifying an unpalatable difference. 

I would love to see other aids styled as these glasses are in the photos from the Specsavers catalogue below. Here glasses are seen as fashionable and importantly, desirable. They don't detract from the styling, instead, they are central to it. You can pick up a pair to suit your personal style whatever that may be. Fashion designers come forward to create whole lines. And yet at their heart, they remain a medical device.

Oh, how we could change perceptions of other mobility and medical aides if they were treated in the same manner.

[Image: a magazine sits open on a bench top. One page is a full page photo of a young white woman wearing glasses with beautifully styled make up hair and accessories. On the other page are a collection of other photos displaying fashion models with sunglasses and so black text on white in the middle.]

I now have the words to explain much of my initial rejection of mobility aids and compression stockings, internalised ableism. That negative societal attitude to all things related to disability that seeps into your psyche when you're not looking. It takes up residence to let you know all the ways you are less or weak, that disability is shameful and that we are naught but a burden. We are tasked with the job to overcome and live despite. To not allow disability to define us and never give in or up. It is mixed with a recognition that I long perceived mobility aids, any aids, as markers of my bodily decline. Very visible reminders that the little mind nugget labelled Hope of Recovery, would never be realised. And a medical perspective, common in chronic illness, that equates the use of mobility aides as failure or weakness of character, rather than a tool to increase functioning merely serves to cement the idea of failure and shame when they are needed. Most of what we are offered feels akin to carrying the bland clinical hospital with us. As is our weakness and shame don't deserve anything beyond bland greys and beige.

And where does that lead? For me and many others, it results in injury, a worsening of health, and increased isolation.

For a long time, I hated using aids. For a long time, I resisted their purchase. So much time wasted. And so much unnecessary burden added.

It's taken a long time to work my way through that narrative. In truth, it still rears its head on occasion. But I now find that those moments make me angry and more inclined to show them off. To celebrate my beautiful walking stick, to revel in the pops of red on Lucille's undercarriage, and purchase another bright pair of compression stockings.

These days my aides weave their way into my outfits. Part of the overall composition of my images. They don't hide away. And they are never cropped out. 

[Image: Michelle, a white woman with asymmetrical red hair, stands in front of a green brick wall. She is standing with a white walking stick. She wears black cats eye glasses, a red tartan dress, white with tiny black stars long sleeve sheer shirt, black sheer floral compression stockings and black ankle boots.]

When we whisper about disability and it's accoutrements the shame stays the same. If we never show ourselves to ourselves or others that shame takes root and makes it even harder to be in what is already a largely inaccessible world. When we never see possibilities beyond tired tropes and medicalised imagery, how do we change our views or the views of others?

The more we share our mobility and other medical aides without the shadows of shame, the more we care for ourselves and the more we care for others. Both those already using aides and those who will in the future. Together with the creation of our own content, we can move the narrative. Because:



There is 


We are unapologetically visible. 

and we have

Choosing to be visible can be difficult at first. It can also have real consequences with regard to things like employment or relationships. But a quick check through the links above demonstrates that if you choose to be visible there is a huge community of people who have already made the choice who are there to support you and celebrate your choice. I am glad I found the community because it is they who continue to give me the confidence to tell society to suck it's negative disability narratives and just be myself.

My mobility and medical aides allow me to engage with the world. They let me go out to dinner, to a cafe, the library or the park. They let me feed my chooks and check the mail. They are both ordinary and amazing. And that is something to celebrate and share.