One of the trickiest aspects of living with a disability is the constant battle to be better than society perceives you to be.
It may be subconscious, but it's ableism all the same; society favours abled people and those with disabilities are often forced to go without the same rights and opportunities unless they fight for it. But be careful! If you advocate for yourself too strongly, you'll be labelled 'unreasonable'! If you are too kind and lenient in your approach, they'll walk all over you!
It shouldn't be this hard. Though I recognise my immense privilege as a straight, white, middle class woman, I find that it is so difficult for me to be granted the same respect as those around me who have the good fortune of having capable, abled bodies and minds.
Even well-meaning abled people are guilty of the subconscious ableism that causes them to override my agency in favour of their own.
When I sit at a table of peers and see pity in their eyes when they talk to me, I know that my opinions or ideas are not being evaluated on merit alone but on the presumption that no matter what, I am a delicate and fragile flower needing encouragement and positivity as I navigate my sad, pathetic, little life. I know this is bull. They don't.
It's so hard to articulate exactly why this happens, because I've never lived life without my disability. I can't speak to the experience of an abled person encountering a peer with a disability. Perhaps it is difficult to understand what is okay to say, and what isn't... but is it better to alienate them by diminishing their worth and agency than to take the time to learn and improve your own communication skills?
Don't confuse empathy with sympathy.
It's also interesting navigating the early twenties with a disability, because I'm expected to get my shit together (as an adult) whilst also being expected to call for help at every given turn (because I have a disability). If I do need help, and I ask for it, this confirms the abled person's theory that I am incapable. If I go it alone, never asking for nor accepting help, I am 'stubborn' or 'unappreciative'.
In the day-to-day, it's easy to feel like you're either left alone or watched like a hawk. It's easy to feel like there is no trust or respect. It's easy to feel like people think you are less than them.
There is no middle ground here.
There is never a middle ground.
I exist in a strange place, torn between two worlds, identifying with both yet being barred from truly being welcome in either. The abled world is the one I was born into. It's where my career is based, and most of my friends and family are products of that universe. The disabled community is a powerful one at that, but at times, I feel like a fraud when I try to dive in and realise that my experiences and feelings don't quite match those of disabled people who live and breathe disability pride.
So I constantly feel this urge to fight to be a part of something. I throw myself into study and work in the hope of proving myself, and proving that my value and my worth exist separately to my identity as a person living with a disability.
That's not to say that I am ashamed of being disabled - that is not the case. But I am so much more. I do not exist to simply live with a disability and be an 'inspiration' to abled people who need something to feel good about.
I exist because I have purpose.
I live and breathe theatre. Making compelling works of theatre is everything. Performing onstage and becoming a storyteller for the evening is thrilling. Sharing my heart and soul with an audience, trusting them with my true identity and the challenge of making their experience worth while is electric. Creating a new work with like-minded peers and taking risks in the rehearsal room is the scariest and most beautiful thing I could ever do. Writing lyrics like I'm writing in my journal and doing it just because it's what my heart wants.
Studying and researching for a Masters degree might be wearing me down but I know that it'll make for a more accessible and inclusive theatre industry, and I want everyone to share in the incredible, powerful, compelling stories we see on Brisbane's stages.
That's my purpose.
I find it so frustrating to have to fight so hard just to be heard and respected in the same way as my abled counterparts. The dehumanising of disabled people in all aspects of society is troubling. I long for the day when I can sit down among four or more people with the comfort of knowing that behind their eyes is respect and decency.
Until then... I guess I have no choice. I'll keep fighting to be better. But only in the hope that my fight will make us all better, too.