I am currently studying for a PhD in the School of Social Work at a Northwest University. I am researching disability autobiography and activism, exploring the ways in which the self-representations of my chosen authors make the case for activism.
There are two main aspects to my research, a critical analysis of existing autobiographical texts including My Left Foot, by Christy Brown, Don’t worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot by John Callahan, Too Late to Die Young: Nearly True Tales from a Life by Harriet McBryde Johnson, and Don’t Call me Inspirational: a Disabled Feminist Talks Back by Harilyn Rousso.
I am also keeping my own autobiographical journal which will be used as a fifth primary text. The second key aspect to my research is the creative component. I am a reluctant activist, (I say reluctant because it’s a role I often feel forced into), creative writer and performer with a very personal interest in writings on the subject of disability and impairment, (I have an impairment of my own, I am a wheelchair user with CP).
My declaration of interest in the subject is not intended to imply that I look through a single lens, I am aware that factors such as class, race and gender, have an equal place in any discussion of the subject. I am aiming to produce a performance as part of my PhD, with the aim of making the links between my creative and academic work explicit.
My work is inherently political, and concerned with representing the subjectivity of people with impairments through both my analysis of autobiography, and my own writing and performance. As a writer, I am a member of Reading the World, we are a collaborative group, and one of our key objectives is to bring underrepresented voices from the margins to the centre. We do this by writing and performing, in, and outside the classroom. Our members include people in recovery from alcohol or drug addiction, individuals from the LGBT community, people who have had experience of mental health problems, ex-offenders and service users.
My own writing as a member of Reading the World engages, amongst other things, with issues of oppression, exclusion and inequality. Take for example my piece entitled: A Single Human Eye, which draws upon my own personal experiences of segregation and exclusion on the grounds of my impairment, beginning with my exclusion from swimming lessons with my classmates’ as a child:
A SINGLE HUMAN EYE
I am in the swimming pool surrounded by friends, the armbands are doing
their job and I am floating peacefully on my back, completing steady, unhindered
lengths. The muscular tension with which I am familiar disappears in water the way
sugar dissolves in coffee. For a few blissful moments my mind is empty. I am
enthralled by the residual erratic splashing of my classmates’ feet and arms at my side
as they propel themselves up and down the lanes for my entertainment, Kicking their
legs playfully in my direction, they provide me with my very own human powered
jacuzzi. My support assistant, to whom I have grown close, swims unobtrusively
nearby. She has previously done all she can to ensure my inclusion in class activities.
On a day trip she carried me onto the beach, so I got to feel the sand against my skin,
asking the help of a passer-by to take a picture of us together, which I still have to this
day. And invariably she protected me from the ill-conceived, unwanted comments of
others who should have known better and still don’t.
I am as yet unaware that this is the last time I will feel this form of freedom
and I have not yet learned its value. Overnight, with the arrival of a new headmistress,
I am declared a hazard to myself and all those around me. Private conversations and
imagined arguments had by supposedly rational, fair minded, sensible people, mean
that in future I will swim exclusively with my own kind, in a segregated pool for
‘special’ people under the guise of therapy.
There is brightly coloured plastic equipment everywhere in the changing
rooms, chairs with wheels that I cannot push and straps made to hold me down, to
instil patience at an early age and enforce dependence. In the pool area, any solid
object is florescent, just in case anyone has plans to walk into it. Signage warning the
public they may encounter the physically handicapped haunts the walls like graffiti in
a palace. Quick, leave now, while you still can. The physios have swapped their
familiar blue and white uniforms for swimming costumes and counting me there are
less than six people in the pool. Where there was peace and unselfconscious happiness
there are now orders and functional communication, where there was entertainment
there is now alienation, the sporadic gurgling’s of a fellow captive provide my only
other soundtrack. It’s as if I am sub-alternative species, the existence of which must
be contained if humanity is to survive, only fit for vacuum packing and isolation, a
carnivore at a meeting of The Vegetarian Society.
The fact that I don’t walk is the single point of demarcation, the impact of
arbitrary, flippantly acquired perceptions which undermine any life I try to build. In
those moments I felt the full weight of an anxiety which is now well established in my
mind, an anxiety which some around me exploit out of fear? Apathy? Exhaustion? An
anxiety which as an adult prevents me from living as I wish. It was then, and not for
the last time, that I learnt the power and the danger of a single human’s eyes, then that
I learned to be wary of what those who looked at me saw. Not everybody comes in
peace, some come to harm, The challenge is discovering who’s who and often it’s
hard to tell the difference.
The relationship between my creative and academic work is symbiotic. I would not be studying for a PhD of the kind I am if it weren’t for experiences like the one depicted in A Single Human Eye, and conversely, I don’t think I would have the motivation to write creatively if it weren’t for the personal experiences I have had that are the subject of my creative work.