I’m back! I know I’ve been absent from my blog for a while because of practise exams so I wanted to return with an In My Feelings post about a positive emotion (happiness) because I realised that I had only done negative ones so far. I haven’t spent a lot of time around other disabled teenagers because, as I mentioned before, I have grown up in a predominantly able-bodied society but there have been two times in my life when I was able to meet other disabled teens: When I met Jessica and when I went to Scouting.
I used to go to Scouts for disabled children. I spent a total of eight years there (we met up once every month from Saturday morning to Sunday evening and once a year for a week during the holiday for Summer camp) so it sort of felt like a home away from home. When I first started going there, I was a child who didn’t know a word of Dutch surrounded by only Dutch-speaking adults and children for a full night and two days so I had to learn it very quickly to be able to keep up. I do owe it to Scouts for almost single-handedly making me fluent in Dutch. I was also the only black person there and therefore had to endure quite a few questions about whether or not I was a boy because of my plaits (braids) and whether or not there was Hagelslag (typical Dutch food) in Africa. But I honestly didn’t mind, I soon found out that I MUCH preferred being the only black and British person in a room rather than the only disabled one.
It’s not like we all spent our time talking about our disabilities and bonding over the difficulties we all shared, it was more about just being able to have fun in a place where you knew you fit in. In fact, all that ‘disability troubles’ stuff sort of went without saying – so we didn’t. It was normal for everyone and therefore nothing special to talk about. Surprisingly, I didn’t feel the need to vent about things that I experienced in my life which none of the able-bodied people I’m usually around would ever understand, just being around people I knew shared some of my experiences was enough. Besides, I was only a child at the time, one who was still starting to figure out that she was different from most of the people around her. Scouts played a big role in that realisation.
I felt like someone there, someone other than simply the girl in the wheelchair. Instead, I was the smart, shy, book nerd which was a lot of fun. For the first time ever, I had people coming up to me and asking me for help. I was among some of the most able-bodied children there so I would be asked to pick things off the ground for people, take things out of bags, it was an incredible feeling. Most of my life I had felt like a burden to my friends because I was constantly asking them for help, but at Scouts, I was the opposite. I was looked up to by some and seen as an equal to others. I was truly a part of something there, and now when I look back on my days at Scouts, all I can do is smile.
When I started going to secondary school (high school), being at Scouts made me feel the opposite of the kind of loneliness I described in my last In My Feelings post. Instead, it was that type of inclusive happiness that is hard to put into words because you don’t even realise you’re feeling it at the time, and yet, you’re still grateful that it’s there. Maybe it was simply the absence of the automatic feeling of being abnormal, having to try and act as able-bodied as possible and looking out for people staring at me which I subconsciously put on when I’m around others.
The book The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas describes how Starr (a black sixteen-year-old) has one version of herself when she’s around black people and another around white people which I could relate to, but I didn’t realise how much I was holding myself back in front of able-bodied people too until I spent time around other disabled people. Scouting wasn’t just about meeting more people who were like me, it was also about finding out more about the real me beyond the inabilities of my body. I’d never felt more like a teenager, more ‘normal’. Everything that school had taught me was strange and weird about myself, I was discovering to be fourteen other children’s idea of normal.
I met some incredible people there and had some amazing experiences with them so I’ll definitely talk more about Scouts in later posts because they are my only other reference of what disabled people are like other than myself. I’ll also explain the logistics of how a bunch of disabled children were able to do camping and the sort of Scout activities we used to do. Unfortunately, I became too old for Scouts but just last year I had the only other experience I’ve ever had with disabled teens:
Last year I was introduced to Jessica (pseudonym) by my psychologist at the clinic. I told my psychologist that I wish I could have a disabled friend my own age who understood the things none of the able-bodied people in my life could understand because it would help me to feel less lonely. My psychologist responded by giving me Jessica’s email address. I was extremely excited and scared – I had no idea what she’d be like or what it would feel like to have a disabled friend in the first place. I knew that it was naïve to think that she would understand everything that I’ve been through just because we’re both disabled but I just wanted someone to vent to, someone who hopefully understood a little better than most.
At first, we just messaged over WhatsApp to try and get to know each other better. It was tentative at first, but we soon discovered that we had quite a lot in common. Luckily for me, she turned out to be one of the nicest girls I’d ever met. I instantly tried to discuss the ‘deep disability stuff’ but what I liked about Jessica is that she didn’t seem that interested in talking about those kinds of things. At first, she was more interested in talking about our hobbies and personalities because she was less interested in just being someone to dump all my disability worries on and more interested in being a friend.
After a month or so of messaging, we agreed to meet for the first time in town. Although neither of us had seen the other before I knew it was safe because we were both patients at the clinic and it was my psychologist who put us together. We met up in the music section of a technology store because Jessica is a huge music fan and then travelled around town, going in and out of shops and having lunch in Bagels and Beans. She turned out to be slightly more ‘able’ than me (she could stand up for limited amounts of time and was able to use her fingers) and also quite a bit older (nineteen) but she was still a teenager and we still bonded well because I’m quite mature for my age.
I felt an indescribably incredible feeling travelling around town with her in our wheelchairs. The people we passed weren’t just staring at me, they were staring at us. Never before had I felt proud that people were staring. We were a unit – with her pushing a wheelchair in the front and me travelling close behind. Every shop we entered the staff were clamouring to help the two of us and make sure we were okay which I had never experienced before, maybe because I always went everywhere with my mother or sisters. But it was so much fun and I didn’t want it to end.
It was also my first time going shopping without my family. For the first time, I picked out a shirt which I wanted to wear, took it into the changing room and changed into it myself. I decided I liked it and I bought it with my own money. I’d never felt so independent! I’ve always hated shopping but doing it myself for the first time made it extremely enjoyable – it wasn’t just the act of choosing something to wear but the act of choosing something for myself which made it special.
I also had fun talking with Jessica about our daily lives. She also goes to an able-bodied school but it seems as if she’s slightly more confident than me with a love for partying. In addition to being disabled, she’s also bisexual and loves going to pride parades. I always wondered what that would be like – it’s hard enough to get people to accept you as you are when you’re disabled and there must be those that accept you and your disability but reject you because you’re LGBTQIA+ and vice versa.
I explained to her how if strangers aren’t being ableist towards me, then sometimes they’re racist instead, how even at Scouts I was ‘different’ for being the only black one there and the effects of being someone who always sticks out no matter where they are. The fact that maybe you don’t need to be surrounded by people who are exactly like you came up, as well as the pros and cons of if you aren’t.
Overall, we were definitely able to bond as double-minority sisters. Overall, it was a great experience meeting Jessica and I’d love for her to do a guest post on this blog sometime because she’s at university now and I’m sure she has some interesting stories about being a disabled teen at university. I’m not saying that all disabled people will be best friends just because they met someone who is like them but, personally, it helped to meet a fellow sister and compare notes on our disabled teen lives.
It feels good to be back! See you next weekend!