My disability, my identity
My disability, my identity
sportanddev ambassador Susie Rodgers reflects on the power of the Paralympics.
As human beings, in a complex world of divisions, boundaries and borders, it isn’t surprising that we try to make sense of things by putting everyone and everything into groups, labels or boxes. Identity and individualism become even more complicated when we throw in the concept of nationalities and parameters to define ourselves: single or married, employed or unemployed, religious or atheist…
I have many identities, as most of us do, if we think about it long enough. I identify as female, I identify as a swimmer, I identify as a professional and a director. However, growing up, I didn’t identify as disabled. That may seem a strange statement, given that I was born in the 1980s with congenital deformities: missing my left leg from the knee and my left forearm from below the elbow. My right foot was also deformed slightly, arthritic and with four toes. I spent most of the first 26 years of my life trying to hide my disability and acting “normal”. In fact, I became a master of illusion, with barely anyone noticing any difference through my behaviour and the way I dressed.
The trouble with normal
The idea of “normal”, as Lennard J Davis explored in his book “Enforcing Normalcy”, has a historical precedent connected to the idea of a uniform or standardised approach to what it means to be a human being. In the First Industrial Revolution, where production and the global economy were linked to physical work, the idea of being "normal" excluded the less physically “able” worker.
The very concept of normal is strange to me, as are the polarised words “able” and “disabled”, but you can argue, as Lennard Davis does, that you can’t have one without the other. In fact, if the world had developed slightly differently, with disabled people in the majority and non-disabled people in the minority, one could imagine that our cities, towns, environments may look completely different to how they look today. Would a collaboration between the two have created better living environments in cities, I dare to ask?
I appreciate that disability as an identity is tricky, but it is simply language and words. Who is to say that normal is normal? Or that able is able? What I mean to emphasise is that we are all individuals, we are all wonderfully unique and we all have a contribution to make. We will all experience differing levels of ability throughout our lives and none of us will ever be perfect. Even if we were, would that create an ideal world?
"It was never enough"
It is however understandable why, growing up in the 80s and 90s, I felt the need to “fit in” and be seen as an equal to everyone else, because we were bombarded with images of the average or standard human being on a daily basis.
I feared being viewed in a negative way. I might be seen, missing limbs and with difficulties in my mobility, as disadvantaged and less able than someone with two arms and two legs. And so, I grew up throwing myself at life to prove to everyone that I was the same or equal to the “standard”. I finished my schooling with top grades, I got the highest grade at University in three languages, I studied the trumpet to the highest level and played in jazz bands and orchestras. I then moved onto sport in my quest to prove myself in any way I could, competing against non-disabled swimmers in local events and trying to beat them, my one arm and leg to their four limbs. It was never enough, because ultimately, I was still looking for something that was missing.