Surviving Solo in an Ableist Society

Living with a disability is hard enough, so how does living alone change things?

In 2015, I moved out of home for the first time, I was 25, and had just gotten my first paid, big girl job. I was a late bloomer in that regard for sure. I was on the verge of finishing up my last semester at uni and had applied for the job very much not thinking I would get it. It was the position I wrote about in my last blog and while it was pretty much a complete nightmare, I learned a lot about myself and the challenges of living alone and being disabled.

I moved to a very small town with a population of just under 3,000 people, about 5 hours from all my friends and family, which is a massive thing when the only other time I had lived away from home was for first year of uni and I came home during vacation, and I was only an hour from home anyway.

I started the job in the middle of the school year, so I had to rush to find housing in 2 weeks, and let me tell you, finding housing in a small town like that was bloody hard. I was very lucky to be given the tip that someone was renting privately, and that I should go and check the house out while I was also looking at the rental properties available through the estate agent. The house also needed to be relatively accessible, a few stairs was okay but not a two storey split level, it needed a bathtub instead of just a shower, and the kitchen needed to be relatively easy for me to use in terms of access to the stove top and height of benches. I can walk, but I use crutches, so when I’m at the kitchen bench or near the stove, I need to be able to lean against something to support myself while I cook. Luckily this private rental fit the bill, the landlords were a fantastically sweet married couple, and within 2 weeks, I was moving in.

Now, within that 2 weeks, I had to write list after list of things I thought I might need: bath board to get in and out of the bath, hand rail on the bathroom wall (installed by the landlord), and a trolley (like this, but not exactly because I’m not made of money) with which to move things from room to room. That last thing I would never have thought of without the input of my mother, and it was a godsend. Without it, I wouldn’t have been able to carry cups of tea or my dinner to the table and a whole host of other things that people without disabilities take for granted. While living with my parents they would carry my dinner to the table for me, and if I wanted a cup of tea while they weren’t home I would use a travel mug, but I rarely bothered because more often than not the travel mug was dirty, missing the lid or broken. However since I was going to be living alone for 6 months, the idea of 6 months without a cup of tea or coffee was grim.

It’s the small things that catch you off guard like not being able to call someone up and ask them to bring you a cappuccino and hang out. That last one isn’t really a problem, it’s just something I definitely missed.

Transport was another big one; as I previously mentioned I had moved to a tiny town of 3,000 people and there was one cab for the entire town. Luckily the driver was a wonderful man who was more than happy to accommodate driving me to and from work every weekday, and take me shopping on a Saturday if I needed it, the cost of transport to and from work was $12 per day, which is an absolute bargain. Without that wonderfully helpful taxi driver, I would have found it nigh on impossible to get to work.

People with disabilities often find themselves dependent on others for basic things such as transport, shopping, and housework. This can be made harder by the fact that gaining employment as a person with a disability is much harder than for those who don’t have disabilities, that’s the unfortunate reality we live in. Disabled people are more likely to be unemployed and isolated from society. It can be a real up hill battle to make inroads into a community if challenges as basic as transport cannot be accommodated.

One thing that really stood out to me was the fact that when I told a colleague about having to pay for the taxi each day she offered to organise a roster of people from work to drive me to and from each day, at first I resisted this but finally I relented. I resisted because I wanted to be seen as an equal at work, I didn’t want to be known as the woman who needed favours from coworkers every day. At any rate it didn’t matter because the woman never followed through on the offer.

That story brings me to another point, the lip service that is paid to those with disabilities, the countless empty offers of assistance that are rarely followed up with action, the compliments about “how you’re doing so well at everything” as though getting up and going to work every day was worthy of praise and admiration. This mentality really gets under my skin. The concept of being admired or viewed as inspirational *shudders* just because I live alone and have a job is so frustrating. It feels insincere, condescending and frankly, ridiculous.

I have lived with a disability for almost 27 years, but when I sit back and think of all the barriers that may be in my way to do a simple activity like meet my friends for lunch, it’s easy to get frustrated. Transport as I’ve already said, but things like the fact if it’s raining I probably won’t go out because all the pavements in my town are slippery and lethal as hell when wet. Luckily I have 2 friends who are strong enough to take me by an arm each and help me walk without falling over, but that’s frankly embarrassing. They don’t mind helping and often offer but I’m fiercely independent when I think something should be easy. This post isn’t about a pity party, but fuck it, having a disability is hard and even though I try to be fiercely independent and do things my own way, and never accept help if it is something I can do, I won’t lie and say that everything is the same as it would be if I wasn’t physically disabled.

Living alone as a person with a disability was hard and I’m damn proud to have done it, and I am sure I will do it again one day, hopefully for much longer than 6 months!

 

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Rural Mental Health In Australia: The Shameful Reality

Content warning: mental health, suicide, depression

Mental Health has become a very important topic of late, for me and for others. With shows like 13 Reasons Why causing an uproar, an increase in diagnoses of mental health conditions in younger people and a much wider knowledge of what mental illness is and why the stigma around it is outdated and dangerous. This is good progress, a march toward equality for people with mental illnesses who often suffer discrimination at the hands of those who don’t understand the reality of living with mental illness, but society has a long way to go, especially in rural isolated towns in Australia.

I grew up in a very small rural town up until I turned 12, and as a kid, mental illness was either not talked about or I was sheltered from it due to my age, either way, I was woefully unprepared for my teenage years and the depression that would ensue. By that point my family had moved to a larger town with more mental health services and I was at a larger school with a counsellor, which was lucky because as it turns out, the year I turned 16, everything went to absolute hell for me and I was in dire need of help. I can’t help but wonder, if I had still lived in that tiny, isolated rural town of my younger years whether I would have gotten the help I so badly needed as a teenager? It’s hard to know, that small town was where I grew up throughout the 1990’s and whether it was because it was the 1990’s and mental health was still very much stigmatised and not spoken about or whether it was because it was such a small town with a frightening lack of services, but I have my doubts that I would have gotten the help I needed.

It would be easy to blame that small town for being close minded or backward thinking but really the people there were caring and considerate and would do anything for someone who needed help, but the education about mental health was poor, the services non existent and the feeling of shame at having a mental illness was sky high.

I saw this for myself when I worked in another small town not far from my childhood home town in 2015, it was my first “adult” job and frankly it was awful. I worked in a high school as a “Student Support Officer” and in my first week there I dealt with a suicidal 14 year old who was treated as an attention seeker and as a waste of time to help. By law, we had to notify her parents, take her to the hospital, where we waited over 3 hours for her to be assessed by a psychiatric nurse via video link, and the end result was “no action to be taken”. I went home and called my parents and said “what have I done?! Coming here was a mistake” because I felt so helpless, here was this young girl who clearly felt disenfranchised by the community she lived in, crying out for help and being ignored by an overstretched, underfunded mental health service because she wasn’t “acutely affected”. To add insult to injury, when I called her parents again the next day to check in, this young girl’s mother said to me “next time, just call me and I’ll take her home and have a talk with her about this bullshit”. That to me, summed up my next 5 and a half months in that town and in that job. This pervasive culture of “we don’t talk about our problems, we deal with them at home” and dealing with them at home was also a case of “let’s not talk about it right now”.

I was appalled, disappointed and most of all I was furious. In the 12 months prior to my starting at that job, a young girl of 16 had taken her own life after being bullied at the school I worked at, a young man had taken his life after cutbacks at his job, and countless farmers had received mental health assessments as a result of depression stemming from a crippling drought, debt and a declining economy, all in one very small town.

The problem here is that those farmers never spoke to anyone else about their struggles and only ever reached out for help when they reached breaking point, and by that point they already had a plan in place for how they would take their own life but by some miracle they had reached out and stopped themselves from making a god awful mistake.

This town had a population of about 3,000 and to have 2 suicides in 12 months, and countless others receiving mental health assessments is unfathomable in terms of mental health statistics. This was a town that was struggling under the weight of a mental health crisis they were not equipped to combat.

During my time in that job, I struggled, I was having my own mental health issues which culminated in me seeing a mental health nurse during one of his trips from a larger centre. He was very helpful, understanding and kind. We discussed mental health both on a personal note for me as well as on a professional note as a social worker to a mental health nurse and the conclusion we drew was that this town was isolating, enclosed in its own reality and struggling to combat a crisis that was occurring at a national level as well.

This entire experience left me with a feeling that I couldn’t shake: mental health carries such a stigma, especially in small isolated communities, that it makes it almost impossible for those who need it to seek help. The stigma is so strong that mental health issues are still spoken about in hushed tones even by those who profess to be mental health professionals. I had one nurse ask me how I could possibly be a social worker and help others if I was struggling with my own mental health, and that mentality needs to end, because people will die before they get help when even the professionals are judging those in need.

Mental health in Australia, particularly in rural communities, needs to improve and it needs to do so before more people lose their lives because of lack of funds, lack of services and frankly staff who are under qualified for the task at hand.

If this post has raised mental health concerns for you, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or your nearest Mental Health hotline.

Life Lessons: Fighting Discrimination in Education

School is already a battleground, but what happens when you’re fighting disability stigma too?

So, full disclosure: its 6:20pm on Tuesday here, I woke up this morning full of intentions to write this post first thing, upload it and get on with my day…that’s not exactly what happened. Instead, I woke up, had to cancel some flights for someone who is stranded in China, had to make a bunch of phone calls for other stuff, tried to get Ed Sheeran concert tickets, failed at getting Ed Sheeran concert tickets, ate pizza, napped and woke up just now.

Having said alllll that, let’s go.

 

As some of you may know, I was born with Spina Bifida, which is a spinal birth defect and in essence means that I walk with crutches, can’t feel anything below my knees and a bunch of other complicated medical stuff that I can’t be bothered to explain. Google is your friend there guys! And because I grew up with a disability, I’ve had 26 (almost 27) years to deal with the discrimination, stares, questions and downright rudeness that that sometimes entails.

 

This blog post isn’t going to be a “poor me” whingefest, it is going to detail some discrimination that I myself, and many others like me, have faced and continue to face on the daily.

I’ll go back as far as I can remember I guess.

 

I vividly remember being in kindergarten, and telling a teacher I needed my aide to help me go to the bathroom, she accused me of being a liar and making it up to get out of class time, which led to an unfortunate accident which was VERY noticeable for everyone to see. When my grandmother came to pick me up from school and I was in tears, my grandmother spoke to the teacher and demanded to know why I had not been allowed to use the restroom, and the teacher really didn’t have an answer, and so my grandmother asked “did you stop all other children from going to the bathroom?” and the teacher replied sheepishly, “well…no.” BOOM, that’s discrimination.

 

Imagine learning that at the age of 5, the idea that if you ask to utilise an aide to do something as basic as access a bathroom, you will be denied because your teacher, who is charged with overseeing your care for 6 hours a day, thinks you might be making up the need to poop! (A little side-note to that story: I’ve long since gotten over the trauma of that incident and have even gone so far as to forgive the teacher in question. My grandmother has not, she maintains to this day that that particular teacher is an awful person).

 

When I was 12, I went to one of my very first school dances, and a boy (who I thought was very cute, FYI) asked me to dance. I thought I had died and gone to heaven, as 12 year old girls are prone to do when boys notice them. So, we danced, until one of the other girls made the snide comment that he only asked me to dance because he felt sorry for me. Now, I don’t know if that’s why he asked me to dance or not, but I do know that that girl was clearly discriminating against me (and being a straight up bitch, too). Not only was that ableist bullshit, but it was yet another incident of girls being mean to other girls, and putting them down for the sake of it. Girl hate is a whole other bag of bullshit that I might write about one day.

 

When I was in high school (from years 7-10) P.E. was a compulsory class, and guess what? Not one single teacher made an effort to be inclusive or to play sports that could be easily adapted to include a person in a wheelchair, so I was either made to sit and watch quietly on my own, or sent to the library to read a book. I like to think that in the 10 years since I stopped having to do P.E. classes they’ve gotten a bit more inclusive, and have made an effort to include those with disabilities, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if that wasn’t the case.

 

The thing that sticks out for me looking back on those bloody P.E. classes was that when my parents or I dared to ask why they weren’t adapted to include me, we got blank stares and platitudes. Finally, in year 9 I told my parents not to bother anymore, I couldn’t be bothered to fight that particular battle and had told myself so often that I hated sport that I didn’t care (in hindsight, that’s not true, the few times I got to go to wheelchair sports camps I had a blast!).

 

That kind of discrimination is bloody exhausting, especially since I was a self conscious teenager and the last thing you want to be seen as by your peers is “different” and the teachers make no effort to be inclusive.

 

When I got to university, I had one very memorable professor look me up and down as I walked into the lecture hall and say “excuse me miss?” and when I replied he said “are you sure you’re in the right place?” and so I reply “this is sociology 102 right?” and he says “yes, but are you sure you’re not looking for the special education unit?” WHAT. THE. FUCK? That was in roughly 2010 or so, not 30 years ago or something. I was speechless but when I gathered my wits, I walked out and went straight to the Dean of the University and lodged a complaint. Might have been overkill, still don’t regret it. He was required to apologise directly to me, and to undertake sensitivity training (I’d be willing to bet he never did it).

 

All of these examples come directly from my time at school and university, and if I had unlimited time and space, I could write pages and pages about the shitty things people have said and done, but the whole point of this is that discrimination is so disgustingly ingrained in our society that rarely is it questioned or challenged. It’s time for that to change.

Leave a message in the comments about discrimination you’ve faced or seen and let me know how you handled it.