When I was a child, I had something called Blount’s Disease. This meant I had perma-bow legs that would get worse if medical intervention wasn’t done. This also meant I had multiple surgeries, metal pins in my leg, some balance issues, and various moments in my young life in which I would have to use mobility aides. A wheelchair? Used it. Walkers? Yup. Crutches? How else would I get upstairs?
Growing up, I learned that my Blount’s Disease was a temporary thing, so I could never claim permanent disability. I learned that my good days of not having to watch my balance or use a knee brace canceled out the horrible days where I would need to use elevators to go a floor up. Because I was ‘strong’, I didn’t need to label myself as disabled. Because I didn’t use mobility aides on my good days, I definitely didn’t need them on my bad days.
But I was completely wrong.
Recently, I realized that I was disabled when I let my partner wheel me in a chair when we went on a museum date. I almost wanted to tell them no, because I didn’t want to be a burden and because I never wanted to go back to my childhood of using mobility aids frequently, but my knee was killing me. On top of that, they were completely okay with pushing me around while showing me their favorite pieces of art.
I also remembered being stared at by a bunch of people because let’s face it, a young black couple with colorful hair and one of them in a wheelchair is something that is uncommon. It didn’t make it okay, but in America, black folks aren’t able to show signs of weakness or vulnerability without being stared at.
That’s why I held onto not calling myself disabled for so long. I already had a bunch of marginalized identities that society shat on. I was a queer trans black person who is a first generation child of immigrants raised working class and on top of that, neurodivergent. I thought that I didn’t need to say that I was disabled because that meant I was giving in. That because I had good days as well as bad ones and because I was black and taught to be strong. Adding on another marginalized identity would mean I was weak.
But on that day, I learned that calling myself disabled was more of a form of resilience than weakness and does not make me less of a person.
via author’s Facebook page
By deciding that I was going to call myself disabled and acknowledge that I did need mobility aids from time to time, I was able to reflect on the internalized ableism I have developed since childhood. I was 22, so I rationalized that I didn’t need a cane to help with day to day activities. I had good days where my balance was on point, and I could run to places without fear of falling, so I thought that I was perhaps not “disabled enough.” I was queer and thought about the ableism in queer spaces and how I would be able to deal with more and more rejection because I would need more things to be accessible for me and even being rejected from jobs on the sole reason that I carried a cane.
I reflected upon whether or not I needed to call myself disabled or if I needed mobility aides and it was then, I realized that one of the ways I would unlearn internalized ableism is by acknowledging that I am not able-bodied. And that it was completely okay.
When I finally came back to New York City after spending a week in the Greater Boston Area with my partner, I did something that I told myself I never would do.
I bought a cane.
To top it off, I started using it as a part of my everyday life.
When I first decided to buy one, I knew I didn’t want ones that weren’t the generic silver or black brands. I was a black femme who made their presence known; hair that changed every month, leggings that were outrageous, a penguin hat that people knew me from wearing at marches or in online activist spaces, and a personality that refused to be turned down. I knew that if I was going to have to use a cane, it would have to reflect on the personality and style that people knew me for.
And it was on Amazon, I saw this beautiful metal cane with blue floral print. It held up to 300 pounds (which was important because I am 250 and some change) and looked sturdy as hell.
That was what I wanted.
And it was with buying that cane, which I realized my invisible disability had a visible marker.
And that I didn’t need to be ashamed.
Featured Image: Flickr user Sean McGrath via Creative Commons