When I first started using a cane, I was super squirrelly about it. I didn’t really want to be seen with it. I started out just using it in my house where no one would see me. Then I worked myself up to using it in places I didn’t think I would run into anyone I knew (hard to do in a small city like St. John’s). I saw my cane as a very visible sign to everyone around me that I was sick and my body wasn’t working the same way I was used to. I was worried I would be pitied, or that people would ask me lots of personal questions, or I just wouldn’t look fashionable enough. I felt a sense of shame about the whole thing: shame about needing a cane (thanks internalized ableism), and shame about feeling shame about needing a cane, and shame about feeling shame about feeling shame. I made that last one up, but you get the point. SO MANY NEGATIVE EMOTIONS.
I remember, in the early days of the cane, I was on a trip to the UK with Matthew. It was a two-week backpacking trip that involved a lot of walking (bad idea, Lisa), so I had to rely heavily on my bubble gum pink cane. It was a cute cane, and it went everywhere with me. Yet when I look back on photos of that vacation, it is nowhere to be seen. That’s because I made Matthew hold it every single time he took a photo of me so it wouldn’t be in the shot. I worried so much about that. I had pretty extreme anxiety about people I knew seeing me with it, and they would certainly see me with it if it was all over my UK facebook photo album.
I’m happy to say that after a number of years, I no longer feel that way. I can look back on that version of myself and understand that she was having a hard time accepting all the changes, but I just want to pat her on the shoulder and be like “girl, that stick is just a stick, and it’s the reason you got yourself to the Tower of London today, so stop hating on it and embrace it for the helpful tool it is. Also you don’t know this yet but you have double pneumonia so you shouldn’t be at the Tower of London.” I wish I could show her 2019 Lisa, with her seven million mobility aids, feeling all cool and proud.
But that ^^ confident version of me didn’t happen overnight.
Being diagnosed with a chronic illness and becoming disabled has been a long and bumpy road to acceptance for me. I used to hide it just like I hid the cane, I’d pretend it wasn’t a thing, and I hoped that ignoring it would make it disappear (I didn’t have science on my side with that one). We live in a society that perpetuates the idea that a strong, healthy body is the ideal. Our society is built with that type of person in mind and I wanted to be society’s ideal person, dammit. Most of us are raised to see disability and illness as weakness. Maybe people don’t come right out and say that in those exact words (some do), but the idea is present in how we do and say most things. It’s called ableism. Ableism can be a larger, institutional discrimination (like public spaces not being built in a way that is accessible to everyone). And it can be more casual, like how people think or talk about disabled people as being lesser. Many people even think their ableist thoughts, comments or actions are coming from a helpful or caring place, but they are still ableist regardless of intention.
Seeing someone use a mobility aid and thinking something like “awww what a sin” is ableist. Approaching a disabled person at the grocery store and saying something like “I don’t know how you do it” or “wow you’re such an inspiration” while they’re just trying to buy a bag of chips and go home to binge watch The Office is ableist. Thinking “I had a bad day today but at least I’m not Lisa because Lisa is disabled!” is ableist. Sooo many people say and do ableist things without realizing that’s what they are doing, and without understanding how difficult and straight up annoying it makes life for disabled people.
So I had Matthew who was very supportive and said all the right things about how it doesn’t matter what other people think, I need to take care of me. But I also had a lot of people in my life saying things to me like “I just don’t see you as disabled” or “you need to be more than just your disease.” They thought these comments were compliments or nice words of advice, but it just made me even more anxious or scared to identify as disabled. I figured no one in my life would understand if I started using a cane. I was worried about being judged, especially because I was planning on using a cane only on the days that I needed it. Somedays I would still look ‘fine.’ Most people around me didn’t fully understand that disability is a spectrum. It isn’t black or white. It is different for everyone who is disabled. I wasn’t ready to be the poster child for this topic amongst the people I associate with. I didn’t want to pave the way and be the person that other people know who is disabled but not in the way most people think of disability. I didn’t want to open other peoples’ eyes up to how narrow their view of disability was, and how damaging that narrow view of disability is for disabled people. It’s not that I didn’t want those things to happen. But it’s that I was equal parts scared/anxious/lazy and I wanted everyone to already know this. I was sick and tired and didn’t want to have to do the work for other people to be okay with my illness and disability. I didn’t want anyone to think anything – positive or negative – about me using a mobility aid. I just wanted to exist like everyone else. NBD.
But I knew it wasn’t going to be that easy. I wasn’t going to go to bed and wake up the next day in a world where people were totally comfortable about the idea of disability and could interact with me normally, regardless of what I was leaning on. And I knew that eventually I couldn’t put it off anymore. I couldn’t let my fear of others’ judgements cause me more pain and keep me from living my life the way I deserved to. I had to sit myself down and get straight with me. “Lisa, you are putting other people before yourself. You are caring more about possibly making ignorant people feel uncomfortable than you are caring about your health and your well being.” So I knew I had to change. I accepted that I needed to use a cane to get the most out of life. And that metal stick would for some reason weird certain people out, make other people pity me, and basically change my relationship with the rest of society. I had to acknowledge that and become okay with it. But it still took baby steps.
So when it came time for me to start using mobility aids enough that I couldn’t hide it from people anymore, I thought about what I could do to ease that anxiety for myself. I decided I would start posting about having a cane or crutch on social media. I decided I would talk about it, even if it made me feel uncomfortable being that open about my health all the time. I would normalize it and make people more familiar with the idea of me using these mobility aids by making a facebook post here or there, or by sharing pictures on instagram. I came to realize it was the best way for me to go about my life with mobility aids, in whichever way I needed to use them, without having to worry about answering the questions of friends or family or acquaintances when they saw me using one. I figured if I posted every now and then about it, they would see me and just be like “oh Lisa needs a cane today, and that’s not strange because I am used to that idea now and I don’t have to talk about it with her or ask her super personal questions.” It made going out in public far more bearable for me. I still had a few awkward encounters, but far less than I think I would have experienced if I approached it differently.
And the more I posted about it, or ventured out in public with whichever mobility aid I needed at a particular time, the more I stopped noticing that it was a thing I was concerned about. While trying to normalize it for other people, I had in turn normalized it for myself. I looked at my mobility aids and thought “these things are so cool because they help me do all the things I want to do.”
And then last year something amazing happened. I logged into instagram and found Annika Victoria. Annika is a sewist and YouTuber who makes wonderful videos about DIY fashion and thrifting. She was also experiencing some confidence issues when it came to going out in public with her mobility aids, so she created a hashtag #BabeWithAMobilityAid to help build that confidence. I started following that hashtag on instagram and my feed was filled with awesome people who were rocking their mobility aids. They were proud and stylish. Total babes! My road to being confident using my cane or crutches was still a bit rocky at that point, but that hashtag was exactly what I needed. I started seeing my canes and crutches as not only mobility aids but also extensions of my personality, as well as stylish accessories. My canes and crutches became a source of fun, and I started sharing more pictures of me using them. I was sharing my story with even more people and I built a wonderful connection with so many other babes with mobility aids. Any sort of anxiety I felt about my cane or crutches is almost gone now. I still have my moments when new mobility aids are introduced into my life, but I think that’s more about me trying to get used to them and figuring out what things I have to do differently with them. There will always be a learning curve.
Along the way, as my confidence grew, I noticed that I was beginning to help other people who were now getting used to introducing mobility aids into their lives. And I realized I really liked doing that. I want people to know that it’s okay to need to use tools that other people might not need. I want people to know that they are worth it, they deserve to be in less pain and feel more freedom. And I love that sharing my story is in some way helping others get there. I’m also really enjoying sharing my story with people who aren’t disabled and might not know a lot about this perspective, because even if I change how two people approach the idea of disability, I think that’s a really great thing.
It will never be perfect, of course. We all have a long way to go in how we think about and react to disability. There will always be some sort of stigma. I will still be asked rude questions by strangers, and it will still hurt me and make me feel small every single time, but I’ll continue to use those situations as teachable moments. I won’t let that stop me from being comfortable with my body and my disability. I’ll keep on rocking my pink crutches and I’ll continue to embrace every stylish mobility aid that I buy online at 2 am when I should be sleeping.
Also, Selma Blair is famous and a total babe and she recently started posting badass pictures of herself using a cane.
Mobility aids are totally in. Spread the word.
If you are a disabled person who uses a mobility aid or is thinking about using one in the future, I have some homework for you:
1) Go on instagram and follow #BabeWithAMobilityAid and #DisabledAndCute
2) Also while you’re on instagram, check out @littlepineneedle @ms_trippingonair @sitting_pretty @annieelainey @jessicaoutofthecloset @thedisabledhippie @kath_elizabeth @natashalipman
3) Repeat after me – “I am a totally awesome human person. Mobility aids give me freedom to be my awesome self. They do not hold me back. I deserve to use whatever tools I need to use to make life easier for me. That is more important than what other people who don’t know better might think of me. Damn, I’m cool. Look how cool I am. Also Lisa is cool, too.”
4) Check out this blog post by my mobility aid idol, Ardra (Tripping on Air) about how to find the most badass mobility aids.