We have stregnth

Yesterday afternoon, Lyn and I were in the local coffee shop enjoying a drink and a snack. We were talking about this and that – our wedding, my birthday, her music etc – when the conversation got round to Lyn’s past. She is, let us say, somewhat older than I am, and has had quite a history. Lyn was telling us* about the four years or so she spent living in an institution. it sounded like some hellish cross between a school and a jail: everything was regulated and regimented; one member of staff fed four people; they had something called a ‘bath rota’. This was industrial, mechanised care; it seemed, from Lyn’s description, that she was not treated as a human but something simply to be kept alive.

It occurred to me that I have been exceptionally fortunate. You might call me spoiled. I grew up in a loving supportive family. I now have my independence, which, in a way, Lyn gave to me. Lyn had to fight for hers, as all the disabled people in her generation and those before did. And it was a long, hard fight, of the kind the crips of my generation know very little. We have grown up in a world much more accustomed to wheelchair users, and, although there are a great many fights yet to be fought, compared to those who were just shut away, I think my generation of crips have had it easy. We can choose when to eat and when to bathe; when to go out and what to watch on television.

I have sometimes been called a ‘survivor’ because I went to a special school, as if there was something heroic or brave involved in going back and forth to and from school every day. I don’t see it that way; I simply went to school and did the best I could do. It was not a case of living or dying. Lyn will probably say the same of her past, and argue that she just did what she had to do; but I think she can be called a survivor more fittingly than I can. For she did survive – she came through a situation which I daresay would have forced many to despair, and, what’s more, emerged from it as a strong, confident woman. I think Lyn, and the many people who went through such things, deserve our respect for that: after all, without the struggles Lyn’s generation of crips had to go through, we would not be free. I find myself wondering whether I could have survived in such a place.

Lyn, like people like Anne MacDonald and many others, had to fight to achieve the type of freedom disabled people these days seem almost to take for granted. We live in the community like everyone else; through the direct payment system we manage our own day-to-day affairs. It is easy to forget that this was not always so, and not so vey long ago people like me were languishing in long-stay hospitals. It is just as easy to forget how easily our current freedoms and equalities can be taken from us.

As indeed they might well be. We crips have, of late, been treated with more dignity and given more freedoms than ever before. This is because society has been relatively prosperous. I fear that could change: as this government cuts harder and deeper into budgets, I fear the freedoms we disabled people have recently enjoyed will be cut back. This, of course, must be fought. While we might not be at risk of being shoved back into institutions since it is far cheaper to fund the direct payment system, the amount of support people get stands to be cut drastically. Disability living allowance stands to be cut to the level that many people will barely be able to survive.

This must be fought as the last generation of disabled people fought for their freedom. The struggles we face might not be the same as theirs, but it struck me yesterday how much inspiration there is to take from people like Lyn. Through years of perseverance, she proved that she was able to live independently, no doubt having to overcome many doubting minds. Today we need to prove how unjust the cuts to the benefit system are, and how much harm they will do. My generation of people with disabilities can and must, I think, draw strength from what we as a community have been through. People like us are strong: people like Lyn are proof of how much we can go through, and how much we can achieve.

Lyn will chuckle when she reads this and accuse me of being overdramatic. No doubt others will think it silly to assert that my generation of disabled people can be endowed with the qualities of the previous one just because we both have disabilities. But the central fact remains, Lyn inspires me: in terms of her strength of character, her determination, her compassion and her sheer willpower, she is the greatest human being I have ever known. If we can today draw a fraction of the strength she and those like her had to use to free themselves, to live their lives as they deserved to, then we can overcome the current attacks to our liberties.

*Mitchell, of course, was with us

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s