I remember at University studying Media, the lecturer asked us to note down things we associated with our identities. I was a woman, daughter, a student, a northerner… When I read these out, some people asked why I hadn’t put ‘wheelchair user’ down.
At 18, I probably didn’t associate myself with being disabled, it was only when others looked at me in a certain way, stopped me from doing things or I couldn’t access activities – then I felt disabled. To me, I was a woman first. But the combination of being a woman and a disabled woman was a rocky road- something I had to battle with in my body and mind.
I have a condition called Spinal Muscular Atrophy, type III. It’s a genetic condition affecting my muscles (mainly my legs) so has affected me all my life. But as I’ve grown older, it has gradually affected me more. I walked until I was about 14 but could never run etc. Then, I started using a wheelchair for long-distances. It helped my independence but it came at an age where I was body-conscious and emotionally sensitive.
Growing up as a teenager and a wheelchair user was not always easy for my self-image. I wanted to be like everyone else (whatever that is!) and accepted like every other person (whoever that is!). I wanted to be envied by a few, attractive to others and treated the same as all other teenage girls.
I’ve always been a vocal person and not shy about making my opinion known! ‘Confident’, I like to call it. This probably helped in getting involved in activities and making friends.
I had great friends at school. As we were in a mainstream school with many children with various impairments, we all grew up being around a diverse bunch of people. It certainly helped my schoolmates’ perceptions when they left school as they didn’t fear disabled people or react in negative ways.
In fact, I probably didn’t differ to most other 16-year-olds. I liked fashion, make-up, music and boys. (I was also a skinny one then- something I look back on now and think- how the heck did I eat so much but stay so slim?!)
That carried on throughout my life. My life is better for the people I have in it- I’ve learnt over the years that it isn’t worth hanging on to people for the sake of more acquaintances in your life. People who value your friendship will always be there. My mum and sister are strong influencers too – always supportive.
I am renowned for my MAC make-up obsession, my statement necklace fetish and trips to the nail and hair salon. I probably do try harder on the way I look- maybe psychologically I don’t want the wheelchair to be the only part of me that people notice.
Like some girls, I dreamt about that Prince Charming and a white wedding. I spent a long time waiting for the right man to come along. I probably got overlooked by a few I liked because I didn’t fit their mould for an ideal woman. It hurt at the time but it was ‘worth the wait’ as they say.
When I met Mike in 2004, it was like a breath of fresh air. A man with a good heart (and body!). We didn’t get married until last year, February, but when we did- we did it in style. There were 120 guests at our day. Choosing a dress that sat right was emotional; ensuring my veil didn’t get pulled off was a challenge; thinking about the logistics of going down the aisle was difficult; having the courage for a first dance was hard. Pressure to be that perfect bride! But I knew the man I was marrying didn’t give a hoot as long as I was happy!
I’m 41 now and I probably feel more conscious about my body than I ever did. Things don’t hang as they used, don’t fit the way they did or there’s an extra dark line to cover.
Some days are harder than others. I think that’s age more than body image. But some days my condition is affected by tiredness- my body doesn’t always want to work at 100 percent. I work full time as a Marketing and Communications Manager, so I manage a heavy workload supported by my fab busy team.
I meet numerous disabled women and one thing strikes me every time- we’re as amazing as our attitude lets us be. Other people will never know what we go through or how we feel. It’s not easy, challenging societal stereotypes – and life sometimes sucks. But remember- happy looks different on everybody.