Sharing his personal experience, Adam Selvey details the intersection between physical disability and mental wellbeing.
Growing up, there was a particularly prominent occurrence in my life, one which became so common that I considered it as inherent a part of my daily routine as showering or cleaning my teeth. It would always begin in the same way. An individual, often a complete stranger, would approach me to ask the same question:
‘What’s wrong with your hand?’
‘Broken,’ I would reply.
I cannot pinpoint exactly when it was that I determined to lie about my arm – to lie about myself – but I do know that this acted as a blueprint for all such exchanges thereafter. During my teenage years, these interactions with strangers, mostly other pupils at my school, occurred with such cyclic regularity that my never-changing response acquired a corresponding triviality. My ‘broken-arm’ falsity became second nature to me, and I was consumed by it.
Of course, my arm was not and never has been broken. I have a disability. Specifically, Hemiplegia, a form of Cerebral Palsy (CP) which prohibits motor function in the right side of my body. Though all areas of my right side are affected, it chiefly affects my arm. I cannot move my right wrist at all, and my fingers and thumbs are functionally useless. I live a near-exclusively one-handed life. In order to manage my CP, I must perform 30 minutes of daily stretches and occupational therapy, and I do everything – eating, dressing, typing, even driving – with the use of one hand. Physically, my CP is absolute and permanent, and therefore inescapable.
It is with this absoluteness in mind that my fixed response to strangers’ questions should leap out as a critical problem. My relationship with disability was one of contradiction.To me, disability was a powerful frustration, a clash between physical reality and performative fantasy, and it affronted me every moment of every day. On the one hand, I resolved to assimilate into my perceived notion of able- bodied normalcy, and on the other, I was prevented from doing so by my own body. This internal struggle has been more debilitating than my CP has ever been – a great irony that should illustrate the crisis that exists at the point in which physical and mental disabilities intersect.
The research on this intersection is unfortunately exiguous, but the studies we do have indicate the same conclusion, that there is an overwhelming correlation between physical disability and poor mental health, and between physical disability and suicide. Given my own turbulence when it comes to reconciling my CP with both myself and the world around me, this does not surprise me. I suspect that many individuals, especially other young people, have experienced that same internal fracture. In a world dominated by Instagram and the idealised images of body and form, the desire to hide away from the realities of disability is surely skyrocketing.
Change, then, is vital, and I believe this begins with familiarity. The irony of being the only physically disabled person in my family is that, of all my relatives who live with me, I am the most in the dark about what my CP actually looks like. Up to my mid-teens, I was the only disabled person I knew, and I rarely saw people with Hemiplegic CP in TV or film. Accordingly, I was as unfamiliar with my disability as anyone might be. As a result of this, I developed a warped sense of who I actually was, and any glimpse I caught of my own disability horrified me. I remember very distinctly grimacing at a clip of myself performing the choreography to
Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious in a school musical – with determined grit, but limited accuracy! Henceforth, I decided never to look at myself on camera, or even fully in a mirror, again. This was a mistake. In refusing to look at the reality of my existence, I was refusing to acknowledge my existence full-stop, and the resulting mental strain followed near instantaneously.
The solution is to engineer familiarity with disability in as stark and open a way as possible. If we acknowledge disability with frankness and care, then we hold hope to normalise it, and to provide disabled people with greater security to accept and embrace themselves fully.
The question about my arm, formerly a staple of my teenage years, is no longer a common feature of my day-to-day life. Indeed, it is my experience that this enquiry has been altogether abandoned and replaced with total silence. One time last year, whilst living in student halls, I brought up my CP in group conversation. One of my friends stayed quiet through its duration, and later told me that they had realised upon meeting me that there was something wrong with my arm, but that they did not want to make me uncomfortable in asking me about it. They decided to leave it unacknowledged. This was done with noble intentions, but ultimately it is this line of thinking that exacerbates the problem, blocking the familiarity that is key to extinguishing the issue of self-acceptance in the disabled community.
I would urge all able-bodied people with disabled friends to seek them out and ask questions about their physicality and experiences. There’s a collective sense that doing so is unacceptable or rude, but I think you might find that we are incredibly eager to share our stories with anyone who might be curious. My disability is not going away. For the people around me to accustom themselves to it completely seems far more appropriate than sweeping awkward questions under the rug. And to other disabled people, I would encourage you to open up not just to others but to yourselves about your own experiences with disability. The battle between physical disability and mental health is multi-faceted, and victory will not occur overnight. But it is a process that we all, able-bodied and disabled alike, have a responsibility to cultivate.
This article was originally published in Issue 723 of Pi Magazine.