Ours was such a brief encounter that I doubt you remember me, I doubt you gave one more thought once we’d parted. But I want you to know that I remember you, I remember what you said, how bad you’d wanted to shame me. I want you to know that moment has stayed with me, has shaped me, that I’ve wished a thousand times to meet you or someone like you all over again- that I could give you the perfect reply I’ve spent so many years crafting.
You sneered sanctimoniously and took great joy in it. You crushed a fragile teenage girl in the most awful period of her life.
I hope your child has not grown up to be like you.
It was a busy day at the Redland May Fair and the three queues for the toilets in the Tennis Club snaked out of the building. Parents with babies waited for the disabled toilet’s changing table. I anxiously joined the queue behind a woman in a motorised scooter, too busy going over the toilet routine to notice the dirty look you probably gave me.
My father was kindly taking me for my first ‘day out’ in the midst of months in and out of hospital. I love him, he’s wonderful, but he’s not a woman. For the first time since my arms had suddenly become paralysed a year before I was without a female helper to handle the knickers situation.
I psyched myself up: “I can do it, I can do it.” The taps in disabled bathrooms can be pushed by flaccid hands, no need to turn. My skirt was floaty enough to flip over my back. Large knickers are easy to grab. There’s a handrail to ease up and down. “I can do it, I can do it.”
Oh lord, for the life when going to a public toilet was not the biggest deal of my day!
The lady in the scooter was slow in the bathroom but held the door open for me and I made it just in time. The relief was overwhelming but the irritation was bloody huge- there is nothing more mortifying than being proud of pulling up your knickers.
Still, it was a big step, I’d done it: the hardest part of the Day Out. The hammering at the door hadn’t helped though!
My wrist splints caught the lock and turned it for my floppy fingers. I swung the door open with gusto, I may or may not have been feeling like a God. I probably had a self-satisfied look on my face.
Yours was self-rightous.
“Oh.” You stepped closer, sneering with the full, belittling up and down look of distain, “Not disabled or with a child then?”
Am I ‘disabled’?
I mean…. I’d spent a year seeing more doctors than teenagers. I couldn’t really use my arms. Only occasionally was I bussed in to school. There was that whole three months of being in a wheelchair. I didn’t actually spend more than two hours a day out of bed…
Is that who I am now?
Is that it?
Is this my life?
“I- I’m- I needed to use the toilet.”
“Whatever! Disgusting.” You scoffed, laughing with derision as my face sank, “Move.”
You shoved her buggy towards my rapidly deflating ego, catching at my ankles.
Is this it?
If I am a ‘disabled’ person now, if this is who I’m going to be forever… shouldn’t I hold my head up? Shouldn’t I be proud and strong?
“Actually-!” You slammed the door in my face.
I ran as fast as I could (which wasn’t very fast) out of the door and to my father, collapsing in his arms with tears. He would have wanted me to be proud, to stand my ground, not use a pathetic excuse. I’d failed my first moment as a ‘disabled’ person.
There were many more shaming moments after that but for the first year I thought of you daily. 10 years later I still think of that sentence weekly: “not disabled or with a child then?” I’ve thought of more ways to reply than I can count. Some are angry: “You’re a terrible mother! How dare you shame someone publically!”, “You’re a judgemental bitch!” Some are pious: “I think you’ll find I am”, “I forgive you your prejudice.”
It was such a small moment, such a tiny thing. There have been bigger moments of shame: wetting myself in the school common room, tipping my wheelchair over and listening to the laughs for what felt like eternity until someone came to help… I often still get dirty looks for using the amenities that were put in place to help people like me.
So why have you stayed with me? Why has what you said played like a loop in my head?
Because you were the first; the first to ignore every outward sign of disability and see a young girl in a pretty dress using something you feel you have more right to. And every single bloody time the urge is to shame her.