Need a lift? No thanks.

NikkiNikki Frittmann is a notetaker and reader/writer for students with disabilities at AUT University.  She has Spina Bifida and lives in Auckland with her husband and two cats.  In this week’s guest blog, Nikki celebrates the anniversary of getting her drivers licence – and starts an important conversation about diversity.

Last time I wrote a DPSN blog, I had just had a birthday – this time, dear reader, I come to you on the eve of an anniversary. Not as significant, perhaps, as the day I skipped down the aisle to marry my beloved (not nearly as exciting, either), but a major milestone in personal achievement none-the-less.

Tomorrow marks 29 years to the day since I passed my Drivers’ Licence.

I was 20 years old at the time. While the minimum legal driving age in New Zealand was 15, as far as my parents were concerned, the minimum age for their daughter to learn to drive was 18. Hence that was the age I started learning. Over the next 2 years, I would break the record for the most lessons my driving instructor had given any one pupil.  I experienced problems judging distances and speeds, as well as difficulties following a series of verbal instructions i.e., “turn right by the dairy, go straight ahead, take the third left by the cowshed, cruise to the roundabout and take the second exit” would see me floundering by the cowshed.

It was my wonderful driving instructor, experienced in teaching disabled people to drive, who told me this was due to hydrocephalus (water on the brain) and having a shunt.  It was not until they became vital to the skill of driving did I even notice these gaps in my abilities. For a while, it was thought these barriers would be insurmountable in my quest for automotive freedom. Until, that is, the day I finally achieved my goal. Twenty-nine years ago tomorrow.

Yet being a licensed driver has given rise to a strange phenomenon. When I’m at a social gathering of some sort, and somebody asks how I got here, they always look shocked when I tell them I drove. Often if I’m waiting outside a venue for someone I want to catch up with at the end of the night, someone will ask me if I’m waiting for “my lift”. Just the fact they assume I must need “a lift” rankles, somewhat.  I wonder, would they say that to an able-bodied person of the same age as me?  Maybe, or maybe not.

It’s funny, the assumptions people make about disability. Not long ago, a non-disabled person I encountered remarked that disabled people seemed to have an extra special quality of forbearance.  He really believed we were all sweet, tolerant little human beings, who put a smile on our faces no matter what life threw at us. I thought, ruefully, that meeting me in the middle of a crisis would very quickly disabuse him of his theory.

Now, I’m aware I sound a bit cynical. For the most part, people these days hold quite realistic views about those of us with disabilities – and even for those who don’t, there’s no bad intent on their part. They’re well-meaning, charming even.

But they’re still wrong.

So what’s the solution?

To me, the answer lies in communicating, listening, and respect.

I have a wheelchair called Bessie. (Of course, wheelchairs can have names – didn’t you know?). Bessie is special. She’s pink. She has bright butterfly stickers all over her side panels, and a huge revolving plastic daisy sticking up from the left handle, for good measure. My husband wouldn’t be seen dead pushing her in public (unless I was in her at the time, of course). She’s very bright – I designed her that way, to encourage people to get over their shyness of my disability, and come up and talk to me. So far, it’s working a treat, especially with kids. I’ve found that kids, by and large, are quite good at breaking down barriers.

Thank heavens, people with disabilities are now mostly visible enough in their communities that anyone can meet us; and we can meet them. If we can just overcome that shyness on both sides, maybe we can even break down some walls. Hell, we might even discover we have things in common. You like geocaching? Me too! In fact, I’m looking for someone to hunt with. You enjoy sport? Bingo! I don’t play boccia anymore, but I’m a huge tennis fan. From an able-bodied person’s perspective, the discovery might be made that we’re not all cheery individuals who put smiles on our faces no matter what, but all the same, we’re not scary either.

So let’s talk.

Maybe then, we can discover some commonalities, bust some myths, and drop the assumptions.

                                                                                                                                                              

Each month DPSN features one or more guest bloggers with a unique take on diversity.  We also repost relevant blogs from other sites, with permission.  If you’d like to write for DPSN, or know someone you think we should contact, please email barbara@diversitynz.com

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