Nikki’s Natter – What does “bravery” mean to you?

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Nikki 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.  Every second month she shares her musings with DPSN.

Growing up, the concept of bravery most often presented to me by my parents was the military kind.  Dad, a WWII veteran awarded the military Medal for Bravery, was typically stoic about his wartime exploits.  But Mum’s eyes would glow with pride when recounting the story as she knew it.

They were both friends of the legendary Captain Charles Upham, V.C. and Bar (meaning he had received the Victoria Cross, the highest military decoration awarded for bravery, multiple times).  Upham’s bravery was often stressed to us as kids – the same way I’m sure Colonel Willie Apiata’s V.C. is to today’s children.  In case you didn’t know, Apiata was the first recipient of the Victoria Cross for New Zealand.  (Yes, I do look too young to be a WWII veteran’s daughter, how nice of you to say).

I’ve been reminded a lot lately about the “bravery” of disabled people – how we triumph over adversity, smile through the pain, kick (insert cute child’s disability here)’s butt. As Chelsea Fleetham-de Liso of Wayne State University puts it, “There is a certain point of physical disability when everyone assumes that everything you do besides try to figure out how to kill yourself is an incredible feat worthy of praise and admiration.” While I wouldn’t put it quite so cynically, I have noted a tendency of some people not currently experiencing disability to confer on those who are a kind of hero status.

But is living with a disability day in and day out, while showing good grace toward the outside world, really “brave”?

I don’t really think so. As a friend of mine so eloquently (albeit bluntly) put it, “if anybody calls a disabled person brave in front of me, I’m the sort of cheeky s**t who’d say, “Why? What’s he done?’”.  To me and, I suspect, many others, we aren’t being particularly brave – we just do what we need to do to live our lives.

Of course, people mean well. I think what those calling us “brave” really mean is, “I couldn’t cope in your situation.” But of course you could – if you had to. To me, that’s the difference – brave people have a choice. People with disabilities don’t. Sure, some of us have quite big – even VERY big – physical hurdles to overcome. And when people see us handling those bumps in the road with grace, good humour and even enthusiasm, they might be forgiven for thinking we’re being brave. It’s a bit like the tendency of some people to think of the disabled as “angels” – to ascribe to us some kind of inherent virtue, bestowed simply by the fact of our having a disability. It’s sort of nice, but it’s unrealistic.

What needs to be remembered is that same person who smiles pleasantly while pushing themselves uphill is just a human being. They probably snarled at their kids, or yelled at the postman, or thumped the alarm clock ‘snooze’ button this morning, just like you did. (Come on, admit it – you know you did). Certainly, anyone who thinks of me as brave or angelic ought to see me before my morning coffee (just ask my husband) – or at my first M.R.I. scan, where even though I’m not normally claustrophobic, the thought of being moved backwards into a thing no bigger than a vacuum-cleaner pipe (well, so it seemed to me anyway) had me shaking like jelly.

We all face difficulties in life. While yours might be balancing a cheque book and mine might be, well, balancing full stop – the point is that we’re both doing what we do just about every day, and neither of us is more heroic than the other for doing it.

Anyway, I’m off to get a good night’s sleep, in preparation to face the morning. After all, I wouldn’t want to wake up tomorrow yelling at the snooze button…

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