The first time I realised that my Mum was disabled was when I saw an X-ray of her hip, after she’d been taken to hospital to have a replacement fitted. It looked familiar - a ball and socket joint – but the socket wasn’t there. The ball, the top of the leg, was connected to nothing. One side of her hip totally eroded.
Osteomyelitis. Os-tee-oh-muh-lie-tiss. A bone infection she first contracted when she was 12, she thinks from the local swimming pool. She remembers going horse riding and feeling a lot of pain in her leg. The next morning she couldn’t move, and was taken to hospital. Soon she’d be put in a plaster bodycast, and would be out of school for 18 months. Prior to this, she loved sports, and wanted to be an actress. When that initial treatment was over, she knew that second dream in particular was now unavailable. Walking past a window with her Mum when she was 13, she noticed her limp for the first time. “Nobody on the stage limped, so that was that.”
Her experience being disabled throughout her life likely mirrors that of other disabled people. Throughout high school, university life in Bristol – by way of Salamanca, Seville, and Paris – and adulthood, the only person she can remember asking about it was a teacher, when she first returned to school after 18 months out – a Mr Bale, who had a disabled wife himself, and said that he’d look after her (thanks Mr Bale).
“It would have been a lot easier if they did [ask]! We don’t mind being asked about it!” she told me. At some stage she must have learnt to acquiesce to people’s reactions, and get on with it, but at what cost. “I’ve done so much in order not to bring attention to myself.” Given how clever and funny and just-plain-good my Mum is, this is a very hard sentence to hear her say.
The implication of the word, that someone is unable to do something, didn’t correspond with her in my mind, because she was able to do a lot
One imagines there were no shortages of opportunities for people to ask the question. But she’s right, people are embarrassed. Disability charity Scope are doing good work trying to challenge this societal inertia with their End The Awkward campaign at the moment, imploring people to heed the advice of people like my mum and not dance around the issue.
It was the same infection that returned when she was 42, having essentially lain dormant in the bone all that time. This relapse was what prompted the X-ray, and a Christmas spent in hospital, and her eventual hip replacement. Even after all that, after returning to work with no limp and with everyone having known that she had undergone an operation, nobody thought to mention anything.
“I still identify as being disabled,” Mum tells me, despite having now lived with the new hip for over 10 years. There are things she can do now that she couldn’t do before – she still remembers the feeling of riding a bike for the first time since 1970, how amazing that was, can recall one particularly holiday we took where she walked up Lulworth Cove without any pain or discomfort, and the other day when she asked me whether she should get a pair of heels for work, to complement a recent promotion, she had to remind me that she’d never been able to wear them when she was ill. She still says she feels sore, and has less mobility than an “able bodied” person, and psychologically as much as physically, that feeling hasn’t left.
Ironically, it’s only since her operation that I think of her as having once been disabled. The implication of the word, that someone is unable to do something, didn’t correspond with her in my mind, because she was able to do a lot. She did a Master’s from home while my sister was a baby, she drove us wherever we needed to go, she’s the only person I’ve ever met who’s able to peel an apple with a butter knife whilst keeping the peel all in one strip (try it, it’s impossible). She also swears with real skill and is an amazing Match of the Day companion. Her disability was only ever a part of her, an infection in her hip. It was never her entire self, it is never someone’s entire self.