Part the First – An Introduction
It’s early-July. I’ve finished my semester exams and, now that my results have been announced, I know I will be able to graduate my Undergraduate Degree in English Literature and History by the end of this year. To top it off, by early-December, my parents and I will bid a final farewell to Cape Town and embark on a new and exciting journey in England. Things are on the up. The idea of starting a new chapter in a new country where my opportunities increase dramatically is thrilling.
As good and necessary as this move is for me in particular, the organising, down-sizing, and mental shifts that accompany this next phase have left me feeling somewhat like the Roman god, Janus (from which the month ‘January’ is almost certainly derived), who has two faces facing in opposite directions – one to the future, and one to the past. Just as we should be wrapping up our lives with the last few months we have, I find myself reminiscing about many things: my early childhood, the start of school, the seventeen anesthetics I’ve had over the course of my life, writing my school-leaving exams, starting my degree, and, soon, the closing of the introductory chapters of my story.
Part of our leaving process revolves around reducing the amount of stuff we have to take over to the UK with us. Over the last week, I have been going through the several files and folders that my parents have kept on me in the twenty-one years I have been bugging them. They kept everything.
In a single afternoon, I was able to traverse over two decades of my personal history. I was able to read a 1998 letter stating my acceptance into the foundation phase of my school career while, moments later, I could pick up the last school photo taken months before we embarked on the exams that ultimately ended a thirteen-year-long chapter of my life and sent me catapulting into the beginnings of my professional field. All I can say is that holding eighteen years of history in your hands is a strange feeling that I don’t think you can find anywhere else.
No matter how good that feeling is, though, it’s bitter-sweet if I’m honest. Reading the letters and reports, listening to the recordings, and looking at the photographs has distilled the memories across the last lifetime into a purer, clearer rendition. Events I’d long since forgotten come running back like a speeding train, almost as clear as if they were playing out in front of me. In short, it reminded me that while Cape Town may not be perfect for me, it is the stage upon which all the actors in my life work their magic. Leaving might be good for me but I cannot deny that the gains will mean significant loses.
I came across a tweet by one of my favourite Disability Bloggers, Diary of a Disabled Person, that I feel needs to be echoed so as many people get the message as possible. For my part, however, I want to stress two things:
- Service Dogs are not “dangerous weapons”
- Service Dogs are legitimately allowed to be with you
I’ve had a Golden Retriever Service Dog for several years and the two of us get greeted often with one of two types of responses: “Aw, puppy! Can I hug her?” or “No dogs allowed.” The latter just baffles me. Part of me feels like I should congratulate them for identifying the fact that my aide is, in fact, a dog. The other part wants to scream.
For the six or so years that Sasha, my Golden Retriever minion, and I have been together, she has become (unsurprisingly) a key part of my interaction with society. To be told by people who clearly don’t understand the role ‘service fluffies’ play that the dog is ‘unnecessary,’ a ‘pet,’ or “dangerous weapon” (yes, that legitimately happened. You can read more about it in my earlier post, The Weaponised Pooch) ranges from mildly irritating to mind-bogglingly infuriating. While I can see the sense in restricting access to various non-human species, your telling me that my “dangerous weapon” is not allowed in is denying me access to a key resource that is integral to my being able to fully function in society. You wouldn’t, I hope, insist that a frail person leave their cane at the door and somehow be able to function properly; why would you do it to a service dog? The service dog, in effect, is a furry, animate cane to those who use them.
Yes, we love our service/guide dogs but, frankly, a lot of people would rather not be in a situation in which they need to have that service or guide dog with them. Since this utopia doesn’t exist, though, those dreams are merely dreams. The service or guide dog exists to serve or to guide those who need that bit more assistance to be able to function at their best in society and so that, like everyone else, they too can enjoy the fruits that society has to offer. To deny those individuals’ service/guide dogs access is denying the person access to an equal life. To ban the dog, then, is to ban the Man.
In a world which is becoming increasingly accepting of differences, it saddens me to think that service and guide dogs are still being seen as simply an animal. Yes, they are animals; they’re also so much more.
The latest collaboration I wrote with Diary of a Disabled Person illustrates just one of many ways that England and South Africa vary with respect to their Disabled Communities. Having recently returned from England a week ago, something I have come into contact more than in South Africa is stairs inside homes and other buildings (perhaps it is just something to do with where I was but the fact remains nonetheless). While a lot of these places had lifts for wheelchair-users and others who might need a lift, it got me thinking: if I want to move to England, what would I do about stairs in my home?
Now that I’m back in Cape Town, I decided to set myself on the case and do a little digging. In my research, I came across a UK-based company, Stairlift Guru, who set themselves up to help combat the dreaded, universal curse of wheelchair-users: stairs. From what my digging dug up, Stairlift Guru helps the ‘stair-challenged’ to hunt for, compare, and contact companies that would then install a stairlift for them.
Why not a normal lift?
In a residential setting, I think the answer would be pretty obvious: space. A person’s home, generally, is a fraction of the size of a bank, museum or other public building. Having a traditional lift, then, would take up too much physical real estate to make it a feasible option. Moreover, traditional lifts are vastly more expensive. A stairlift, while not necessarily perfect for wheelchair-users, is significantly cheaper in a variety of ways. Continue reading
Birthdays are weird things. In a world where youth is often considered an ‘ideal,’ the fact that we actively celebrate an occasion that marks our ageing is a strange practice. Still, the fact that we celebrate personal development is fantastic. In that sense, birthdays don’t celebrate ageing so much as growth. As much as birthdays offer an opportunity to dream of the future, they also offer an opportunity to look back down the years and remember the people, places, and experiences that ultimately come to form what we consider to be fundamentally us.
Having come back from England three days ago, where we celebrated my twenty-first, I’ve been slowly sorting through my things and mentally preparing myself to move there at the end of the year. Going through the various cards and photographs that resulted in the celebration and trying to decide where I should keep them, I came across a folder with a whole lot of cards, letters, and photographs collected over several years. Spending the last while reading through all of them again, it got me thinking.
A lot of these photographs I don’t even remember being taken yet just seeing the corner of them throws me back over 10 years in some cases. Thinking about it, the old cliché that ‘a picture tells a thousand words’ comes to mind but I disagree; a picture describes the indescribable. Seeing these photos that, in some cases, I forgot even existed did not merely remind me of the event; they transported me back into that very moment. Photos don’t merely reflect an event; they become them.
Experiencing the profound, emotional influence something as simple as a photograph can have, I’m forced to wonder whether this selfie-loving time we find ourselves in still captures the essence and power of a photograph. Does the higher volume and seeming relative disregard for the importance of the photograph destroy its power? If photography is so emotive, surely our photographs would have a profound influence on our identity – our very ‘us-ness?’
If we consider the importance of photography, social media, and public perception on our identity – our very ‘us-ness’ – I wonder how much of who we are is due to others and how much of who we are is truly our own.
There are a great many cultural divides between the UK and South Africa, and unsurprisingly this extends to disability. With two radically different systems of health care and financial support for the disabled, the lives of wheelchair users in either country greatly differs, as do the social perceptions and stigmas surrounding disability.
UK (Emma Steer, Diary of a Disabled Person).
One of the defining features of British culture, aside from an addiction to Gregg’s bakeries and a general disinterest in the royal family, is the National Health Service (NHS). The NHS allows UK citizens to receive medical aid whenever they need at no cost bar a portion of the tax they pay to the government. Of course, the average citizen has to pay for prescriptions, opticians, dentists, and doctors letters, costs which add up to a surprising total, but this system ensures that medicine usually reaches those who are ill regardless of what is in their bank account.
The NHS is under ever-increasing pressure to diagnose and treat more patients in a shorter time span, with less money and resources to support them, and it’s prominence as a topic on the news is growing every day. The fears that the NHS will either crumble under its own weight, or that it will financially ruin the government have lead the public to bemoan anyone who is deemed a strain upon the NHS, and on more than one occasion, I have been deemed one of those strains.
In addition to the cost of my medical care is the financial support from the government to cover the costs of using a wheelchair, as obtaining a suitable wheelchair on the NHS is a bit like trying to herd fifty cats into a bath at once. Since many assume that I am unemployed the moment they set eyes on me, or rather, my wheelchair, it is assumed that the cost of unemployment support can be added to that total. Even for those who cannot work, the stigma should not be bemoaning the cost of their financial support, but bemoaning the lack of suitable work for the disabled.
All-in-all, the bombardment of news articles depicting disability as a strain on the economy, rightfully or not, has led to a whole new set of stigmas about disability. Instead of being pitiful and patronised for our incapacities, we are despised for the effects of those incapacities. It has even been said by a prominent politician that disabled employees are problematic due to reduced productivity and increased costs of adapting the workspace to suit them, but of course he deems disability to be an inadequate excuse for unemployment, and condemns those that are forced to live that way.
The disabled are simply reduced to a number; the financial cost they inflict upon society.
South Africa (Aidan Bizony, The Disability Diaries).
While I can understand people’s frustration with the NHS because, yes, it has its flaws and we must be aware of those, I still marvel at the concept. Leave aside, for a moment, all the negatives that the NHS presents and look at the concept behind the structure: an attempt by the government to give its citizens a good, if somewhat tedious, medical scheme. South Africa doesn’t have the NHS.
Rather than having a government system that provides good, safe healthcare, South Africa’s public healthcare leaves a lot (I really mean “a lot”) to be desired. To expect South Africa, given her history, to have a medical system on par with the NHS – even in its current incarnation – is perhaps a little naïve and overly-critical but I do feel that we could be closer to the ideal of reliable, sustainable, safe healthcare than we are at present.
I know that the South African system is not necessarily the world’s worst healthcare system but, still, it leaves a lot to be desired. As bad as the public system is, I have to admit that the private system (if you can afford the high fees) is good. Luckily, we’re in a financial position to afford private medical care. As fortunate as it is that we can afford good, reliable medical care in South Africa is, it distresses me immensely to see that our premiums continue to increase with practically no rise in the benefits we receive. When you consider that inflation is a real thing, the fact that the benefits don’t grow in proportion to the premiums is all the more disturbing.
To be honest, the medical aid scheme in this country is increasingly becoming a ‘damned if you do; damned if you don’t’ thing. But, yes, it costs a lot and it does continues to get worse but at least you get the payments you need, right? Nope. The plan that I’m on (which is one of the highest with the country’s ‘best’ medical aid) has had payments declined that I am legally entitled to. For instance: my plan allows for a certain amount to be made available to me each year for “external medical benefits” (e.g. wheelchairs) but I had an experience relatively recently whereby a chair I bought, which was within budget got declined because we didn’t file the correct paperwork. Since the reason the incorrect paperwork got filed was because Discovery, the Medical Aid Scheme, provided us with the wrong forms. To cut a long story short, we were on the verge of taking them to court when a letter from our lawyer to the CEO’s personal assistant lead to the payment we were entitled to six months earlier. The trouble aside, we at least got the wheelchair we ordered. That is until three years later when we had to repeat the process.
As bad as the NHS has gotten when compared to what it used to be; it’s still far better than the public system we have in South Africa. Hell, when I was in England in mid-2015 my parents and I decided to visit a local, NHS hospital in London and were surprised with what we saw. In retrospect, given the exposure we had of the public healthcare system, it is hardly surprising that we were shocked. We discovered that the NHS, public hospitals in England are better than the very expensive private hospitals that an elite of South African society can afford. Needless to say, the benefits of the NHS is a not-insignificant motivation to make the move to England as quickly as we can.
So it’s t-minus five days until my parents and I are due to land at Heathrow Airport to meet up with my sister and her husband for the first time in over a year. After they moved to London on 2017’s Friday the Thirteenth, the five of us haven’t been in the same room. My sister and I haven’t seen each other at all during that time.
As much as this trip will be a chance for us to see each other again and catch up about 12+ months that we haven’t communicated sans the Internet, it will also help us get the ball rolling and immigration front. I mean we’re already there so why not take advantage of the opportunity. This added stress, though, means planning this trip has been a little more intense than it should be.
I’m kind of glad you can’t see inside my house at the minute; it looks a bit of a state in places. With all the packing all the sorting, packing, and panicking, it is easy to forget that we’re doing this trip primarily as a way to reconnect with the family. From the state of it, you’d think we were never coming back in early April. Still, I can’t wait to be leaving for a whole host of reasons, not least which family & friends. At least, if all goes according to plan we will be moving to England by the end of the year.
To be honest, the end of the year feels like such a long way away.What is truly scary, though, is that by the time we get back we will have not quite eight months before we leave and not quite six months until the end of my degree. As much as I want to be going, part of me can’t face leaving. I suppose this year is understandable when you consider that the only city I’ve ever truly known. I’d say that moving to the UK would have me lose my established support network but when I consider that the majority of the most important and oldest links network are already in England or soon to be going, that’s not entirely true. Still, I’ll be leaving behind some great people.