Being me: what it really means to be disabled

Louise Page, who has had four amputations, explains how her disability hasn't changed her essential feeling of who she is.

It wasn’t until I started having bits of me cut off, that I truly understood what it meant to be a disabled person.

I remember one day, after one of my four amputations, that I said to my Dad, “you know, they can keep cutting bits of me away, but I’ll still be me”. And he instantly started to cry. That wasn’t my intention, to make my dad cry. But I think it was then that I genuinely understood physical disability.

When you first have an amputation, you have to wait eight weeks for the wound to heal and the swelling to go down before you can be fitted with a prosthetic. And then of course, you need to learn to walk with it. And at first, you can’t wear it all the time as your body needs to adjust to weight bearing on something that wasn’t designed for bearing the weight of your full body (ie a cut off tibia or femur). So of course there are lots of times you have to go out in public with crutches and a missing leg.

And that means people staring, some people do a double-take, some people try to look very subtly by just looking sideways, some properly stare for a while, I even once had a lady tap her friend on the shoulder and point at me. My approach has always been to ignore the staring. My mum told me I should give everyone who looks a big smile, but maybe I’m not as nice as she is! I just tell myself that I would do the same thing. If we see someone who looks different in any way – excessively thin or fat, or with crazily dyed hair or bad style (one I know I have to confess to… see, I am mean!), then we can’t help staring. It’s just human nature.  So I’ve decided I can handle it, though to be honest I wish it wouldn’t happen…

The picture above is me during my second year of chemo just after first amputation, Summer 2008

Anyway, the point I was making was that I’m still the same Louise. Weirdly people treat you as a hero or as someone who is especially brave, when you have cancer and/or a disability, especially one that makes dramatic visible changes to your body. And we all seem to think cancer patients will discover the true meaning of what’s important in life. And yes, I have (though I hope I knew that beforehand already). But we also don’t stop being ourselves. I carried on with my Vogue subscription and my addiction to shoes (yes shoes! An amputee who loves shoes… how crazy is that?!) and of course… the handbags (some of you will be breathing a knowing sigh…). But I also carried on being Louise. Wanting to see friends, get dressed up to go out for dinner, read books, go to the theatre, watch trashy TV…

So my disability didn’t change me at all, apart from making walking, carrying things, getting dressed, dancing, walking on a beach, balancing on a bus, dancing, sitting (I could go on forever but I won’t) a hell of a lot harder. I’ve always been me throughout.  And I’ve always tried really hard to make sure everyone around me sees and knows that.

And of course every one of us is different and wants different things from life, so I can only speak for myself. And I think that’s why Diana (my boss at Thistle) values me – because I understand. I just hope after reading this, more people will understand this now too. I may have a disability, but I don’t consider myself disabled (the parking badge comes in very handy though!).  I’m just Louise and no matter what has happened or is yet to happen, I always will be.

This blog was first published on alancainsley.wordpress.com and is reproduced here with permission

Louise. All pictures reproduced with her permission
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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times