'Words have the hardest slap of all' - Elle Gordon (25) on the cruel comments she suffers over disability
When she hears people talk about how Ireland has come on in leaps and bounds in terms of equality and acceptance of all people, Elle Gordon shrugs. She doesn't feel part of this lucky group.
She feels part of another group - the group with disabilities who don't quite fit the mould, whatever the mould is. She has five years left of her 20s, in which she hopes to learn to love herself and her body. It would help if people stopped making the cruel comments.
'It's awful, isn't it?" "I'm sorry, what?" It was a cold and drizzly Sunday evening. I was almost at the entrance of my local supermarket, tired but happy, thinking about how fun sushi with the girls the night before had been, while simultaneously making a mental note to buy washing powder.
The woman who had been proclaiming the awfulness of whatever it was was standing to the side of me with an expression on her face that I can only describe as a simper. I took in her long blonde hair, half covered by a chunky bobble hat. Her layered-up attire made me think that she must have been complaining aloud about the weather, and I was about to respond with the perfunctory Irish "Oh god, sure I know".
"It's awwwfuuul, isn't it?" she said again, elongating how 'awwwwful' it was. "Your leg," she continued, "it's just awfuuul." Simper simper. I balked. Stomach punch. Your leg . . . your leg . . . your leg. I didn't know where to look. It had come out of nowhere: washing powder . . . leg . . . awful. I looked at her, brain turned to sludge, before croaking out, "Thanks". Sadly, this didn't have the dripping-in-sarcasm effect I had wanted and was really more of a squeak, and I kept moving through the automatic doors. I wandered around the aisles, trying to push back the tears that were blurring my vision. I forgot the washing powder and came home with spaghetti. I sobbed alone in my kitchen for about 20 minutes, muffling it with a tea towel so my housemates wouldn't hear. I made the pasta, didn't eat it and then climbed wearily into bed; exhausted with being me.
I'm 25 and I have a limp. Quite a bad limp, in fact. I'm quite limpy. It's something I was born with. The long-winded explanation is I was born with mild cerebral palsy of my left leg, had many operations as a child as my left foot was both turning in and shorter, had a brief dalliance with a walker, occasionally used a wheelchair, but, in short, just lived life, as you do.
I was a stubborn child, so that's how I account for my ditching of the walker, and my absolutely angry-cat-like aversion to any sort of splints or orthotics (not so proud of this), and insistence that whatever my brother or sister did, I would do as well.
At 13, I was sent to an extremely sporty boarding school. This was a bit gas, to say the least. My stubborn streak took a knock when it became apparent that even when trialled on the D hockey team with its occasional flickers of talent, I was still crap. In fact, I was the crappiest.
It wasn't until I discovered the swimming pool that I realised that my body, although a disaster on a hockey field, could actually be quite as good as anyone else's in the water. Don't get me wrong - at this point in my life, I was all too aware that I limped, but never really felt like 'the disabled girl'. That came later.
I made it through my teens. Woo. In fact, in some ways boarding school was a bubble. I'd get the odd glance, the odd mean comment, but for the most part, if it ever was hell, it was because of all the usual things - a spot, an awkward outfit, no boys like me, another spot, booyyys. You know, teen stuff.
I did my Leaving Certificate in The Institute of Education. I used to take the bus one stop from where I lived on Upper Leeson Street to where the school was on Lower Leeson Street. This was to avoid people seeing me walk down to school; another protective bubble.
Then I moved into the university years. At 19, I began my first year at UCD to do an arts degree in English and Film Studies. Nineteen is also the age where I first started to notice the symptoms of hip dysplasia. Stairs got a little more difficult, bags felt a little heavier, and suddenly, in order to function, anti-inflammatories and I became consummate companions.
This is also around the time where things began to get harder. It's not just the increase in pain levels - which, in fairness to anyone who has ever said anything cruel to me about how I walk, I will concede that, on a bad day, it makes me look a lot worse than on the days when the pain is only a low hum.
Things have got harder as, like my friend in the bobble hat, people are starting to comment; and with gusto. Maybe they noticed before, but didn't say it so much as I was just a kid. Maybe, as I moved into adulthood, the protection of an innocent face has gone. Maybe "Someone got the ride last night, did she?" is hilarious from a group of men as they scoot past, before I can so much as blink, cackling at their own wit.
I really don't know.
It's 2016, and when I hear people talk about how Ireland has come on leaps and bounds in terms of accepting all people, I shrug. How last year was the year for equal rights when we legalised gay marriage. I've heard people call for an equality day where we can celebrate this new, modern Ireland, where all people are equal. Yet I don't feel part of that lucky group. I feel part of this other group. This group with disabilities that doesn't quite fit the mould. Whatever that mould is.
I wish I was tougher. I've read umpteen articles about amazing people with disabilities. They're strong, they're fierce. They speak about how they've accepted their bodies; how they are proud to be in the skin they're in. This inspires me and causes me to scold myself all at once. I want to feel proud like that, but I don't. I hope I will one day, but certainly not now.
In fact, writing this article is a bit like coming out. I'm coming out as disabled. You'd be surprised at the web of lies I've felt compelled to weave during my life rather than admit 'I am who I am', or 'I have what I have'. Lies told to guys over the years as we fell for one another, briefly smitten, only for me to drift once the inevitable inquiries about my limp began.
To the best friends who I kept at a distance, shutting down if they tried to probe on anything remotely leg-related. Sorry. It's been so much easier to say I had an accident than to say I have a disability. There's a difference - and to those who will protest that disability is not greeted with a level of stigma: I disagree, heartily.
So what does she want, you wonder.
I want to be free. I know I am so lucky in so many ways. I know I am lucky that I can walk and otherwise have my health. I have great family and unbelievably kind friends. I know I will never not limp. I'm yer wan with the limp. But what I would hope in speaking out about this is that people might think before they speak. It wasn't just bobble-hat or drunken men. Three minutes into the New Year, I found myself mocked as I walked across the room, dressed in a ballgown that, moments before, I felt beautiful in.
I would like to silence the voices. "Why are you walking like a crab?" I have never been able to forget this one. It was in Galway, which used to be my favourite place. I was there for the weekend with a big group of friends, and he was a friend of a friend. He followed his question with an imitation of how I looked . . . dragging one of his legs behind him.
I know now that the person who said this has gone on to become a successful entrepreneur. He was a smart guy who should have known better. He will probably never read this, and never know that, that day, he broke my heart.
"Jesus, your leg is fucked." Strangers on the street stop me to say, "You should really see a doctor"; "You do realise one of your legs is shorter than the other?"; "Christ, what happened to you?" The ever hilarious, "Someone got the ride last night", or even the lighter, "Oh, she's limping, she's limping", lathered with innuendo.
To the necks that jerk as I walk down the street: it's a limp. To those who stare in horror or ooze sympathy: please, could you stop? Let me exist without having to prep my conscious mind every day for the insult or odd look that inevitably will come with being awake.
I remember watching The Wolf of Wall Street when Jonah Hill's character describes being completely out of it on drugs as his "cerebral palsy phase". I switched it off, thinking about just how many millions of people would watch that film. How they would giggle because, hey, it's gas. But for me it was just another reason to feel ashamed and disappointed in the body that I have. I'm sure there must be other people out there who felt the same. I would hope that they managed to brush it off. It was a joke, but a pathetic one.
We are a world that loves perfect, looking to our celebrities for the best version of what a human should be; idolising their flawless bodies. But for someone like me, it seems I am doomed to be reminded constantly that what I am, the body I have, is not good enough.
It's difficult to write this without sounding like a dreadful whinge. But sometimes the truth just isn't that exciting. It's the truth, in all its bald and unapologetic ugliness. I would like to feel proud as I walk across the room. I would like my limp to be squashed down to something as small as could be. A tiny part of Elle Gordon. A casual topic that might drift lazily into conversation, where I respond with a laugh or a, "Yeah, well it's there, it's fine. I just don't wear high heels". I would like that to be me. Yer wan who just doesn't wear heels.
I would hope that other people with disabilities, or whatever - bad skin, bad hair, inability to say no to a chocolate biscuit - people who just aren't that confident in themselves, would engage in a little bit of self-pride. Body proud, together, not separated by too thin, too overweight, disabled, male, female. At the end of the day, we're all humans. Humans.
I am a human. I just move slightly differently to the majority. Let's call it a slightly juicier version of your average walk. I don't believe that should be a warrant for anyone to say whatever they like.
Words have the hardest slap of all. They leave a residue. For me, it's like a soundtrack of every bad thing that was ever said spins on a low volume and grows louder when a new coment is added. I try to forget and, believe me, I almost do.
I belly-laugh with my friends. I buy the overpriced dress I really didn't need. I proudly walked across the stage to collect my master's scroll, limp forgotten. I go on dates, forget to text back, lose my bank card only to find it three weeks later, and bow my head ashamedly at my still student-esque tendencies that can appear in my now-adult life. I dabble in cooking . . . then dash towards the fire extinguisher. For the most part, I live a pretty 25-ish life, but then, there's the thing . . . the limp.
A while ago I wrote an article about going on Tinder dates. I went on those dates and had a great time with each guy. There was no mention of my limp, as, in general, when people first meet me, they don't notice. I'll arrive a little earlier and be sitting down when they get there. I'll walk out slightly behind them and jump into a taxi as soon as we've said goodnight. I'd even stuff my shoe with tissue, insoles, whatever I can find, to make my limp as hidden as I can.
I have my tactics to ensure that the shameful thing . . . my walk of shame, goes unnoticed.
Possibly, some who read this may know people who have something similar to what I do, and who have never had a bad word said against them. If so, then I am happy for them, but that has not been my experience. Don't get me wrong, I've had a wonderful life filled with laughter and kind words, words of encouragement, but for every kind thing ever said, the cruel things will resonate a little louder.
I have five years left of my 20s. I hope that I will learn to love myself and my body. But it would all be made a little easier if people would cease making the cruel comments that, thus far, have ensured that I don't.
Styling by Elle Gordon @ellegordon3
Hair by Amanda Darcy;
Make-up by Jennifer Doyle, both Sugar Cubed by Sugar Culture, 1A Westbury Mall, Clarendon St, D2, tel: (01) 672-5750 or see brownsugar.ie
Photographed at Clontarf Castle Hotel, Castle Avenue, Clontarf, D3, tel: (01) 833-2321, or see clontarfcastle.ie
Sunday Indo Life Magazine