Supported by Woman Zone and Artscape, in July and November this year, the Life Righting Collective offered two writing workshops specifically for those who are differently abled. In this Disability Awareness Month (Nov 3 - Dec 3) we are pleased to share the results.
The workshops were run by Dawn Garisch, a writer and doctor who firmly believes in the healing power of the written word. She had this to say:
"Writing courses run by the Life Righting Collective are designed to assist participants to imaginatively explore themselves and their communities through writing about their lives. Through connecting with curiosity and creativity, we can become more observant, bearing witness to our lives so that we can better understand ourselves and each other. Two LRC writing courses in 2022 were for people who are differently abled and was an initiative to increase awareness in an arena that is too often hidden and misunderstood. These stories originated on the courses, and we are grateful to the authors who are willing to share their experiences."
1. “SORRY WHAT WAS THAT?”
By Emma McKinney
Spin, spin, go, go, go
Thoughts, guess, guess, strain to hear, spin, spin
Flurrying thoughts, racing mind, tunnel vision, focus on lips, stare
Guess, guess, trying to get ahead, just one step ahead, guess
Strain, stare, facial cues, nods, smiles, guess, guess
“Did I get that?” “Was that really what was said?”
Picking up pieces, putting together to try to cope and understand
Accuracy is key, stress.
Spin, spin, focus on lips without staring
What are they saying?
Eyebrows up, was that a question?
Missed that one, joke, smile, fake it, move on.
“Sorry, your name again?”
Only so many times one can ‘suitably’ and ‘appropriately’ ask without seeming rude
Focusing so hard, constant eye-contact makes me appear really engaging and interested to others on the outside
Inside spin, spin, guess, guess, piece together
Do I disclose?
Am I presently strong enough for others’ reactions?
The comments to follow:
“But you look so normal.”
“You hide it so well.”
“You are such an inspiration.”
“So, you can’t hear that beautiful bird call? I am so sorry!” (quick eye-dab)
“I had no idea.”
“Wow what a role-models for the other less fortunate!”
“Is she for real? Are you sure she isn’t faking it and climbing on the disability band-wagon?”
The ignorant, the rude, the overly personal questions to follow
The inappropriate statements, comments and stares.
2. THE MIND, THE MIND HAS MOUNTAINS
By Kath Higgins
(after No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief - a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins)
The mind has mountains, cliffs of fall –
If only I could catch the mind
while it is flailing
turbulent as a river rushing over rocks.
If only I could convince the nay-sayers
that the mind has mountains, deep with icy crevices,
with precipices to fall off,
not your usual trail that goes neatly up and down –
so they would not say to me “It’s your choice.”
The mind full of cliff-edge, head-first, mutinies,
distorting, leading to the slaughter.
The mind has mountains, cliffs of fall, frightful, sheer.
Not a moment of safety, not a moment
to relax, to say, to know: all is now stable,
the pot will not smash, the path will not
head over the bluff, relentless, rushing;
no chance, no choice – no question;
how to persuade them there is no choice,
there is no crossroads, no signpost, no detour –
that would enable me to get back on track?
Let the mind only decide and there you are captive, in
cuffs, blindfold, water-boarded, they call this
choice? Choice is blasphemy, choice is perfidy.
Don’t tie me up with your rope of choice –
the mind has mountains, cliffs of fall, frightful, sheer.
Time after time each day, driven to the cliff-edge,
looking down on the frothing swell. O no,
the mind has mountains, cliffs of fall. Don’t talk
to me about choice.
By Kirsten Deane
She must cross the street but first her baby must cry beside her. The child is not usual-looking. Missing hair and hands that stopped growing at the knuckles. The mother carries similar things under her skin. Bones that stopped before meeting the layer of fat. She bends her back that is shaped like a banana to get to where her child is. He holds his breath. The mother holds the child’s face between her hands. His cheeks sink in. The mother’s hips do something like a dance, but something else. Something like the clattering of pots. The boy watches his mother come apart like his Legos. She buckles and cracks and gets smaller. What’s missing is what she needed on her dressing table, a block for her hip, and knees, and back, and bones. The mother’s body lets out wooden bits and the child picks it up, allowing his mother to cry before crossing the street.
4. THE DUST SETTLES
By Kirsten Deane
The process is slow
My skin turns into a childish sunset. Running
Across the sky in a game of hide and seek.
The process of filling the page is the same as the pain
It boils from the surface down
A boy’s naughty smile ending
Only from the middle of his lips.
My head hurts first imitating
The sound of a rock crumbling.
I hold my hands out to catch the left-over
Pain. To show it that I have manners like my mother
Taught me to.
The rock collects itself at the bottom of my head
And merges together to be a mannequin
One that looks like me but less
With less pain.
The pain settles down
Moves into my arms where the aches replace the bones
Make sounds like my grandmother still does
Sniffs and groans and a will to remember an age before this
And the sound is the dishes cracking in the sink.
This age when my arms are tree branches that lean
Towards the sand
To be swallowed by the sand.
The pains in my arms are suicidal. They spend
Their days waiting.
5. THE BOY THAT COULD FLY
By Kirsten Deane
The trick is that the floor is lava
that you can’t touch it and if
you do you might have bones
left in the sand and it could turn
into ringworms under somebody
the trick is to remember that to have
both your feet on the floor at the same time
is to tear open your skin and let in the ants
have one foot in the air at all times
believe you can fly because you can
because it’s faster and sillier and easier
6. OUT OF ORDER
By Notukela Makohliso
It was just before midday. A warm winter morning in Cape Town. I was happy to see the familiar sights and the busy roads. The traffic on Tennant Street had subsided. Students were walking to campus from town and the residences, crossing the road, as if they were in a hurry. Some crossing the road in between the stopped row of cars, before the traffic lights turned green, giving them the right of way. The walk to the demarcated crossing lines, completely dismissed.
The white Corolla cab we were travelling in was still facing Table Mountain. The driver started indicating to the left, then made his way to the entrance. He was stopped by the boom gate at the entrance. As he stopped the car in front of the gate, a security guard, wearing matching navy pants, shirt and cap with black shoes, emerged from the control room. He had a beige clipboard and pen in hand. He walked towards the driver's door and bent down to the level of the window. I leaned forward, protruded my face, and greeted the security guard. I showed him my access card, and uttered, "Drop off".
With that he waved, turned around and went to lift the boom gate. We proceeded into campus.
The cab passed the entrance on the right to the parking lot where I usually park my car. It stopped close to the main entrance of the Engineering Building. I had not been to my office for over four months. Not since we closed university at the end of the second semester, for the festive season break in mid-December last year. Though it was familiar, this place felt strange, like it was a new world to me.
The cab parked in front of the faded red brick-coloured stairs that led to the double glass door which was the entrance to the reception of the building. I could see figures dressed in the navy uniforms doing access control at the door. They were checking student-cards and signing in visitors. ‘I never noticed how long and wide these stairs are,’ I thought to myself.
My sister, Tuli was already getting the wheelchair out of the boot, she needed no marching orders, she never does. It is like being my pillar is engraved within her. The blessing that is all my sisters.
Mbali, my cousin, went around the car to the passenger’s seat where I was seating, to assist. My heart started racing, I was about to transfer from the car seat to the wheelchair, in full view of strangers. There was no room for mistakes, falling was not an option. Performance anxiety perhaps.
Tuli parked the wheelchair between me and the open door of the car. She checked that the breaks were secured, then stood behind the chair. Mbali stood between the open door and the wheelchair facing me, with a reassurance that said, 'I've got you'.
No words were exchanged. None were necessary. I began to transfer.
I turned my body to face the formation, placing my strong left foot out of the car onto the paved surface. I bent down slightly and reached across to my weak right leg to assist it to join my other leg. With both legs outside the car, and with the left leg firmly placed on the ground, I reached over and grabbed the armrest of the wheelchair for balance. I took a deep breath as if I was looking for strength somewhere inside of me, to get on my feet. I summoned the strength and with another deep breath, I stood up. Leaning heavily on my strong left leg and the armrest. Mbali was on my right, I was breathing heavily, I hesitantly released my hand from the armrest and swiftly placed my body onto the wheelchair. My legs dragging on the ground, following the direction of the body as I sat. I grabbed hold of the other armrest with my left hand. A moment passed.
I did not fall. My feet were on solid ground. I spotted my phone and quickly took it from the side compartment of the car door and passed it to Mbali. Releasing the breaks, Tuli reversed the wheelchair slightly using the gained space to release the footrests that were on each side of the chair to the front. I placed the strong left leg on the left footrest plate. Reached over with my left hand to lift up my right foot, placing it on the right footrest plate. I pushed back the black cotton straps that were supposed to secure my feet onto the footrests. I preferred my feet unstrapped.
We thanked the cab driver and he said his goodbyes. The hundred and eighty rands cab fee was deducted from my bank card, there was no need for any cash exchange. As the cab drove away, we followed suit. I was rolled away from the staircase, towards the ramp which was situated on the far right of the entrance. We eventually reached the ramp, turned into it, and made our way up to the entrance. At the entrance I began to see one or two familiar faces in the navy uniform, but they did not see me. I mean they saw me, but they didn't really see me. They didn't recognise me, so there was none of the usual courtesies and no smiles were exchanged. I guess they did not expect me to be down there on the chair. I dismissed it. The access card did the magic, and we were given the green light.
We proceeded, but away from the staircase that I usually took to get to the top floor where my office was. We made our way towards the elevator at the end of the tunnel in the opposite direction facing the ocean. We reached the elevator, and discovered that it was 'Out of Order'. It was not working. We had to find our bearings so that I could locate another elevator to access the fourth floor.
I remembered that there was a wheelchair elevator that we could access through the Marketing Department. That elevator stopped by the bathroom closest to my office. That was the best option. I wondered why I did not think of it first.
We made our way to the Marketing Department, and started the search to locate the elevator. When we finally arrived at the elevator, it had a handwritten ‘Out of Order’ note stuck on its door. My heart sank. I felt a heaviness come on me that I could not allow at that moment. There had to be another way. I started thinking of an alternative way.
In another department the elevator was also not working. Yes, a third elevator which was situated in a completely different department was also 'Out of Order'. That was my last option.
I disappeared into my thoughts, and into my emotions. As my sister rolled me back to the staircase that we had rolled away from when we entered the building, I was no longer there. By this time, there were two navy uniforms escorting us and talking with Tuli and Mbali. I was physically there, but I was too busy fighting the tears that were burning my eyes, ready to roll down my face. I was processing the stares that looked down at me at every turn, in each department, during this failed adventure of accessing the fourth floor. My heart was drenched in so much pain.
Suddenly the wheelchair stopped. In front of me was the staircase I had taken countless times, several times a day, in my high-heels, effortlessly. Suddenly, as I sat on the wheelchair, the stairs were insurmountable.
The guys in the navy uniforms offered to carry me up the staircase. I could see the pity in their eyes. The stairs and the stares were too much. They suggested that Mbali and Tuli were to follow them up with the wheelchair, so I could be placed on it at the top of the stairs. The thought of being carried up those stairs brought the hot stream of tears flooding down my face, neck and top. The hot floods were uncontrollable, and I cried from the gut of my soul.
7. LITTLE PAINS
By Kirsten Deane
It’s quite pathetic, really.
The fact that I’m in pain for the most part. But still,
I only concentrate on the little pains -
my nail broke in half tonight.
I decided to paint onto my fingerskin.
It burnt, of course
but well worth it. The burn
was pretty harsh
and ladylike. My other pain
is dressed as a boy,
Other days, like today, it is my bowel movements that grab my attention.
I haven’t shat in three days. This makes my mother worry and I’m sure my skin
is tearing from the inside. My pain has found its way all around my body.
The little pains
I take them on dates
they’re very polite
I take them on seconds.
Woman Zone would like to thank Dawn and the Life Righting Collective for their care, energy and expertise. And if you''d like to know more about their courses, see www.liferighting.com. We should especially like to thank Artscape for their consistent support for all things that improve conditions for people living with disability.