Lis is a 22-year-old university student from Western Canada. She studies psychology, and is currently working at a school for at-risk inner-city youth. In her free time, she writes fanfiction and participates in the Society for Creative Anachronism.
The first time I held my cane, I cried.
It wasn’t a feeling I expected, to be honest. I’d been fired the week before from a job I enjoyed, for telling my employer I was in too much pain to stand for the entire shift, but things were coming out on my side. I had all my friends and family supporting me, and I’d found enough self-esteem to file a complaint with the provincial Human Rights Commission, alleging discrimination on the basis of disability. It was time, in my mind, to give up beating around the bush.
I’d been raised by parents who lovingly ignored my seemingly minor birth defects, who didn’t want to stigmatize me any further than a Gifted girl in public school could be. They felt that letting me wear normal shoes was the least they could do. When a nagging ache formed in my right knee and hip in my teens, I tried to ignore it and the fact that it wasn’t going away. I was twenty before I went to a podiatrist, who didn’t have to do more than examine my hips and spine when I told him I was in pain before snorting in disbelief and saying, “Yeah, no wonder.”
My right leg is five and a half centimetres shorter than my left, with the discrepancy fairly evenly distributed between my femur and tibia. It’s the kind of thing only the tailors who hem my pants notice, when they call my house anxiously asking me to come in for a second fitting in case they made a mistake.
But I was sick of living in pain, and after I’d been fired for requesting a stool it didn’t feel worth denying my pain anymore to look abled, so I went out to the Mobility Aids aisle of the local London Drugs. A fellow fanfic writer who used a cane had told me what to look for: adjustable, orthopedic, and unrepentant. The one I picked off the rack was a vivid aqua.
Then I cried holding it in my hands, because I couldn’t pretend anymore that I wasn’t disabled.
After that was over, I went down to Stationery for a pack of Sandylion stickers, made my purchase, and sat outside that drugstore wiping the tears from my face and plastering the cane with pink and purple butterflies.
How do I say what that cane meant to me? None of the abled people I’ve met understand it with anything but pity. I’ve always had low self-esteem and what my psychologist later diagnosed as social anxiety, a terror of asking that my needs be met, of attracting unwanted public attention. Now I had a public declaration of my needs, and it was bright blue. The cane did some of my talking for me, so I became able to stutter a request for a seat on the bus, or ask not to walk long distances. I was attracting the sidelong glances and whispers I’d always feared, but all they made me do now was grip my cane a little harder and stare back at them. I knew I was in the right. They knew it, too, because they always glanced away.
How can I explain that after years of living in pain to be what was expected of me, that cane taught me to say I want and I need and I deserve? That it was never something I was bound by; that it gave me the ability to walk further, stand longer, move quicker than I would before? That I missed it when it wasn’t in my hand?
Society marginalizes disabled bodies and takes away their sexual agency, but being visibly disabled helped me find mine. I’d always felt anxious about my body, about being attractive, about being good enough: I always chided myself for not reaching some nebulous ideal. The great lie I had been able to believe when I was abled was that perfection was achievable: that if I only said and did the right things, I’d escape criticism from myself and others. It was in facing criticism and dismissal that I learned I’d been playing a mug’s game. The point wasn’t to make other people happy; my body didn’t and couldn’t exist to meet their standards. The only standard I could meet was mine. I used to be mousy, deliberately homely, as if my unfitted jeans and baggy shirts said, I quit, don’t criticize me for not being sexy. I wasn’t trying anyway. I was able to use the invisbility cloak of disability to begin to experiment with femininity, with ornamentation, without needing to be perfect. I could wear a low-cut shirt, I reasoned, because I’d have my cane. Nobody would look at me anyway.
(Oh, but it surprised me, the first time somebody looked anyway.)
Being disabled meant, for the first time, having the ability to talk about my body and my frustrations with it without judging it as bad. It meant that I, with all my flaws visible and invisible, was still worthy. That I still possessed dignity. That I was still human, no matter whose standards I failed to meet.
I don’t know how to explain any of this. I don’t know how to respond when I walk into work now, freely and unassisted, and have a coworker say, “Hey, you aren’t using your cane! That’s fantastic!”
The orthotic lift I started using a year ago finally stopped hurting, enough that a slight increase in height at the end of September took away the pain in my knee within two weeks, which got rid of my need for the cane. My ambient pain has at least halved. I’m not relying on prescription painkillers to get through my day. I can climb stairs. I’m beginning to hope I can even fence again. After so long living with pain I didn’t think would ever go away, I almost don’t know how I feel. I guess I’m happy. I’m cured, right? I’m enjoying my body again. I definitely don’t miss the pale, persistent ache in the shoulder of my caning arm that no height adjustment could completely banish. I ran to my car last week, just because I can do that now.
My cane still hasn’t moved from its habitual place, on the floor of my car between the seat and the door. I don’t take it out to use it anymore, haven’t touched it for the last two weeks, but I can’t bring myself to hang it up. Sure, part of me’s waiting for the honeymoon to end and the pain to come back at any moment, but that’s not it. That cane has been a friend to me. It’s been part of my voice, my statement about who I am, and a lack of apology about being flawed in public. It’s helped me move, let me go places, allowed me to function. It has been a source of succor to me in my hour of need, and I find it as hard to cast aside now as it was to pick up in the first place.
What I really want to say to the well-meaning people who wish me health and happiness is, it isn’t about the cane. It wasn’t about receiving pity from people in public for being disabled. It wasn’t about the looks or the whispers. I was in pain that disabled me from truly living for years before I picked that thing up. It was never about the cane.
It was about me.