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“We shouldn't wait for the Paralympics”: Why we need to talk more openly about disability every day

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Writer and campaigner, Emily Yates, 24, was born with cerebral palsy and has used a wheelchair since she was nine years old. With the opening of the Rio 2016 Paralympics, Emily tells Stylist.co.uk of her experience, and explains why - as a society - it's time we speak more openly about disability. 


Emily Yates

Once every four years, an excitable, competitive spirit thunders through our nation.

We push our differences and distastes aside and glue together, in the hopes of making sporting history. Happily, it’s now recognised that this history can be made by those with or without disability; be it amputation, dwarfism or visual impairment.

I'm talking, of course, about the Paralympics. 

I’m all for the Paralympics, and can’t wait to head out to Rio myself to soak up all the action with a Caipirinha in hand, but it does grate on me that disability is only ever celebrated or supported for one month, once in every leap year. 

I first became a wheelchair user at nine years old.

Born with cerebral palsy, my twin sister and I always had slightly different milestones to celebrate and goals to meet - such as me being able to walk from one side of the room to the other without falling over, aged four – but, really, there were few other differences in our experiences of growing up.

Emily Yates

Emily being filmed for BBC3's 'Meet The Devotees'

I’ve always been very confident about my impairment, with few negative experiences to share. Fortunately, I was never bullied because of my leg splints or, later, my chair, and I’m proud to say I come from a family that has always encouraged me to ‘crack on’, regardless of what barriers may be in the way. 

But sure, there have been situations where it has most definitely got in the way. The moment I found myself crawling down the length of a plane to use the loo when an aisle wheelchair had not been put on-board, springs to mind. As does the time a treadmill was delivered for my marathon-running boyfriend and I, a chubby wheelchair user, opened the door, nearly making the postman choke. 



Dating can also be a little tricky to navigate.

For many of us with disabilities, our impairments don’t seem to fit into the slots of digital dating. The topic of disclosure – whether or not a disability should be shown in a Tinder picture or mentioned in an E-harmony bio – is one which comes up a lot in the disabled community.

The choice is, of course, up to the individual, but it highlights how we still believe people will be put off by our impairments. We are taught that it’s best to hide ourselves, or wait to disclose our impairment once a potential lover or partner has had a chance to get to know everything that surrounds the chair, cane or hearing aid.

Emily Yates

Emily snorkelling on holiday

I’ve had men approach me in bars to ask if I am capable of having sex, before they’ve so much as said ‘Hello,’ and others ask me if I can feel it. (Yes is the answer, if you’re interested).

Having ‘the conversation’ about my impairment still makes me cringe a little because, although I embrace the identity it has given me, society still seems unable to take the blinkers off to appreciate a disabled, arguably more ‘broken’ body, as sexy. 

I’ve had men approach me in bars to ask if I am capable of having sex, before they’ve so much as said ‘Hello.’

But my disability isn’t something to hide. In fact, I’d go as far to say I’m proud of it. My wheelchair features in my online photos – and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Something needs to be done to change the often negative (or ignored) perception of disability, so that those of us with disabilities are ‘championed’ every day- not just during the Paralympics.

Representation of disability, here in the UK and on a global scale, needs to be bigger and better. There should be more of us on screen, in employment and with opportunities for travel.

Emily Yates

"My wheelchair features in my online photos – and I wouldn’t have it any other way."

Channel 4's brilliant Paralympics trailer made a real point of turning the focus of the disabled experience away from solely sport. It sees a disabled mother laughing with her child, a business CEO roll confidently into a boardroom, and musicians play the drums with their feet. 

But many people continue to view disabled people as either ‘brave’ and ‘inspirational’, or a drain on our welfare system and, to be honest, this rhetoric is getting tired pretty fast.

My disability isn’t something to hide. In fact, I’d go as far to say I’m proud of it.

A normalisation of disability still needs to happen, where neither praise nor criticism are apparent to those just living their lives. Disability needs to be accepted and talked about so it can be understood, and we can move from being the ‘other’.

It’s time this happens not only during the Paralympics, but across the board. 

Emily is working with Maltesers to inspire people to look on the light side of disability

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