Health & Fitness: I started using a walking stick at 16 - I'm not 'too young' to be disabled

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‘What happened to your leg then?’

It was my 21st birthday and I was on an escalator, laughing with my friends, when I realised the comment was directed at me. Looking up, I saw a man pointing at my crutch.

I steeled myself, and mumbled that I have a long-term condition.

‘Get well soon,’ he called after me as I tried to focus on not tripping as I came off the escalator.

But the thing is, I won’t ‘get well soon’. I’m a chronically-ill young person dealing with pain, fatigue, and muscle and joint weakness every day.

We started noticing symptoms when I was 10 years old. At the time, I couldn’t stand up straight with my legs together without it hurting and having pain after only walking short distances.

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I was referred endlessly to different hospital departments, with doctors saying they didn’t know what was wrong or that it wasn’t their area. As the years went on, my instability, pain and other symptoms only kept ramping up.

After several years of symptoms – and a significant loss of muscle tone after a long hospital stay for my mental health, causing my legs to constantly collapse under me – I finally let myself use a walking stick when I was 16.

I knew it was the right choice for me, as I could barely hold myself up, but that didn’t make it feel any less daunting

I had a biology exam the first day I took my stick to school. I was more nervous about the reactions of my fellow students than I was about remembering the chambers of the heart.

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Many of my peers didn’t understand – they hadn’t really seen me as disabled previously unless they knew me well, and the only representation they had ever seen of a walking stick was in elderly adults.

I fielded questions for a few days and dealt with some sarcastic comments, but the looming end of our GCSEs meant focus was elsewhere. Many began to add me on social media, even though we never spoke, to see posts I had made talking about it.

By halfway through my first year of sixth form, most of the school had seen me walking around. Previously, I had faced snickers and occasional shouts down the hallways, but I eventually felt like it wasn’t a big deal anymore.

It took me months to feel comfortable (Picture: Supplied) © Provided by Metro It took me months to feel comfortable (Picture: Supplied)

Until, one day, as I exited the school gates, I heard: ‘Did you just come back from a war in Afghanistan, then?’

The disrespect to veterans was my first concern here, but the next day, I felt my confidence faltering as I navigated the steps up to the school.

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Being part of the disabled community from a young age meant I knew a mobility aid wasn’t a personal failure. Beginning to see doctors from the age of 10 – who couldn’t help me – meant that by 14, I was desperate to surround myself with those similar to me.

For many of us, this comes in the form of social media. I had learnt that we shouldn’t celebrate disabled people putting themselves in pain for the sake of society’s ideals around appearing non-disabled.

That didn’t mean it wasn’t difficult. It took me months to feel comfortable, experimenting with it appearing in photos.

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Eventually, after a few months, it began to feel quite empowering – knowing I was doing what I needed regardless of society’s judgement. I knew that it was allowing me to still have a level of freedom I wouldn’t without it, still getting to see my friends and participating in volunteering.

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The purple handle of my walking stick matched my hair, freshly dyed for summer.

Then I overheard from someone I’d just met at an event with friends: ‘Does she really need that, or is it a fashion accessory?’ I recoiled back into my shell. In cases like that, it feels insurmountable to try and explain the truth.

There is a lack of understanding across society about disability in young people. Even though there are 14.6million disabled people in the UK, young adults seem to fall into a gap of awareness.

Society continually seems to associate youth with health.

Many people are shocked when I tell them my experiences. I regularly hear, ‘But you’re so young! You aren’t old enough to have chronic pain.’

Other comments are just as ignorant. ‘You can’t be that tired, young people sleep so much!’ I learnt to stop trying to explain the impact of chronic fatigue and how it’s different to tiredness.

I regularly hear, ‘But you’re so young! You aren’t old enough to have chronic pain’ (Picture: Supplied) © Provided by Metro I regularly hear, ‘But you’re so young! You aren’t old enough to have chronic pain’ (Picture: Supplied)

I used to want to educate people and would take the time. Most of them didn’t want to listen, though – so now I stick to only explaining to those who show a genuine interest, not those who are trying to belittle me.

A mobility aid in a young person is stigmatised in a way that is almost unexplainable. In a society where mobility aids are seen as ‘giving up’, surely someone my age couldn’t be at that point?

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Being in education or work as a disabled young person is a form of defying stereotypes – the assumption being that all disabled people have to stay at home, even though 9% of children and 21% of working age adults are disabled in the UK, according to disability charity, Scope.

In 2019, I went through a rehabilitation programme that meant I left the walking stick behind me, my body somewhat strengthened. It had become a part of me I had to advocate for, and it felt odd to leave it behind, but I also knew it meant less comments and it being easier for me to move around.

By doing so, I received a different reaction. People stopped questioning but they became more agitated when I walked slower or struggled up a flight of stairs.

After three lockdowns, my body weakened once again, but this time I opted for a forearm crutch, which is a crutch that has a cuff around your forearm and a handle which you hold to grip onto the aid. My wrists were hurting too much, and my balance had changed.

Within weeks, I was facing the same treatment as before in public – people staring or looking confused, and asking questions.

It’s a conversation starter, for most people. They use it to fill a gap or awkward silence, or they think it’s a way to get to know me.

I can see their eyes flicking up and down, their hesitation to ask running out. It’s the lady doing my bag check in the theatre, or the instructor taking the kids I volunteer with onto a zipwire.

I fall back onto my stock answer to the question, it never feeling less awkward – ‘Oh, I’m not injured, I have multiple chronic conditions’. Sometimes I might add a little bit more detail, if I have the energy.

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The few times I’ve declined to say instead of using my stock answer, people have suddenly turned annoyed, accusing me of being oversensitive.

It doesn’t feel like this is changing – ambulatory wheelchair users are still judged for walking short distances, just as I am judged when I go without my crutch sometimes. People who have seen me with it before don’t understand that sometimes it’s not necessary, and strangers don’t understand why I can’t move as swiftly as others my age.

I shouldn’t owe anyone my medical history just because they can’t keep curiosity at bay.

My existence as a young mobility aid user means I am challenging people’s views of disability every day, but the weight that carries is just another layer of exhaustion.

So please, stop judging mobility aid users and be more careful about if and how it’s appropriate to ask questions. If you are a stranger in public, chances are it won’t be.

At the end of the day, I love talking about disability, but the choice to do so should always be mine. I no longer want to prioritise people’s curiosity over my comfort.

Age is Just a Number

Welcome to Age is Just a Number, a series aiming to show that, when it comes to living your life, achieving your dreams, and being who you want to be, the date on your birth certificate means nothing.

Each week, prepare to meet amazing people doing stereotype-defying things, at all stages of life.

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