As regular readers of this blog will know, I have been decidedly less mobile of late, and this looks set to continue for the foreseeable future (https://hannahbarhambrown.wordpress.com/2014/11/27/i-got-issues-with-my-tissues/).
Considering that I was the last kid picked for EVERYTHING in PE, it’s possibly surprising that I found myself really missing exercise post-wobbliness. But I was actually pretty active beforehand, if only as a result of my own stubbornness. When my brother died a year ago, I had to get up and do something (seeing a theme here?!), and so signed up for a 10k, then a half marathon. I knew I had dodgy knees, but if it was running or swimming, then my water issues and inbuilt lack of buoyancy was going to push me to running everytime. Training was a nightmare, I lived in kneebraces on and off for about a year, and now I’m honestly not sure whether I’ll ever get back to a normal level of function legwise without daily painkillers. My Rheumatologist was right to look incredulously my way when I met her afterwards. It was probably stupid. But my team of runners and I raised £12,000 for the BHF (never too late to donate folks – oh, go on! http://bit.ly/RunningForGareth), and I felt like I managed to make something positive out of something terrible. So it was arguably worth it.
As a teenager, I was lucky enough to attend a school with wheelchair access, and thus have a number of mates with mobility problems (which has possibly helped my subsequent transition into the land of the wobbly-types), and some of these guys started a wheelchair basketball team. At this point, they wanted a girl or two on the team, and due to a shortage of wobbly ladies, I got the gig. I really loved it, and seemed to be reasonably good, but life and A Levels got in the way, so I had to give up. Ten years later, life is still in the way (one day, I’ll get a proper job), but I needed a form of exercise that wasn’t going to lead to further damage of my stomach lining by drugs, and so found a local team, The Brixton Ballers.
Fair to say, I’ve entered as the grandma of the group at 27, and am slowly learning how to respond when young people call me things like ‘fam’ and ‘blud’ (polite smile and roll away swiftly, generally). I like to think I’m pretty good, though whether that’s a result of inbuilt talent or sheer stubbornness, I couldn’t possibly say. At the end of my first training session, the coaches were very keen to check I’d enjoyed it. Frankly, I was holding back tears of happiness at being able to work up a sweat and not feel sore, or like I was holding other people back.
So it was with some trepidation that I watched the #ThisGirlCan advert. I wanted to watch it and feel empowered. I am a Feminist (in so far as that I don’t want my genitalia to mean my opportunities are any less than that of my colleagues), and I am all for encouraging women to exercise and not feel held back by the idea of getting hot and sweaty. But in 90 seconds, I didn’t feel represented. Because all those girls could. Those girls could do a zumba class, sweat dripping, attitude exuding from every pore. But this girl can’t. Those girls could swim a few lengths having determinedly rearranged their cossie on the way out of the changing room. Last time this girl tried to swim 5 lengths, she had to spend the rest of the day in bed, as the drugs just couldn’t touch it. Those girls could play football, kick a ball hard and not worry about dislocating their ankle. This girl can’t.
I play wheelchair basketball aged 27, having had the chance to do ‘able-bodied sport’ first. I’m confident, occasionally gobby, and having grown up with a wobbly mum and wobbly friends, I knew I could find something suitable. But young, disabled women and girls will see that advert, and they are not (except for a split second shot of a lass with Down’s Syndrome) represented. What in that advert encourages them to go out and make what is arguably a bigger change and take up a sport? Diddly squit.
Yes, it will always be a struggle to represent every woman in 90 seconds. But is it really so hard to find some women in wheelchairs to feature? I’m not asking for 45 seconds. But ten would be nice. Some acknowledgement that we exist. Because you know what? #ThisGirlCan throw the same height basket from sat in a chair as Michael Jordan threw on two legs, and she can’t jump in the chair. #ThisGirlCan spend 3 hours sprinting up and down a court in a chair so hard that the pads of her fingers and thumbs lose most of their skin. #ThisGirlCan dribble a ball whilst using the same hands to push herself down the court (and not in circles).
This Girl hopes that these skills will be supported more than once every four years, when the Paralympics come round again. This Girl would like young women with disabilities to be actively encouraged to take up sports without having to search them out herself, or trek halfway across London on public transport (which we all know is not exactly wheelchair-friendly) late at night. All This Girl wants is to feel that her and her mates are just as valid as those on two feet. And at the moment, this Girl really doesn’t.