Our Covid-19 Community Reporter, Rosy Bremer, who is currently reporting on the impact of Covid-19 on people with disabilities in Portsmouth, shares her own recent experience of standing up for people with hidden disabilities at a local swimming pool.
The lockdown was relatively straightforward for me. I was required to shield as I had my spleen removed several years ago, in treatment for a rampaging auto-immune blood disorder. It’s really no sweat for me to hang around at home with my ten year old daughter. I even enjoyed the brief moment when key workers were celebrated and as a nation, we appreciated shop workers, nurses, people working in schools, bin men, doctors, public transport workers and anyone else who does an important job for low pay and has little control over their working environment.
Sometimes I thought it might even last.
I liked the simplicity of the lockdown, and the quiet. I always thought the un-locking would be the hard part and so it is proving to be.
A side-effect of my three month house arrest is that I haven’t been able to go to hydrotherapy once a week, which I need to do to stop my hips seizing up. (I like to graze from the starter menu of the auto-immune disease menu and I’ve had rheumatoid arthritis since I was seven). In the Portsmouth swimming pool class system, I am very much a Pyramids person; the municipal, outsourced public service will do for me, although of course I would prefer it if it weren’t outsourced.
The swimming pool at Pyramids is yet to open and I am therefore thrown into the upper echelons of Pompey swimming – I have to go to the Holiday Inn of all places. The hydrotherapy regime requires me to stand around in a pool with a rubber ring dangling off the end of my foot as I try to get my seized-up legs to move. There is, believe it or not, just one spot that I can access in the swimming pool in the Holiday Inn, with a rubber ring dangling off my foot.
For one well coiffed, well-manicured, well-presented swimmer in a swimming costume with jewels on her breasts, this apparently was one affront too many.
I was in the swimming pool for no more than fifteen minutes before she approached me and said, ‘It’s very rude to just stand there, in the way of other people swimming.’
This is how the rest of the conversation progressed.
‘Well, I was going to ask you if you needed me to move because I can’t get past this rope and I need to do hydrotherapy exercises for my hips. I can’t move anywhere else without help.’
‘It’s still very rude to get in the way of other swimmers.’
‘Well, I do apologise for my disability,’ I said, in the same way that I might say, ‘Well pardon me for breathing’, or ‘Well pardon me for lowering Britain’s productivity rate,’ when Spreadsheet Phil said it was my fault that the UK’s economy was all sluggish.
Then I struggled out of the pool because I had to be at home by ten. I showered and planned my next move.
The woman from the swimming pool came into the showers, which are by the changing rooms. I could feel her angry energy and I could feel myself steeling for a bout of asserting my right to stand around in a posh swimming pool with a ring of air-filled plastic dangling from my toes.
I find it helps to sing in stressful situations, so I started singing Yela Mama.
‘Oh, for chrissakes,’ I heard the shower say, angrily.
The Yela Mama song had done it’s job in calming me down, and now I needed something with a message. Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around by Jurnee Smollett did the trick, so I sang that out.
I actually don’t have a very good singing voice but so much the better when I wasn’t singing for anybody else but me. I had a very simple aim at that point: I just wanted the woman who had said I was rude for being unable to move anywhere else in a hole filled with water and chlorine to wish she had never opened her mouth.
She came in just as I was singing ‘I’m gonna keep on walking, keep on walking to freedom land’ and then I went quiet for a bit, practising getting my words in the right order.
They came out like this:
‘”So when we meet in here again, are we agreed that you will help me move the rope so I can occupy a corner of the swimming pool? We can unclip the rope and you can lift it for me because I can’t lift it with a rubber ring on my foot.’
You can’t unclip it. I can lift it but you can’t unclip it.’
‘Yes, I can unclip it. So I’ll unclip, and you lift.’
‘Whatever,’ the woman finally said, and continued drying herself angrily.
I sang a couple of rounds of Elhamudillah, elhamudillai because it’s Arabic and someone who’s angry enough to pick a fight with a tiny arthritic in a pool is bound to be Islamaphobic too. As I sang the ‘Thanks be to God’ song ironically and cheekily I reflected that the woman’s ‘Whatever’ had lacked a certain grace, so I started up again.
‘I have a further request – next time you meet someone with a disability that annoys you, could I ask that you work on finding a solution instead of just criticising them?’
‘It’s just very rude. We’re here to swim and you were in the way. You could have stood anywhere else in the pool, you didn’t have to stand there.’
‘Okay. Let’s take it one step at a time. First, I’ll get you to do what I want and then you can be understanding. But if you can’t be understanding, I will accept that.’
To this the woman had no reply but I wasn’t done yet so I sang You can’t kill the spirit thinking particularly of the line She goes on and on and on, as something else came to me and I determined to go on and: how we will all at some point in our lives, somehow or other, be disabled.
‘Have you ever thought how you’d like people to treat you when you’re older and your body starts breaking down on you?’ I politely enquired. Or maybe it was rude, to the woman who objected to my stationery presence.
‘Well, I should probably do away with myself. Would that do for you?’ she said, angrily.
I thought a bit and then said, ‘That seems a little drastic, but each to their own. Although I’m sure you could find people who would be nice to you. Even I would be nice to you.’
I was glad I had the last word and glad it was a pleasant one.
Throughout the conversation I wasn’t just talking about myself, and although it was just me and one woman talking, with others coming and going at various points, in my mind I was holding the hands of my disabled friends, brothers, sisters and neighbours who have ever received someone’s undigested, unprocessed negative emotions. Not just disabled people either: anyone who is not rich, not white, not looking exactly the self-same spitting image of how dominant, exclusive, insensitive people wanting positions of power look, can find themselves put down, insulted, told off or imprisoned.
This is not something we are under any obligation to take and whenever we get shit we can just hand it straight back. I like to hand it back in an enhanced, improved form. However we do it though, whatever words we say, whatever songs we sing, whatever poems we write or videos we make, we can stand up for ourselves and fight back. It gets easier the more you do it.
If it weren’t for the Coronavirus and the lockdown I would never have ended up in the Holiday Inn’s swimming pool and I would never have had to push the indignant-about-disabilities woman out of her entitled comfort zone.
But now I’ve started I don’t suppose I’m going to stop any time soon. I swear.
S&C has been awarded funding from the European Journalism Centre Covid-19 Support Fund to explore the social impact of Covid-19 on diverse communities and sectors in Portsmouth:
- voluntary sector, including charities, community groups and social enterprises
- small businesses and self-employed people
- BAME communities
- people with disabilities
We have also been awarded funding from the Public Interest News Foundation Emergency Fund to explore the social impact of Covid-19 on migrants, and asylum seekers and refugees.