For Auckland teenager Grace Stratton, using a wheelchair means also having to sit in one particular place on the school bus. But does that have to define her?
I live in on a farm in Warkworth, but I go to school on the North Shore. You could say that I have one foot in the paddock and the other in Takapuna’s Starbucks. My split existence between these two areas has required a fair amount of travel over the years. I’ve been taking the bus since year 9. I remember being so excited that I could actually go on the bus. Because of my wheelchair we were unsure if an accessible bus would be funded for me to use, but eventually the bus got funded. I was ecstatic. In my young teenage years I wanted to be like everybody else, so for me taking the bus signified equality with my peers. Or so I thought.
You see, what I didn’t know was that the school bus is a young teenager’s first experience of a functioning, judgemental hierarchy. Basically it works like this: the older kids and the cool kids will always be at the back and the younger kids always sit toward the front. Due to my designated seat I always had to sit in the same space at the front, the wheelchair space. This didn’t make me into a loser kid, but it did make me into the disabled kid. This default identity was not one I wanted to wear as a 14 year old girl.
When I got older, my designated seat also meant that bus rides became an us and them thing, because while I was sitting at the front of the bus my peers were at the back having conversations that I was not involved in because they were out of my reach. Although at school I would be told about the live action sitcom dramas I missed out on, I couldn’t be there as they were happening. I had one foot in the world where I was the friend, the equal, the girl, and the other foot in a world where I was the kid in the designated seat. At 14, I would have given anything to have both feet in one world. The world where I was just ‘Grace’.
Being disabled, you’re constantly presented with obstacles, but it doesn’t strip you of your power to overcome them. I learned that equality was something I’d gain through my own actions, within the environments I found myself and through what I believed about myself. Once I realised this, I stopped trying to be a part of the conversations I couldn’t reach and instead I started being present in the space that I was in.
I am now in my last year of high school and I still sit in my designated space among the little kids. One of the little girls I sit with is about 10; most of the time her eyes are glued to her iPad. But one day during an unusually long bus trip she left her iPad on a seat to instead come and sit next to me. In a curious, innocent tone she asked me “When you get out of your wheelchair do you just crawl everywhere?” I explainined that I can sit in other chairs – not only my wheelchair. Her eyes shone back at me as she digested this newfound knowledge.
I was about to tell her that I could in fact walk a little bit, when our conversation was interrupted by a small blond teenage boy who announced, “If it tastes like chicken keep on licking, if it tastes like trout get the fuck out.” After the boy had finished his outburst, this young girl turned back to me. I could tell she was confused about what this boy meant; she waited for me to speak first. I ran down my choices about where to go with the conversation and decided to navigate the conversation back to her. I didn’t feel we were in right space and time for me to explain the perils of objectification and misogyny. Instead I wanted to make her feel worthy and important through my language and our conversation. I got off the bus that day feeling fulfilled.
I thought more about my conversation with this young girl and realised that if I was not in my designated seat I would not have had that conversation. I knew then that I was meant to be in that designated disabled seat, if only for that conversation and that one person.
For my entire school bus and high school career I have strived to be treated equally to my peers. I went to the ball with a guy who had full use of his two feet and academically I have been on par with my friends, even though I took 10 weeks off at the pinnacle of the school year for surgical rehab. All of these things have made me feel equal to those around me, and all of these things I have done from my designated seat. My disability never changed and neither did the system of the school bus. What did change were my feelings toward my seat and the identity the system had assigned me by default.
Sometimes I will be the ‘Girl in the Designated Seat’ and in other spaces I will be Grace. I used to think these were two separate identities. I now know they contribute to one another. The identity I was given by default is mine to define by what I choose to do with it.
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