Lizzie Ridsdale

@lizzieridsdale | contributor
Scrolling through social media one day, a link to an article on The Mighty came up. Clicking on it, the words immediately resonated. Having always enjoyed writing, I wanted to be able to create that same feeling of relatedness and understanding for someone else coming to terms with a disability or illness. I am passionate about inclusion, equity in education, sport and fitness for people with disabilities and advocating for universally accessible places and opportunities. My other interests include law and justice, world affairs, reading and writing.
Community Voices

It’s days like these that I HATE CP

I just really need to vent!

In that moment you realise that you can’t physically save yourself from falling, and try to prepare for the pain you know is coming as you land with a thud on the hard tile floor.

When there was nothing there to trip on, and you seemingly tripped over yourself #cplife

When it’s midnight and you wake from the pain.

When you fall over for a second time in just a few days, still nursing bruises from the first time, and you’re just trying to do something normal.

When you finally break down away from everyone, and someone in your house appears with harsh words because they heard you, and walk away cursing you under their breath. And you cry more, because you didn’t mean to disturb them.

When you downplay what happened, or feel guilty for telling anyone, when all you want to do is scream and pummel something.

When you feel guilty for complaining because you know how privileged you are.

When your emotions are so fragile that just about anything feels too much.

When the pain catches you when you bend over, breathe deeply, laugh and manoeuvre yourself.

When you think to yourself, “Is this what my life is going to be?”
And the future scares you, because ageing with CP leaves you vulnerable to these things, and you’re turning 30, when apparently ageing sets in at about 25.

When you wonder what it would be like to live without disability, and you decide if there was a magic pill cure, you’d take it, just to find out, but you’re trying to embrace disability pride.

When you’d like to be admired as someone who faces adversity without ever complaining, but the frustration and pain is just too much.

Why Authentic Disability Representation on 'The Heights' Is Important

Let me pose a theoretical question: When you sit down in the evening in front of Netflix or a television channel, excited to watch one of your favorite programs, do you give any more than a passing thought to why this particular show ranks among your favorites before you grab a snack and get comfortable on the couch? Recently, asking myself this question resulted in me identifying many things I enjoyed and admired about my favorite television show, “The Heights” on ABC Television in Australia: a talented and diverse cast, dynamic relationships and storylines that deal sensitively and hopefully with many important social issues that can at times be shirked or misunderstood in life off-screen. However, one reason shone out above all of these: disability representation. For the first time in my life, I looked at the screen and saw someone I could totally relate to. Sabine (played by actress Bridie McKim), one of the show’s young characters, lives with diplegic cerebral palsy, just like me. She goes to mainstream school, is a talented aspiring actress and navigates the complexities of teenage life with great heart and honesty. Sabine’s inclusion in the show is not at all tokenistic, nor is the focus exclusively on her disability. I cannot overstate the importance of the inclusion of characters with a disability, portrayed by actors with a disability, in our television and media all the time, not only occasionally. As people who live with disabilities, we have a so often underserved, but essential need to see ourselves reflected in more mainstream media. Although I have been impressed by Sabine’s storylines throughout the roughly one-and-a-half seasons of the show that have aired so far, it was the episode a week ago that not only caused me to confront my own feelings surrounding internalized ableism, but if a quick read of the show’s social media pages is any indication, it has many viewers thinking about it as well, perhaps for the very first time. Living with a disability in a world that is so often ill-equipped for even the most basic accommodations that make it possible and comfortable for people with a disability to thrive and make their vital contributions to society, is, most of the time, a delicate balancing act between disclosing our disability or keeping it hidden and between seesawing feelings of pride and shame. There is always a question of whether someone can be trusted with the “warts and all” version of our experience, of what to share with friends, and of whether we should attempt anything that has traditionally been shown as predominantly the domain of those without disabilities. I often consider just how much to push for inclusion, to do something I am passionate about when it means others will have to make adjustments they aren’t familiar with, and sometimes even change plans so this isn’t necessary. These are questions Sabine on “The Heights” also grapples with. I am long past my teenage, high school years, but I am heartened beyond words that those growing up with cerebral palsy today may watch a television show like “The Heights” and feel seen and understood in the characters and plot that plays out on the screen. Growing up isn’t easy, and simultaneously navigating the challenges of disability grows strength, but the price is often pain, frustration and confusion. “The Heights” does not shy away from these issues, and it strikes the right balance between refusing to sugarcoat the challenging realities of disability while showing how full, diverse and vital life with a disability is, and the right way for people such as teachers and families to respond, even if they are unsure at first. The portrayal of disability in such a real way has significant potential to take some of the weight of advocacy, often unrelenting, off the shoulders of people with disabilities. It is wonderful to be able to encourage people who may be unfamiliar with disabilities to watch the storylines and characters of shows like this, so they may be able to learn in a non-invasive, even enjoyable way. Although “The Heights” is only a recent addition to my favorites list, I know it will have its place there for a long time to come. I will recommend it to friends who also live with CP and other similar disabilities, and I will forever be grateful to Bridie, and the team behind “The Heights” for showing Australia that alongside the challenges of living with a disability, there is plenty of normality too. They have set the bar high; there may it remain.

Community Voices

Please Respect the Personal Space of People With Disabilities

“Always ask permission before touching.” This instruction, included in a training manual for prospective coaches of sports for people with disabilities, which I am currently working through, really stood out to me. As soon as I read it, I felt an uncomfortable knot in my stomach. Not because of the direct nature of the instruction; of course you should have someone’s permission before touching them, but because it reminded me of all the times strangers have taken the liberty of touching me or invading my personal space without permission. Such invasion can take many forms and is seemingly an annoyingly common experience for people with disabilities. It certainly involves unsolicited physical contact, but can also be unwanted interference with or use of our mobility aids or other essential equipment, a person standing so close we feel unsteady on our feet or unable to move away or adjust our position comfortably, or the seemingly endless stream of unwanted comments or personal questions from strangers or those we barely know. To be clear, I am not saying that the people who perform such invasions necessarily have malicious intentions. However, when reflecting on just how often I have been subject to invasions of my space and privacy, as well as on how differently people without disabilities are treated, I have come to the conclusion that some people in the general community feel entitled to treat people with disabilities in this way. Just the other day, I was out having a meal with my family, and an acquaintance of ours just happened to be at the same restaurant. We got to talking, and everything was fine until the person went to leave. After saying their farewells, I was patted on the head without my permission. Perhaps recounting this experience here is an over-reaction; the touch wasn’t harmful, but I couldn’t help but notice that my other, able-bodied family members weren’t treated in the same way. I am an adult, not a little girl. It is not the first time this has happened to me, and I have never been comfortable with it. If you are not very familiar to me, please don’t touch me without my permission! If you wouldn’t do it to someone who is able-bodied, don’t do it to someone with a disability. Uninvited questions or comments, usually related to the disability, are another “invasion” people with disabilities often have to confront on a daily basis while going about even the most basic of tasks. This is not to say people with disabilities shouldn’t take appropriate opportunities to educate a well-meaning person who doesn’t know about life with a disability. There are some trail-blazing advocates out there, which is fantastic. Advocacy is always a positive! However, people with disabilities shouldn’t feel obliged or pressured to answer questions or engage with unsolicited comments all the time. It is not our innate job to be educators for people who want personal details about our lives or don’t understand disability. Advocacy should be a choice with which we are comfortable, not forced on us by a stranger’s thirst for details. And so I say to those who want to ask questions or aren’t sure how to interact with people with disabilities: please don’t single out a person with a disability. When you want to interact, ask yourself: “would an able-bodied person be comfortable with what I am about to do, say or ask?” If the answer is no, please don’t proceed! Don’t make disability the first topic of conversation when you meet or see someone. If the time, place and approach is appropriate and your behavior is not invasive or overbearing, many people with disabilities, myself included, will be happy to speak with you and answer your questions. If we chose not to engage with your questioning though, please respect this as our right, and please don’t be rude or make assumptions. We are only trying to go about and enjoy our lives, just like you!

Community Voices

If the holidays are hard, I want you to know that I see you. If you feel pressured by those you have to spend time with at this time of year, remember that you cannot control how others respond to you, and that others can sometimes bring their negativity to bear on interactions with you. This is not your negativity, and you do not have to be brought down by it. You are loved, valuable, and important, and never forget that you deserve self-care, peace, and positivity.

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Community Voices

Which teacher supported and encouraged you, pushing you to succeed when your health made education seem impossible?

Here's to the teachers who care about our lives both inside the classroom, and outside the classroom!

During my diagnosis period, I had two key people in my school supporting me.

My middle school principal, Dr. Ashlock, stood up for me when teachers doubted my condition because it's invisible. She never had to see the pain to know it was real, to know I was worth standing up for.

Mrs. Tynan – She wasn't my teacher, but she helped with my 501 plan. And when keeping up seemed impossible, I always knew she believed in me.

#ChronicIllness #ChronicPain #RareDisease #MentalHealth #Education

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Community Voices

Letter to the Teacher of a Child With Cerebral Palsy

Dear Teachers, I am 26 and have cerebral palsy. I didn’t always have the greatest experience at school, and while much of this can be attributed to the many months I missed due to surgeries and recovery, some of it was due to teachers failing to understand my disability, and how serious and longstanding the impact of misplaced and unkind words can be. I participated in a local fundraising walk yesterday. It was the culmination of about four months of training that has helped me on the long journey to acceptance of my disability, and. for perhaps the first time in my life, appreciation and of my body and what it achieves despite its stiffness, soreness, and the all the arguments my muscles have with my brain! But there was more to this walk than just five kilometers of pacing, sweat and determination to finish. At the same location sixteen years earlier, my homeroom teacher had looked me in the eyes prior to a school running event and told me there was no way I could do it. I was 11, and my already tenuous self-belief was seriously shaken. I vaguely remember trying not to cry. I was new to the school, still trying to find my way. I felt the isolation provoked by my obviously physical differences from other children acutely. For sixteen years, I have remembered what he said. Over the years, many people have asked why I have a negative outlook, doubt myself and have such low self-confidence, especially when it comes to sports and my physical abilities. Only a couple of weeks ago, I heard somebody say, “I wonder what goes on in her head?” It was through training for (and completing) the event yesterday that I realized this stems in part from remarks like the one made by my teacher all those years ago. On the other end of my run was another teacher. He was beaming, clapping and congratulating me on my achievement. I was the very last to finish out of about three hundred students, but he made me feel like the biggest success, rather than a failure before I had even tried. We remain firm friends to this day. Here a few things to know about having a child in your class with cerebral palsy. It is understandable that upon learning that a child you will be responsible for has a disability, you might feel uncertain. What will they be able to do? How much help will they need? Will they make friends and feel included? How can I best help them? Can I do this? These are all completely understandable concerns, and raising them shows just how dedicated you are to ensuring the best experience for the child in your care; that’s great! What’s also great is there are usually plenty of people around the child who will be thrilled to answer these questions and more, so ask away. Family members, usually weary from the intense and repetitive advocacy that has been required of them even before their child reaches school age, will be so happy and relieved to know you are taking an interest. By asking these questions, you are becoming a part of the essential support team for the family. You are needed and loved; welcome! Your encouragement is essential and valued more than you will perhaps ever realize. How you interact with the child builds a foundation for their self-image into adulthood. In a world where friends may at times be scarce, and family relationships can be strained due to the “family members as therapists” dichotomy, helping a child with cerebral palsy to believe in his or her abilities can be as simple as making one positive remark a day. Your words have weight, and matter to the child. They have the power to either lift that child to beautiful new heights, or to crush self-belief or ambition. Use them wisely. Efforts towards inclusion must be genuine. Including a child with cerebral palsy does not always mean putting them with everyone else if they cannot participate fully. Being forced to watch from the sidelines when the activity has not been appropriately adapted for them is worse for many children than not being there at all, because it reminds them, often painfully, of the things they might struggle with due to their disability. Instead, encourage and celebrate their achievements in the areas they are passionate about, whether sports, mathematics, or music. Single them out for praise of their talent and hard work. If you see exclusion, bullying or a safety concern, please speak up! Although you may only witness one instance of this, the child may be dealing with it on a daily basis and not be certain where to turn for help. Knowing there is a teacher on their side is a huge relief. If something just doesn’t seem right for the child or they become withdrawn, please say something. It could stop a problem escalating into something worse. Believe that potential is limitless, and make sure your classroom is set up for the child with cerebral palsy to achieve theirs. In the right environment, disability need not halt achievement, although acceptance of one’s disability does take time, so accept that some days will be better than others. Because of your efforts, children with cerebral palsy can grow in confidence and learn to accept themselves as talented, aware, and determined individuals, often with great senses of humor. I am a coach nowadays and see this often. From personal experience, I can promise you they will remember you as a great supporter and someone who cared deeply for their experience in education. Even a small dose of positivity each day makes a great impression, but negativity leaves a dent on self-image that can take a long time to recover from, even years. Don’t impose this on them, please. To all teachers, soon to be teachers, and students planning to become teachers one day: thank you for making the choice to nurture children with disabilities, and guiding them to greatness! You are their superheroes!

Self-Love and Cerebral Palsy

Throughout my life, it was not hard for me to tell I was different from those around me. My diagnosis of spastic cerebral palsy as a baby meant in my case I would have to use a wheelchair to move around. Luckily, I have been surrounded by some amazing teachers, the best family and the most wonderful friends one could ask for. While I excelled at school, I was lacking in my social life. I would see the timid looks from people while I would be shopping and doing other leisure activities, and this would cause me to go back in my shell. This feeling was magnified when a girl I met a few years ago expressed that she had feelings towards me. However, I was not at a point in my life where I was comfortable with my sexuality, so I told her that I was not ready for a relationship. Although I’ll never truly understand what happened next between us, she came up to me a few months after not speaking and made a joke to her then-girlfriend about my inability to walk. While that experience still stings to this day, it made me realize why I want to get involved in advocacy work from this point forward. There needs to be more visibility for the disabled community because we are just like everyone else. I don’t want people to see me necessarily as different or in some way damaged, but rather, unique just like everyone else. While the above experience has made me apprehensive about putting myself out there, I want others to know that you are not alone, and those truly worth your time will shine in the end. Over the years, I have learned that since we are all going through something at one point or another, whether it be physical or otherwise, kindness and communication is the key to understanding. While I am aware there is way more good out there than bad, my goal is just to bring additional awareness and shed light on issues that are too often shied away from by the public. When people look at me, I want them to see someone who has worked tirelessly to be accepted by those around her in academia and in my personal life, sans the chair. While it will always be a part of me, it is just one small facet of my life and I am by no means defined by it, nor is anybody else by their disability. In the end, all of us are just looking to be understood fully, without reservations of any kind. Lastly, to the girl mentioned here, thank you for opening my eyes to self-love before loving anyone else, regardless of how long it took me to realize that.

Anxiety and Cerebral Palsy

I was always anxious as a child. The early surgical interventions and frequent visits to physiotherapists and orthopedic surgeons so common for a child with cerebral palsy ensured that. I remember what it felt like to be that anxious child: the knot in the pit of the stomach, constantly needing the toilet and being uncomfortably out of breath, especially when surgery was imminent and any semblance of control began to disappear under the fog of sedative pre-meds. I would wish to be anywhere else, or anyone else. Before my last major surgery (at age 16), my medical team were so concerned about my pre-operative anxiety that they recommended I take a course of medication for several weeks beforehand. I refused, believing I should simply “grow up” and tough it out, that I could control this just as I controlled completing my homework or practicing my musical instruments. In that one instance, I did. However, it was not until my years of surgery and rehabilitation were declared to be behind me by the team who had so capably cared for my physical body for my entire life, that feelings of insecurity and low self-confidence became symptomatic of anxiety and depression. To anyone looking in on my life, I may have seemed to have it together. No more surgery meant I could supposedly move on with a “normal” life, and I even assumed it would mark the end of cerebral palsy’s impact on my life! Gradually coming to the realization this would not be the case sent my feelings of inadequacy and anxiety into overdrive. I struggled to comprehend that I had gone through years of surgery, rehabilitation, and missed teenage rites of passage to end up still needing a walking stick and struggling to commute to the classes at the university I had worked so hard to attend without considerable pain and exhaustion. This, coupled with a struggle to self-advocate to have all my accessibility needs and reasonable adjustments met, necessitated a move back home to live again with my parents. The knowledge that I couldn’t cope was humiliating, and I did not know what to do. I was so tired of fighting, and my life was far from what I had imagined it would be. Approximately 12 months on, what has changed? Well, not long after experiencing the low I just described, I opened up to a close friend about my struggles. Hearing that even someone very accomplished who I admired hugely had struggled with anxiety brought me to tears of relief. I realized remaining silent is not an option, and struggling with feelings is nothing to be ashamed of. I finally realized my disability will always be a part of me, it will shape my future life, I won’t always like it and that’s perfectly OK. No matter how many times an assertion about your life or disability comes from someone else, it will not sink in until you have had enough time to come to terms with it. Make certain to give yourself that time, and as my family always tell me (I haven’t always listened!), don’t doubt your own life’s timing. There is nothing wrong with taking time to rest and recover, and at the same time, it is possible to defy the limits others may perceive you to have. To everyone who works to support people with cerebral palsy, please make them aware of their mental health and how to support and improve it. Check in with them to see how they are feeling. Encourage them every day. Do not patronize them or remind them of their supposed prognosis in a negative way. And help them to achieve whatever they want to achieve. Sure, I still experience spikes in my anxiety, and there are many days when I still doubt myself or my pain shrinks my world. But on other days I soar upon realizing where I have come from and the possibilities for the future, and those days are worth the downs!