Moving away from home is a daunting process for any 18-year-old. Moving away from home for an 18-year-old with a disability is fraught with a stream of extra challenges. It didn’t help that in the weeks prior I had to deal with the never-ending advice of ‘Don’t worry, Alice. Everyone is in the same boat’. It felt that, if everyone was in the same boat, then everyone’s boat was on fire, surrounded by sharks, and with a sail full of holes. Sitting here, six weeks into University, my blanket my only defence against the Wellington chill, I have struggled to think of one thing I wish I could have told myself a few months ago. After racking my brain, I came up with this:
I wish I had known that it was brave to be afraid.
Bravery is something that every person with a disability has been labelled with. Throughout my life I have constantly been told how courageous I am, and how strong I am by people who barely know me.
There are many issues with putting individuals on a social pedestal as brave, simply for overcoming what can be seen as a difficult situation for an outsider. Not only is it belittling, in that it follows the ableist narrative that it is brave for a person with a disability to even be living life to the fullest, but it can leave an impression on many young disabled people that they have to constantly see life through rose tinted glasses.
For most modern teenagers, showing fear to their peers is a sign of weakness
New Zealand has some of the worst statistics for youth suicide, and this is largely due to our attitude that “she’ll be right”. For most modern teenagers, showing fear to their peers is a sign of weakness. Perhaps young people in situations that are different from the majority believe that showing weakness is playing into the negative stereotype of the “pitiful sufferer”. On reflection, this is exactly what I was afraid of.
I don’t think I have ever been more afraid in my life than I was during my first few weeks at University. There were moments when I thought I couldn’t do it anymore, that I had made a mistake. Everything was so overwhelming. Disability Services were less helpful than I was led to believe, and, like any 18-year-old, I was terrified of not making new friends. I felt so isolated, and I felt so disappointed. I felt disappointed because I thought that I wasn’t supposed to feel afraid. I thought that feeling afraid somehow made me a “bad” disabled person, that it somehow meant that I just wasn’t cut out for University life. But I couldn’t have been more naïve and wrong.
After being at University for about two months now and having fallen in love with every aspect of life here, I have come to the realisation that bravery is not the absence of fear. Fear suggests that one has put themselves in a situation that is difficult and scary. That, in itself, is brave.
So, my one piece of advice to anyone moving away for the first time: It will be hard. You will be afraid. But, things will get better. It’s important to realise that, while no one else is in your boat, everyone is sailing towards the same destination. Try not to be afraid of fear, welcome it.