At just three weeks old, a bald eagle measures over one foot in height, while their beaks and claws are almost adult-size. At four weeks, they can stand independently and have a hand in mangling their own food. At six weeks, they expand almost to the size of their parents and at eight weeks, their appetite is ravenous, forcing their elders to embark on an endless expedition of hide and seek with their prey. Their first flight takes place at approximately thirteen weeks after hatching and they begin searching for their soulmate at four or five years of age. That trajectory of independence is frightening but I’m somewhat envious of it.
I’m not perhaps envious of the idea of finding eternal love at the age of 5, but in my mid twenties there are many aspects of quotidian life in which I’m still dependent on the kindness of strangers and a far cry from the independence of a juvenile bald eagle.
A simple example is purchasing a cup of coffee. I enjoy a vanilla latte with skimmed milk and cream. Withhold your judgement.
Taking that first sip of delicious caffeine is a must in the hours preceding dawn but attaining that moment of satisfaction can be difficult for me. A recent visit to a coffee shop began predictably but with the added morning rush and a frazzled barista. A lack of staff, whistling machines, and impatient commuters made for an atmosphere that was fraught with tension. I was next in the queue, I could almost taste my synthetically sweet beverage.
“Next, please. I said, NEXT, please.” “Excuse me Miss, what’s your order?”
A hue of pink rose to the tips of my ears. He couldn’t see me! I tried to wave and alert him to my presence but the glass case of delicious pastries kept me from view. I looked to the woman beside me, her ears were equally pinkened. She coughed dramatically and inclined her head in a downward direction, hinting to the barista that I was standing below. He did not pick up on her inclined head and his belligerence swelled. After another angst-filled ten seconds, in a high-pitched tone, the woman announced, “There is a lady waiting to be served - below the height of the counter.”
Jaws dropped, mouths opened and closed like a fish’s, and eyes blinked at an alarming rate. Apologies were hiccupped. My natural reaction was to laugh, this wasn’t the first time something like this had occurred and honestly, the barista wasn’t at fault. Our physical environment is built to a set of standards that appeases the majority and those of us outside that percentile have to actively find ways to manipulate and meander through it, just to survive.
I am a little person. I have Achondroplasia – a sporadic genetic mutation that results in the most common form of dwarfism. The average height someone with Achondroplasia attains is 131 or 123 centimeters, gender dependent. Approximately 1 in every 15,000 people are born with a restricted growth condition. According to the Central Statistics Office and some simple maths, there are just over 300 people who have similar challenges to me in Ireland, difficulties which are mostly entwined with the physical world in which we live. Relying on strangers in a public bathroom is probably the most uncomfortable aspect of my own narrative.
The necessity of yielding to nature’s urges has turned going to the bathroom into one of my greatest challenges. On entering an ordinary public bathroom, I can reach the toilet but the sink, the soap dispenser, the hand-dryer and most challenging, the lock on the cubicle door are all out of my reach. On entering an accessible bathroom, I can reach the sink, the soap dispenser, the hand-dryer and the lock on the door but the toilet is significantly higher and is unusable. Therefore, I use the regular bathroom more often and to compensate for the high lock on the door I bring a heavy bag or a jacket to the toilet and attempt to drape them explicitly over the boundary between the cubicle and the hand-washing area, in the hope that those waiting might recognise that someone is inside. That optimism is often shook when a stranger barges in and both of us harmonise ‘Sorry, sorry, sorry’ in an attempt to conceal our embarrassment. So, instead of using garments and accessories to barricade the entry, I now just solicit assistance out of strangers.
When I was younger, I found it extremely difficult and the initial attempts at asking for help were painful. Explaining to a stranger that I needed them to take a stationary position outside the bathroom door like a bodyguard, was difficult to articulate and filled me with more notions than Beyoncé. These days I’ve perfected my elevator pitch and quickly ask a fellow bathroom-user to jam the door closed using a hand or foot. It is still somewhat wrought with tension but for the most part, people are immeasurably kind.
Much of the rhetoric that surrounds people with disabilities is framed by the media as a narrative of triumph over adversity, success in spite of a genetic or cognitive difference but instead, I take the position that I am the person I have become because of my disability. I am sensitive and compassionate due to my innate understanding of being othered, I am skillful and creative because I am forced to view physical plains through a different lens and I am meticulous and organised because being unprepared could leave you without access to caffeine or a toilet. I am resilient. I am bold. I am inquisitive.
I am also shameless or at least, somewhat shameless. I abandoned the embarrassment that is intrinsically tied to asking questions and particularly, seeking help in my youth. The notion that articulating your lack of independence should be oppressive is something I actively repel. It works to my advantage. Harvesting a confidence and a vocabulary that gives me the opportunity to proposition strangers has resulted in some of my greatest achievements. It saw me sitting next to twice Oscar-nominated actress Saoirse Ronan, interviewing her about the importance of female friendship, it allowed me to question a broadcaster’s use of derogatory language and later receive a public apology and it gave me the courage to meet with prospective supervisors and apply to do a PhD.
We do not all grow and mature at the same pace. We are not born with a skillset that merely has to be activated – we must labour and educate ourselves on how our culture, environment and social standing can be adapted to our needs and desires.
I still find it challenging to tie up my hair and to walk down the street without being objectified by people staring and pointing, but having Achondroplasia has positively moulded and shaped my ethics, personality and consciousness in ways which I couldn’t even attempt to list. I wouldn’t change, even if I could leave the nest alongside a bald eagle.