To My Six-Year Old Self: We Made It!

By Abigail Brown
Abigail Brown: Fairy Tales
Like lots of little girls, I always wanted to be a ballerina. For my sixth birthday, I was taken to see a performance of Giselle at the famous dance venue Sadler’s Wells in London. The word ‘disability’ not yet in my vocabulary, I saw no reason why the pirouetting figure on the stage couldn’t be me.
Born with genetic collagen disorder osteogenesis imperfecta, also known as ‘OI’ or brittle bones, I was an unlikely ballet student. By the age of six I had sustained multiple broken bones, and was beginning to show the signs of degenerative hearing loss and scoliosis. 
And then I met a dance teacher who agreed to let me join her ballet class. Thanks to her kindness and patience, I stayed for ten years. The slow, controlled exercise of ballet was fantastic for my health.  But while my overall mobility increased, so did my consciousness of how that mobility looked. By my last lesson, I had learned to detest my body and felt nothing but disgust for its crass imitation of movements, which I had once imagined dancing with such grace.  
After becoming a full-time wheelchair user, I began to dream of dancing once more. In 2018 I signed up for a ten-week course in wheelchair ballroom dancing with Step Change Studios. Allowing myself to dance again was painful, both physically and emotionally. One of the ways I had learned to manage my disability was to make it the object of my own jokes; to mock the way I looked before anyone else could. But dance lessons asked me to take my own physicality seriously. Admitting that I cared about how my body moved was so intensely embarrassing that, when asked to improvise, I spent the entire lesson crying in the corner from shame.
Photographer: Stephen Wright
Our teacher at Step Change Studios, Ivana Ostrowski, was hugely supportive. We learned different styles of ballroom dance, which she adapted for each individual student depending on their disability. We ultimately worked out a routine which we performed at the national Design Museum in London as part of an event to celebrate the UN International Day of Persons with Disabilities
After the show, I was surprised to realize that something had changed: I felt proud of our performance. I felt proud of how I moved.
Mass media and society teaches us to equate disability with tragedy, or to view wheelchairs as symbols of pity to which their users are ‘bound’. Yet, in every sense, my wheelchair has become my liberation. 
It allows me a freedom of movement which my legs could never afford.  
South Asian Kuchipudi Dance Festival
Twenty years after I first watched Giselle, and ten years after I thought I’d hung up my dancing shoes for good, I was lucky enough to be invited to participate in Step Change Studios’ professional showcase Fairy Tales, at Sadler’s Wells itself in 2019. Being surrounded by so many professional disabled dancers was fantastic. Here, our wheelchairs were not inconveniences to be hidden, but tools which enabled both disabled and non-disabled dancers to move in new, innovative, beautiful ways. 
We practiced in the studios of prestigious dance schools, wore the Swarovski-encrusted dresses as seen on BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing, and shared the backstage corridors of Sadler’s Wells with professional ballerinas. I even modeled for the show’s promotional poster!  Seeing the hard work, commitment and sincerity our choreographers and volunteers placed on Fairy Tales, and the grace and poise of my fellow dancers, was the permission I needed to take dancing seriously. 
Photographer: Stephen Wright
Recently, I was delighted to take part in the International South Asian Kuchipudi Dance Festival in West London, performing a Latin-Indian fusion piece, which we performed again at a glamorous awards show in Westminster. This time, I felt no shame in explaining what I can and can’t do, and needed no encouragement to hold my head up high. 
After so many years of despising and often neglecting my body, Step Change Studios has helped me to finally give it the credit it deserves. My dancing might not look the way I once dreamed it would look, but it feels like pure joy.
Now I can truly say:  To my six-year-old self: We made it! 
Abigail Brown learned ballet for ten years as a child, and after transitioning to using a wheelchair full-time was keen to take up dancing again. She joined UK-based inclusive dance company Step Change Studios' beginner ballroom dance programme in 2018. In a short space of time Abigail has progressed to perform alongside professional dancers. Abigail is also an aspiring writer. You can follow Step Change Studios at: 
Twitter: @Step_Change
Instagram: @stepchangestudios

Happy New Year - Cheers to a New Decade!

Have you ever noticed with each passing year, whenever you sign up for new profile online, the time it takes to scroll and find your year of birth feels more and more like spinning The Wheel of Fortune wheel?  I do in fact remember the days where I could click on my DOB with a only a few clicks.  Now, I spin that scroller like I'm hoping for the silver-glittered jackpot.

By the time my late 40's showed up I seemed to become resigned to the facts and took on an attitude of adventure.  I began to appreciate (or imagine) that my years of spinning the wheel of decades was simply a nod towards my gained wisdom.  My sage-ness.  My experience.  My total shock-and-awe that I'd changed yet another age-bracket on surveys and applications.

Whether we're spinning the age wheel for the jackpot, or whether we're two clicks away from being signed up for the latest app, it is well worth looking at the last decade in review as we forge our way into a new one, both young and old(er) -- the 2010's are gone like Friends leaving Netflix.  An era, or at least a mini-one, has concluded.  Thankfully we have seen the disability community take strides towards inclusion we had only once dreamed of.  Here's a look at how the last decade shaped up for people with disabilities:

Rosa Marcellino 
In 2010 alone, we changed protocols about how intellectual disabilities were termed through Rosa's Law  -- which is more important and strident than it may sound at first.  Words are powerful, and sometimes it takes decades to come up with terms that define accurately (especially in a court of law) concepts that the general population has a hard time dealing with or understanding from both a mental and emotional place.  Legislation is impossible to create or implement without the correct non-discriminatory or derogatory terminology.  We also saw the entertainment industry start to step up to the plate by close-captioning feature-length unedited films online.

Disability Pride NYC
The next few years brought to life the FAIR (Fair, Accurate, Inclusive, and Respectful) Education Act in California, schools began to include or provide sports for students with disabilities, the ABLE Act (Achieving a Better Life Experience) allowed people with disabilities to save money and build financial stability, the first Disability Pride Parade was held in New York City with Tom Harkin as Grand Marshall, several states banned the action of people with disabilities being paid less than minimum wage, and live theatre saw its first disabled actress, Ali Stroker, win a Tony award.

Tyrion Lannister: GOT
Reality shows, online channels, and independent lens featured people with disabilities (Game of Thrones, Friday Night Lights, Breaking Bad, The Guild, Joan of Arcadia, NCIS: New Orleans, Extreme Ghost Busters, Glee, My Gimpy Life, Push Girls, Little Women, The Little Couple, Little People Big World) in positive inclusive roles.  The barrier between being portrayed as either the heroic inspiration or victim was broken down, and replaced with active, well-rounded characters who were part of the story.   Target print ads as well as Target Stores have featured not only children and adults with all types of disabilities in their ads, but also stocked Halloween costumes for wheelchairs, adaptive clothing, and in-store ad displays that featured models with disabilities.  Established fashion houses have now begun collaborating with designers to create adaptive fashion, and include "real life" models with disabilities.  Most notably, Tommy Hilfiger, Nike, and Billy Footwear.

The most recent of these steps towards visual inclusion have all occurred primarily within the last three years.  These are exciting times!

Robyn "T-Rex" Lambird for Target
Yet the moment of truth is this:  we have so much more work to do, and so many wonderful things to accomplish together in the coming decade.  While I am proud of where we are, I can't help but feel these milestones should have (and could have) been reached a long time ago.  In the spirit of celebrating that they are here now, I applaud their arrival with inspired hope of even better things to come.

The point is, each time I spin The Wheel of Fortune on my online profiles, or change age brackets on surveys and applications...I truly understand and remember with great clarity how little understanding or visibility women (or anyone) with disabilities had back when I only had to do a couple mouse clicks.

Times have changed for the better.  And it is up to us to make sure they continue to do so.  Much like the experiences of The Suffragettes gave way to women not having to think twice about their privilege to vote....wear the badge of honor proudly that you have lived to see these changes create a world where the next generation will not blink an eye at accessing inclusive education, or seeing themselves in ads, on stage, or in film.

Cheers, mobileWOMEN!  Cheers to you for where you have come from, where you are, and most certainly where you're going!

Welcome to the 2020's!  Our next article will feature Abbi Brown of Step Change Studios!

Merry Christmas, mobileWOMEN!

Merry Christmas from All of Us
at mobileWOMEN!

Bethany, Wendy, Cheryl, Robyn, Amy, & Kara