The one gift I received along with my disability
by Gaussian Retribution
In 2015, I lost the use of my hands. Constant neuropathic pain left me unable to type or write, limiting my ability to work. If that wasn’t enough, I had to give up every hobby: knitting, felting, origami, biking, and martial arts.
When I had had enough of audiobooks and drinking vodka through a straw, I had to learn to get back to work. I resumed my PhD program in informatics by learning to dictate code and papers. I even worked through math problems by dictating each equation using specialized scripts and a speech recognition program. But getting my life back on track wasn’t just about finding a way to finish my PhD. I needed hobbies, ways to be active, and that had always meant martial arts. I had done Krav Maga, grappling, and Brazilian jujitsu at various times in my life. Now I couldn’t punch or grip, but I still craved a contact sport.
As a child, I would’ve laughed if anyone suggested that I would enjoy a team sport. I hated the pressure in school sports, I hated feeling judged for mistakes that affected teammates, I had no friends and struggled in social situations. I couldn’t catch a ball – in fact, I was terrified of projectiles of all sorts. I would run from a badminton birdie! If that wasn’t enough, I’ve always thought of myself as a person with terrible balance. I’m lumbering and awkward, I look funny when I run. I can’t dance and I’m slow. Why would I ever put on skates, when I’m already so injury prone?
But in 2016, I was desperate to move my body and none of that seemed to matter. I knew one ball-free contact sport that could accommodate my limited use of hands: roller derby, where the rules severely limit hand use anyway. I registered to skate with Auld Reekie Roller Derby (or Girls, back then) and went shopping for gear.
Fresh meat was nothing like school team sports! When I was small, overwhelmed by the fear of potential monsters lurking in dark spaces, I moved all my bedding over to my closet and began to sleep there. For eight years, I slept fearlessly in the knowledge that I was the only monster in the cupboard. With my lifelong terror of all flying objects, I experienced the same transformation. So what if I couldn’t catch a ball? Jumping or flying around the track, nothing would catch me.
And what about socializing? Well, what about it? I was strange. So was everyone else! Every weirdo who ever put on skates was there with me, and any awkward silence was immediately filled with chatter about plate angles or the perfect trick to master a hockey stop.
As for my physical awkwardness, I had to change how I viewed my body. I’m not malcoordinated and unbalanced – I’m always working on my balance! I choose exercises that work on bursts of energy and agility. If it takes me a little longer to master some new footwork, if I’m a little faster to fall, I remember the things that I’ve learned faster than anyone else. My flexible hips made side-surfing easy for me from the start, making some transitions simple.
My hands are still an obstacle sometimes. The pain limits how much blocking I can do in a wall, and sometimes my right hand will hurt too much so I can only brace with my left hand. If the pain is especially bad, I can’t take a whip by grabbing someone’s shirt. Fortunately, my favorite position is as a floating offense, and I’ve learned to assert myself when I can’t fill a particular role.
I never would’ve attempted roller derby, a wheeled team sport so far outside of my comfort zone that I could only admire it from afar. I came into this sport out of desperation, but it’s the one gift I received along with my disability. It’s sustained me, and leaving my comfort zone – athletically and socially – trained me for the ways in which I need to challenge and reshape the world and myself in living as a disabled person.