What's wrong with you, then?

Mirror image of the photograph from the previous page of Ju looking directly at the viewer, her face partly obscured by a camera that she is holding out towards the viewerI probably need to begin by stressing that this title is ironic and is intended to reflect the frequency with which disabled people are asked this irritating and intrusive question. For the record, being disabled is not something which is "wrong" with me, any more than people who are not disabled are "right"; everybody's life is impeded in different ways and to varying extents. As an artist, I do not object to making personal disclosures, in a time and by a means of my choosing. But being disabled does not give other people the "right" to ask me personal questions - let alone to expect answers - even if they do phrase it more delicately than the above. However, try "what are your access needs?" and I'll be more than happy to answer; you can't help to enable me to do things differently if you don't know.

Over time I have come to realise that to some extent I have always been disabled. My school and student friends remember me as the one who was often off sick, catching everything going and taking longer to recover than the rest of them, as well as having obscure joint pains and regular headaches and non-specific illnesses. They also remember me as the one who was unable to keep up with the rest however hard I tried; who was easily exhausted; and who always had to end the night first. In my first job my colleagues decided I had AIDS, and by the time I was 26 I had moving to working as a freelance to make it easier to manage my energy).

Probably the underlying cause of the impairments discussed here is genetic, although I have always considered myself to have come off rather well in the genetic draw. In any case, apart from being extremely short-sighted - probably from birth, although it wasn't detected until I was about six - I did not regard myself as being anything other than 'normal' until my late 20s. This website therefore records my experiences as I gradually took on a disabled identity in the 1990s. (The bulk of the site was produced in the first half of 1997, when among other things I was teaching web design at Falmouth College of Art.)

As befits a bad girl, I have a "bad" back. This started in May 1990 when, at the age of 28, I was travelling by train to Liverpool to carry out research for the ITV series Breadline Britain in the 1990s. Without warning I began to suffer from severe pain and limited mobility around the upper half of my body and down my right side, and this subsequently became chronic. As a result I eventually became registered as being moderately disabled with social services and was given a Blue Badge (disabled driver ID) and Disability Living Allowance - I became a state-certified crip.

The underlying cause of my spinal impairment is Scheuermann's Disease, a condition which developed in adolescence and left the affected vertebrae between my shoulder blades "deformed" and vulnerable to early degeneration. This means that I have a mild kypho-scoliosis: the curve of my spine is exaggerated, leaving me with round shoulders and a prominent stomach; my spine is also twisted slightly to one side; and the affected area is stiff and inflexible. President Kennedy suffered from a similar impairment. So did Kurt Cobain.

(However, although the vertebral plates of eight of my thoracic vertebrae are covered with lesions at the site where my pain originates, some doctors have ruled it is more likely that the cause of my impairment lies elsewhere: that I am weak-willed, lazy, mad, attention-seeking and denying my biological destiny as a wife, cook and mother. Thus their supremacy remains unquestioned: it is not that I cannot get "better" because this is beyond their power to achieve; it is rather that the solution lies with me, and I am refusing to co-operate. Fortunately, I have also found better doctors.)

When the condition first developed, the associated pain eventually led me to give up my dance training. However, the cause of my back problems was not explained to me as a teenager, and as a result I did not take any precautions to protect my spine in adult life. I had already suffered from other spontaneous fractures which I had attributed to my not being able to digest dairy products. This had meant that I was deficient in calcium, when growing up as this was not diagnosed until my early 20s. With hindsight, it appears that in May 1990 I suffered from a fractured vertebra, but as this was not diagnosed and treated correctly, permanent muscle spasms developed around my upper back. This led in turn to chronic and widespread tendinosis, a benign neuro-muscular illness which taken in addition to my spinal curvature, my poor sight and the fractures, suggests that I have a mild genetic collagen disorder.)

I have written about my difficulties in obtaining a diagnosis and treatment within My Experiences as a Disabled Researcher, which is included with my PhD hyperthesis, and updated this in 2004. However, I was eventually prescribed 1000mg a day of a non-steroid anti-inflammatory, Naproxen, which I have found extremely helpful, together with 100mg daily of the analgesic Tramadol Hydrochloride and occasional Paracetomol.

Shortly after becoming disabled I threw out most of my shoes, changed my diet, gave up smoking tobacco - I've since lapsed and then given up again - began regular osteopathic, homeopathic and acupuncture treatment, took up Tai Chi and started a regular exercise regime. I have also had sporadic physiotherapy. But none of these measures have led to any significant lessening of my pain and impairment; it simply makes it more tolerable and extends my abilities.

(If you are about to email me to suggest Alexander Technique, aromatherapy, chiropractice, faith healing or anything else, bear in mind that I can't afford any more time or money, and I resent suggestions which are meant as "if only you tried this you'd be fine" or which otherwise underestimate the reality of my impairment. On the other hand, if you've found something useful, I'd like to hear about your experiences . . .)

I therefore continue to suffer from joint problems, permanent muscle spasms and chronic discomfort/pain which vary in intensity a great deal: sometimes from hour to hour; sometimes from day to day; sometimes from week to week; and sometimes from month to month. This can make me very tired, and at worst, for physiological reasons, it can make me feel very unwell. It can also make me short-tempered, impatient, irritable, lost in thought or work. At one extreme, it leaves me bedridden and housebound; at the other, before I also became ill in 2000, on occasions I was able to trapeze-crew a racing dinghy.

Lots of things can aggravate or bring on my pain: lifting; carrying; sitting on most kinds of chair; sitting anywhere for very long without moving; holding the phone; walking on concrete; being bumped into in the street; twisting to get through crowds and the aisles of shops; standing in tubes; travelling in buses; driving over speed humps . . . and being touched. So although my identity as a disabled woman has been formed in response to society's attitudes rather than to my impairment, it  is quite limiting and restricting in a lot of ways.


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Dr Ju Gosling aka ju90's ABNORMAL: How Britain became body dysphoric and the key to a cure is available now for just 3.09 for the Kindle or in a limited-edition hardback with full-colour art plates for 20 inc UK postage and packing. Book cover