My Left Hand Woman
As a child, I longed for a disabled friend. I could not articulate why but I knew that I wanted one. I saw only glimpses of kids who were like me. Mostly, in the waiting areas and corridors of orthotics appointments. When I was about twelve, I had a disabled drum teacher: I bonded with him over much more than purely playing the drums. When I was about thirteen, I saw Francesca Martinez perform live. I can still feel the excited buzz I got from watching her as if it was yesterday. Overall, however, my interactions with disabled people were fleeting.
I first saw Susannah at the back of our English class. She was head-to-toe in black. There were slashes in her skinny jeans. Half her head was shaven and the other side of her face was shielded by her blonde hair. She looked utterly miserable. A picture of teenage melancholia. I also noticed that she had no fingers on her right hand. During class, Susannah didn’t contribute much, but when she did, it was evident there was a sharp brain present amongst the miserableness. I thought: she’s cool, I want to get to know her.
I did not know it straightaway but Susannah was the friend I had longed for.
And the reason for this, the thing that I could not quite articulate as a child but can articulate now, is understanding.
I wanted someone to get it.
In my life, lots of people have tried to get it, some more successfully than others. All nondisabled people are limited in how much they can understand by the fact that they are not disabled.
But with Susannah, I have never even had to explain.
Susannah just gets it. And what Susannah gets are feelings.
Susannah does not have fingers on her right hand. I have fingers on my left hand but because of my cerebral palsy, they are mindless, uncooperative, limited. We both have one fully functioning hand, and it just so happens, that we have opposite fully functioning hands. Which makes her my left-hand woman. And me her right-hand woman. We’ve opened a packet of crisps together: my right, her left.
But, funnily enough, we don’t sit around talking about what it would like to have two fully functioning hands. I’m not sure we have ever even had that conversation.
What we have spoken about is being frustrated when a nondisabled person intervenes to “help” and you don’t want them to. We have both been stared at. We have had our abilities overlooked, belittled, and decided for us by nondisabled people. When we were little, we both misunderstood and thought that “one day” we wouldn’t be disabled any more. I thought that if I very religiously wore my splints, when I finished growing – “one day” – I’d take them off and just not be disabled anymore. Susannah thought she was getting four full fingers and a thumb from an operation. We have laughed over the sweetness, the misguidedness of our hopeful, confused younger selves. Both of us have felt conflicted about our identification with the word “disability” because we are able to navigate nondisabled spaces without too many adjustments. If Susannah is discriminated against because of her disability, I will know her rage, and vice versa. I’ll likely be able to go to my memory bank and have a similar experience. Because that’s what the experience of disability is in an ableist world. It is a life of facing barriers that have little to do with your physical body, and everything to do with the world’s inability, fear, and miscomprehension when it comes to responding to your body.
We also have light-hearted moments of relatability. Like when Susannah’s laces came undone, and she said, ‘I’d ask you for help but you’d be just as useless as me,’ and we waited for her nondisabled sister to appear. Or, when we tried to do a necklace up together but my left hand kept getting in the way. We have revelled in nondisabled people becoming flustered and uncomfortable when we talk about disability.
There are, of course, differences in our experiences of disability. You only have to look at Susannah to see she doesn’t have fingers on her right hand. Whereas, people expect my left hand to be able to do things that it simply cannot do. Because I can “pass” as able-bodied, people don’t expect my balance and coordination to be as off as they are. This means that Susannah has experienced overt ableism in a way that I have not. Though it is not a competition. I think we learn from our differences as much as we do our similarities.
It is, obviously, an over-simplification to boil down our friendship to bonding over having a disability. We both studied the same A levels and then went on to study the same degree. We’re both half British, half Australian. We both dress in nearly all black, always. And we most definitely drank from the same bottle of angst, dread, and sadness as teenagers. By the time we met, we’d both developed a hardened cynicism. Naturally, we’re different in many ways too. Someone once said that we seemed like an unlikely match because I’m girly and Susannah is not. Susannah knows not to bother telling me about the football, or any other sport for that matter. I know she doesn’t want to brood over clothes shopping with me.
About a year ago, we started lapping up everything we could on disability. Susannah sent me Sitting Pretty: The View from My Ordinary Resilient Disabled Body by Rebekah Taussig, I sent her My Left Foot by Christy Brown. We both had brain orgasms as we related to things that we were reading, as we discovered words for things that we had always felt inside but did not know had been labelled and discussed.
The strange and wonderful thing about Disability Studies is that often, as a disabled person, you can feel it in your bones long before you read a word of it. As a child, you get cross when someone tries to turn you into inspiration porn, even if you have never heard the term. As a child, you feel annoyed by doctors only ever seeming to care about how to “fix” what is “wrong” with your physical body, and not how you feel inside. As a child, you feel frustrated when there is something you can’t do in class, and nothing is done to make it more accessible for you.
Susannah and I had been friends – the best of friends – for the better part of five years before we started discussing disability in any deep, structured sense. Before that, our conversations surrounding disability mainly came in quips, jokes, anecdotes, and side-eyes at nondisabled people. And while talking and reading about disability has, in many ways, been life-changing, it does not take away from the significance of what we had before. When it was just us and our shared understanding. And that was truly life-changing. And very, very necessary.
I read this back and it feels inadequate – but I know that it will always be inadequate. I will never be able to encapsulate what Susannah means to me. I met Susannah when I was sixteen. I had struggled through my teenage years, and had not felt understood by anyone. It is a precious thing to be understood by someone, for someone to “get” you. I’ll never know how my life would have played out if I had not met her when I did, and quite frankly, I don’t want to imagine it. The oneness, the sameness, the connection, I felt and feel with her is really without parallel. My blog focalises on disability, and this, in many ways, is a narrative about the importance of friendship between two disabled people. It is also a narrative about female friendship, and the sacred security of that. And it is a narrative about just friendship. About my other half. A left hand for my right.
 Sitting Pretty is a memoir-in-essay by Rebekah Taussig, a writer and researcher based in Kansas. Rebekah became paralyzed after cancer treatment as a child. Christy Brown was an Irish author and painter. My Left is his autobiography of growing up in working-class Ireland in the 20thcentury.