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Seaneen Molloy

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Seaneen is the three-quarter sized Irish writer behind The Secret Life of a Manic Depressive blog. In her spare time she enjoys tea, hurling insults at the television and tutting at those who tut at others on public transport. She lives in London with two cats and eight million other people.

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Disabled or just weak?

14th September 2009

Living in the mind bogglingly expansive and prohibitively expensive city of London, and existing on scant benefits, means that I can’t afford transport. Luckily, I have a secret weapon. It’s tiny, it’s shiny, it’s sexy - it’s my Freedom Pass, which lets me travel throughout the city for the princely sum of absolutely nothing.
Freedom pass
Without it, I’d either have to walk everywhere, which isn’t practical, especially on antipsychotic medication that drains my energy and means I sometimes wander cheerfully into the path of cars, or stay at home. The Pass allocated by local councils to the over 60s and those with qualifying disabilities allows me to carry on living a mostly independent life.

One night at the pub, I was emptying my pockets looking for my keys when it fell out. It lives in a distinctive orange wallet and has the words 'FREEDOM PASS' emblazoned across it. An acquaintance picked it up for me and cocked an eyebrow. “How come you get one of these?” he asked. I cocked an eyebrow right back.

“Because I’m disabled”, I responded. With a barely concealed smirk, he replied, in the laborious tone of disbelief, “But you’re not disabled”. And, although my social worker, the Department of Work and Pensions and Islington council, beg to differ, a part of me agreed.

Disability is defined as, “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities”.
London skyline
Having a mental illness does "substantially limit” my life. There are times in which I barely function on any meaningful level. No one would look at me and guess that sometimes I need help bathing myself, or that there are times I can’t cook a meal. But I do, and there are.

And yet, even though I’m speaking to you from Britain’s best disability website (oh yes), I feel like a total fraud. I felt like a fraud when I was filling in my Disability Living allowance forms, I felt like a fraud when I was staring blankly ahead for the passport photo I needed to get my Freedom Pass and I felt like a fraud when I retorted to my friend. I just have a mental illness, and some people don’t even believe that mental illness exists. Though I live with one, even I question whether I’m ill or just weak. And when it comes to mental disabilities, many people may question whether mental illness counts as a disability at all. Why should I get a Freedom Pass? What do I know about genuine disability?

Many people associate the word 'disability' with physical disabilities and chronic mental impairment. They think of it as something that you can see or hear. If you have a disability that nobody can see, then, to the world at large, it doesn’t exist.

I don't have the niggles other disabled people have with the public. Nobody tuts at me on buses and trains for taking up too much space. Nobody talks down to me, asks me if they can help with that, or makes an assumption on what kind of person I might be just by looking at me. And I have no problems when it comes to accessing buildings. When I’ve been interviewed for jobs, the only way my prospective employers would know about my disability is if I told them. I have the choice not to.
Universal sign for disability
When I suffered through workplace bullying instigated by my having a mental illness - a rather terrible period of my life - I was informed by a friend that the Disability Discrimination Act could protect me. I shrugged and said that’s for people with real disabilities. I don’t face some of the challenges that people with physical disabilities do every single day, so do I really deserve the same rights?

I am, in some ways, fortunate to have a disability that nobody can see because then Joe Public is less inclined to define me by it.

Likewise, in some ways, I’m unlucky, because it means that, when it’s relevant, I have to explain, cajole and reveal more about myself than I’d really like to. It leaves one feeling insecure, defensive and, occasionally, fraudulent. There are times - and I don’t like myself for this - that I wish I could point at something and say, “There”.

As I grow older and acquire some tenuous wisdom, I understand that it’s less about having a right to refer to myself as disabled and more about what right I have as a human being living with an illness that causes me disability. This includes giving me the rights to a Freedom Pass. Although - and this was a secret - I did hide it in a zebra print wallet so it was less obvious I was using it. I have the right to be funky.

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