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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.


  • 1. At 5:02pm on 14 Sep 2009, mad_wife wrote:

    I also suffer from a mental health problem (sorry if my choice of words offended, I have long come to the conclusion that whatever PC term I choose to descrobe what I "have" will offend someone, maybe even myself) and as a result have a scotland wide disabled person's bus pass (and a disabled eprson's rail card for that matter) I often struggle with whether I should be allowed it and people seem to think I shouldn't. Bus drivers have a "look" that is particularly given if I run for the bus and then get on and use my pass but isn't saved only for those times.

    I particularly relate to what you said about feeling like a fraud when filling out my DLA forms, like someone was going to come round and tell me that I wasn't as bad as I liked to make out, who did I think I was.

    Like you say, having a hidden disability means you can choose to hide it, but actually sometimes I can't and on those occasions saying, I have depression (and that's the simplified answer) is always followed by "oh, what causes that?" you wouldn't ask someone who has epilepsy why they have it, you wouldn't ask someone who'd had a stroke why they had had one?

    Maybe it is all just part of the ongoing stigma associated with being "insane"

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  • 2. At 5:54pm on 14 Sep 2009, Mhadaidh wrote:

    I find some people are interested in the cause of your disability , whatever it is ; it can be a really obvious disability and some people are just nosy

    its not just entl health

    I think everyone gets 'couldn't you just ..... ' or
    'couldn't you just have ..... ' with the latter being something in past which they would need time travel to do

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  • 3. At 6:24pm on 14 Sep 2009, batsgirl wrote:

    I'm not going to say you're not disabled (as you say, the authorities agree you are) and I'm not going to say you shouldn't be using your free travel pass (since you have it, and are entitled to it, you'd be a fool to not use it).

    But I will say, that I think that the "free travel for elderly and disabled people" is very strangely weighted. There's something strange about the idea that I could travel all over the place for free... if only my impairment was such that I could cheerfully toddle to the bus stop. Since I can't, and my local authority doesn't see fit to provide an alternative service for disabled people like me, I'm on full-price taxis or nothing. So much for "free" transport for "all" disabled people. Same goes for those people who would be at risk of getting lost between bus-stop and destination, or who can't read/understand a timetable, or who would melt-down on a bus full of strangers.

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  • 4. At 1:33pm on 15 Sep 2009, Mhadaidh wrote:

    "same goes for people who would be at risk of getting lost between bus stops " - good point - batsgirl

    free travel can actually endanger some disabled people , as bus drivers etc just click through the pass and don't need to ask the person their destination,
    a person with learning disbilities could just ride through to the terminus , get on another bus , ride a distance etc and get very lost

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  • 5. At 3:13pm on 16 Sep 2009, Peggythepirate wrote:


    1. I have a Freedom Pass because I'm over 60. I don't really like being referred to as 'the elderly'.

    2. My orange plastic cover labeled 'Freedom Pass' fell apart. I keep the pass and the photo card in an ordinary yellow Oyster card wallet (advertising a furniture store) which are available free from Underground stations and shops which sell Oyster cards. I prefer the yellow wallet because it conceals what sort of card I have.

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  • 6. At 08:03am on 17 Sep 2009, oxycontin wrote:

    I've just read seaneen molloys"disabled or just weak"and I felt exactly like you when I got my "blue badge" for free parking. Reading your story brought a smile to my face because it felt as if it was me writing it. Having read it , I would like to thank you because from now on I'm not going to feel like a fraud when I hobble away from my car on my walking stick. Thanks for the lovely uplifting story. Best wishes from oxycontin, who is now a proud blue badge owner!

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  • 7. At 11:56am on 17 Sep 2009, Seaneen Molloy wrote:


    Thank you for all your comments. Peggy, you're right, my apologies for the use of the word "elderly".

    I do think the criteria for "qualifying" disabilities etc is quite strange and down to discretion sometimes. It's general but they're characteristically pernicky with individual cases...

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  • 8. At 1:24pm on 17 Sep 2009, FourthBronteSister wrote:

    I live in London, and we have a chain of cheapish Japanese shops called Muji. They seem to sell just about everything, including wallets for travel passes. They are very hard-wearing (I've had mine for over 2 years, and it's fine), and though they do not come in very exciting colours (just black, grey etc), they do mean that you don't have to flash your Freedom Pass wallet every time you use public transport. The Pass can be read by the scanners whilst still in the wallet, so you don't need to take it out.

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  • 9. At 9:29pm on 17 Sep 2009, isitorisntit wrote:

    A freedom pass is great i have mine for a mental illness and have put it in another wallet which is still orange but with a funky design. It is a mission to get it renewed every two years as the criteria becomes more difficult as time goes on and as the council pays for it i might have to jump through hoops come march. Also i understand that if i have a car i should not be entitled to a freedom pass. But due to the highs and lows and periods of psychosis with hospital admissions,over the years i have a car as well. I use the freedom pass to access services and london and the car for convenience i do not need a blue badge but a freedom pass is a breath of fresh air.

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  • 10. At 07:18am on 19 Sep 2009, helenapink1 wrote:

    I also have a Scotland wide diabled persons bus pass. And have often felt like a fraud for having it because I have a mental illness, which to your average person is unseen. I was actually once chanllenged by an older man on the bus because I was sitting on one of the front seats "for elderly or disabled people" I hardly ever sit on those seats and if I am sitting on one and see someone older or i feel more in need of one of those seats I'll get up and give them the seat. Anyway this man said to me "why are you sitting on that seat you're not disabled", so i took out my pass and said "yes I am", then he made a really horrible statement "you're not as disabled as me" and I turned and said to him, "its not a competition" he ranted away to himself and then I managed to get off at my stop. This really bothered me because, how did he know how much more or less disabled I am compared to him. I wasn't taking up a seat that someone else "more in need of it" could of had. I get paranoid on the bus alot now, thinking that other people are looking at me thinking the same thing that man did and I often sit with my badge in my hand, feeling as tho i have to prove myself.

    Anyway, great article Seaneen

    PS I'm an avid reader and fan of Seaneen Molloy's blog

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