Moving Beyond Assumptions
Last year, in a bid to improve my motor skills, balance and body awareness, I started horse riding with my lovely local RDA. Edging nervously in a side door, I was caught in a strange (but not infrequent) internal conflict of wondering if I was going to ‘be disabled enough’ to be here, but also whether they would be able to manage teaching someone who hadn’t been successful in any kind of sport, and could fall off a pavement and break their leg (on a semi-regular basis). I was stuck, concerned that sitting and chatting I probably didn’t look much different from anyone else, but put me on a horse and ask me to do something that needs a bit of co-ordinating, and the difficulties become all too apparent.
I soon realised I needn’t have worried. In fact, the beauty of the place is that they support people with a wide range of conditions, invisible and visible. Everyone is treated (and respected) as an individual, and the help and support they need, as well as what they need from riding, is tailored to them. Nobody assumes what you can do, but they also don’t assume what you can’t do. And therein lies the topic of this blog.
Most people with a hidden condition or disability, or a family member with one, are used to people assuming what we can do. Because there isn’t anything to visibly signal to others that we might be different, no allowances are made and we are assumed to be able to manage: the same things, in the same time frame, the same environment, as everyone else.
It is very inhibiting to have people assume you can do things which we aren’t able to, and much more common than the opposite.
But what about assuming what we can’t do?
During my adult life I’ve been in a wheelchair temporarily a few times due to accidents and injuries. On one occasion I went out for a coffee with my Mum. I ordered a latte for both of us, and the assistant turned to my Mum ‘does she want sugar?’ she asked, nodding her head towards me. I paid for our drinks and the assistant gave my change to my Mum. Neither of us could believe it. The assistant had completely assumed what I couldn’t do, from looking at me.
That doesn’t happen as often nor as visibly to me nowadays, but recently I’ve been thinking about how it’s actually not ideal to assume either way. And that in fact, assuming our limits can be internalised. Dyspraxic individuals are often very determined to find their own way around obstacles, but even so, a natural reaction to repeated adversity and failure is to avoid it.
Well I’ve assumed I would never compete in any kind of sport. In fact, I’ve never competed in any sport since I left school. The last time I remember competing in a sport was as an awkward 15 year old. Some older students in my school entered me in a 1500m race on sports day ‘as a joke’. Fortunately my best friend ran voluntarily with me, and despite being lapped several times, we made it to the end. But having repeated terrible experiences of sports and of sporting competitions is enough to put you off for life. You internalise the assumption that is not something you are ever going to do.
Which is what I’ve assumed…until now! During a riding session, the instructor asked me whether I had signed up for the local dressage competition. She didn’t assume it wasn’t for me. But I had. And by not assuming this, she had opened my mind to the possibility that I could in fact do it. She’d asked me without assuming my dyspraxia would make it impossible for me.
So here I am, several months later, practising my first dressage test. I’ve learned the sequence (a massive hurdle for me). I’ve learned the turns, the moves and where to start and stop. I’ve walked around the house chanting the sequence, I’ve practised riding it every week, I’ve got a new riding top and I’ve invited some people to cheer me on. It’s been a challenge but I’ve already achieved things I never thought would be possible. And it’s all because someone didn’t assume what I couldn’t do.
It’s on Saturday…I’ll let you know how it goes!
Dr Emma Tremaine trained as a medical doctor and psychiatrist before starting up a social enterprise specialising in comprehensively supporting adults and young people with Dyspraxia (The Dyspraxic Doctor). She also provides regular emotional and social skills therapy for children and young people who have a neurodevelopmental diagnosis (including Autism/Aspergers and ADHD). Dr Emma has Dyspraxia herself and is a passionate writer and speaker about neurodiversity, mental health and her own experience becoming a doctor with a hidden disability. She also enjoys horse riding, yoga, amateur sewing and making people laugh.