We don’t think that there are enough books with disabled characters as the hero or heroine. So, we’ve decided to create some of our own. Disabled writer Hayleigh Barclay and disabled illustrator Philip Hoare have come together for Disability Horizons to create a series of drawings and short stories where a disabled person is the lead. The first, Happy Birth-day…
The beige walls, flickering neon lights and Aztec rug resting under five oversized pink armchairs did nothing to reassure the woman that impending doom wasn’t hiding around the corner. A man stood up from his chair and paced the room. Another woman drummed her fingers across her knees. Nobody spoke, let alone made eye contact.
The woman stared up at a poster of a white carnation with the word REIN written in giant gold letters above it. She wondered, what snot-nosed admin exec decided it would be a good idea to place that garish picture on the wall? People aren’t stupid, they knew this was the reincarnation department.
The door opened and a fresh-faced young man, all smiles and gelled hair, stepped into the room. He held out his arm and motioned for the group to follow him. As the woman walked towards him, he stopped her, pointing to a purple door on the opposite side of the room.
“Me?” the woman asked, surprised.
The young man nodded and smiled before turning to leave. The woman, looking towards the door, glanced behind her only to realise she was alone.
The purple door creaked open and a flash of blue light swept over her. As she moved to run away in the opposite direction, the woman found herself falling into a black abyss, and then landing in a heap in the middle of yet another oversized armchair – a yellow one with orange stripes.
“Good afternoon!” said a red-haired woman wearing a pinstripe black suit.
The woman grappled with the overstuffed cushions, adjusted her hair and skirt, before sitting back down to face the red-head in front of her.
“My name is Dr LuLu. Welcome to your pre-birth consultation.”
The woman fidgeted, played with her hair and made a non-committal grunt. This was her fifth attempt at the reincarnation program. After her fourth death, a man wearing white gloves had wiped her memory, again. She couldn’t remember the reason, but according to a woman who claimed to be Cleopatra, that was normal.
The doctor, keeping her eyes glued to the clipboard on her desk, shuffled through the pages and gasped in glee. “Yes, yes, yes. Here it all is. Your life plan, names of your prospective parents, appearance, gender, overall destiny… and expected date of death.”
The woman shuffled in the armchair and gave a nervous smile.
“But we will get to all of that later,” the doctor continued, waving a pen in the air. “You have been called in here to be assigned a very specific mission.”
The doctor leaned forward as if expecting a dramatic moment. She remained silent. The woman didn’t react. Epic failure on the doctor’s part. She sniffed as though disappointed and indignant, and collapsed back into her chair. “You are going to be born disabled. Or as a disabled person. Or a person with a disability. However you want to put it. The humans are very PC these days.”
“WHAT?” the woman screamed. She had heard rumours of these disabled people, but had assumed that they were myths designed to keep children away from fires and to keep pre-birth souls in check. “Why me?”
The doctor glared at the woman over her thick round glasses. “Why not you?”
The woman banged her fists on the desk and, with a furrowed brow, sobbed. “Am I being punished?” She asked. “Perhaps for something I did in a previous life? I’ve heard of that sort of thing!”
The doctor scrambled around her desk searching for a tissue. None. Why wasn’t she ever prepared for these unnecessary displays of emotion? As an alternative, she handed the woman a post-it note. Whilst the woman blew her nose into the tiny square of yellow paper, the doctor picked up a mobile phone, swivelled her chair to face the wall and made a call.
Despite the doctor attempting a surreptitious whisper, the woman heard every word. “Penelope. This one isn’t too bright. Are you sure we have the right person? She’s coming out with words like ‘punished’… I haven’t a clue… Is someone down in the Religion Department throwing around that rumour?”
Feeling embarrassed, the woman sank back into the armchair. After a couple of minutes, the doctor spun back around, slid her glasses up her nose, and launched a blank stare at the woman.
“I do apologise,” the doctor lied, placing the phone in a drawer. “Now, where were we?”
“You were telling me about my… disability.”
“Do I get to choose which one?”
“No,” the doctor replied.
“So, not only do I have no say about being born with a disability, I also don’t get to decide which one?” the woman yelled.
The doctor sighed, “I think you’re being very difficult about this. You haven’t even asked anything else about your future life! Don’t you want to know who your parents will be? Or what you will accomplish?”
The woman leapt to her feet; “I’m a little distracted right now!”
“You are choosing to let your disability define you,” exclaimed the doctor.
“As will other people,” the woman said, gritting her teeth.
“Some people, yes. They’re assholes,” laughed the doctor. “They’ll ask you really personal questions – you know, about your sex life, how it happened to you, can they pray for you – inappropriate enquiries, if I’m honest. Did you get our pamphlet, The Soup Can Culture? It’s about society and their obsession with labels?”
“Oh! I’m sorry. We’re switching to digital at the moment, so our system is a mess at present,” said the doctor, “You did get a cupcake in the waiting room though?”
The woman ignored the doctor. “I remember what humans are like.” Her face fell. She felt frightened and alone.
“Not everyone is like that of course. Some people have brains and see past all the labelling crap. Oooh, she has a disability! Oooh, she is a lesbian. Oooh, she has green hair. It’s all just…” the doctor continued, raising her middle finger.
The woman collapsed onto the armchair, trying to take everything in. Her head was full of questions.
“Is there a manual?” she asked.
“No,” the doctor replied.
Of course there wasn’t.
“Why do you get to choose that I will have a disability?” the woman pouted.
The doctor held up her clipboard, pointed towards the paperwork and shrugged her shoulders.
The woman kept her eyes fixed on the floor. “Can you at least make it one of the better disabilities?” she asked.
The doctor frowned in astonishment, “Better ones? No disability is better or worse than another! They are different, that is all. And that is not for you – or anyone else – to judge!”
The woman paused for a moment before sighing. “You mentioned it being a mission.”
The doctor pursed her lips and fidgeted with her fingernails. “I may have been trying to oversell it. Create dramatic tension.”
The woman took a deep breath and attempted to remain calm.
“It’s more of a free will thing. Although fate does play its part,” the doctor said. “Kind of. It’s a bit complicated.”
The woman lifted her head to look at the doctor. She wondered if she was strong enough for this incarnation, whether she could handle whatever life threw at her and what she would do if she failed. Before she had the chance to speak, a knock came at the door.
The doctor smiled and stood up from her desk. She motioned for the woman to follow her towards the door. The door handle turned and in stepped the young man from before.
“I’m here to collect case number one nine-nine five,” he said, without acknowledging the woman.
“She’s ready,” the doctor replied, patting the woman on the shoulder.
“Wait! What about my parents? Who will they be? Am I adopted? What will I look like? How will I die?” the woman rambled.
“You had your chance to ask,” the Doctor replied whilst ushering the woman to leave.
The woman stood up and spun around to face the doctor, “What if – “
“Deal with it!” the doctor interrupted. “Oh, and Happy Birth-day” she said, shoving the woman out the door.
Story by Hayleigh Barclay and illustration by Philip Hoare
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