Pauline Wiltshire: Disability – Writing Lives

Pauline Wiltshire: Disability

“Although I am disabled, I have a lot of sense and understanding. I can lead a normal life. I can do anything.” (29)

Disability has evolved as a subject of conversation only over the past century, and it has only been recognised recently as a underrepresented group (White, 2012: 110), so Pauline’s discussion is extremely important not just for her, but for memoirs about dissability as a collective group, due to lack of knowledge and acceptance throughout history. Like Pauline, many “disabled women continuously exercise their agency in resisting and transgressing oppressive boundaries” (Thomas, 1999: 4) by writing memoirs about their experiences. As I’ve touched upon in previous blog posts, writing these memoirs saved Pauline’s life, due to her bad mental health and feelings about her disability. But, after writing these memoirs, they gave her a sense of purpose and validation.

From a very young age, Pauline knew that she was different. When she started getting older, her cousin Charlotte (who was also her carer) noticed she wasn’t physically progressing well as a baby. She was taken to the doctors and they discovered, after initially calling her “lazy” (9) they discovered she was partially paralysed since birth. She had difficulty walking and talking up until this point, resulting in her spending a lot of time in hospital. Pauline explains that “when I was about ten years old I had a fit or two” and after a fall from one of the fits, she was “unconscious for six months” (10). It is unclear as to what Pauline was diagnosed with, as she does not specifically say. However, she explains that “there are some things about my life I still don’t know what really happened because no-one has told me” (10) A lot of Pauline’s disability has been kept in the dark, possibly to protect her. I can’t imagine how confusing or frustrating that must be for her.

Pauline beating the odds and leading a normal life.

When Pauline arrived in England, it was suggested to her to visit ‘The Centre’, a training centre facilitating workshops in order to improve peoples life skills and knowledge. However Pauline soon realised the Centre was “set up for the mentally handicapped… ‘trainees’ were treated as though they were all of low mental standard. I felt out of place. I am lame and have a speech defect but despite this I have lived normally both at home and socially” (45). Pauline insists that despite her ability she is more than capable of leading a normal life, so this programme didn’t do her much good. Instead, it made her feel “like a backward child” (46) and so she left. After this, she attended adult literacy classes and started working in a healthy foods shop, which made her feel welcome. Her overall experience in regards to learning and living with her disability got easier and easier the older she grew, she stated that she is “very grateful for the help I received in this country regarding my disability.” (11)

Pauline openly discusses her disabilities within her memoirs and speaks upon the issues regarding disabled persons’ treatment in society. “people think disabled people can’t have children. They think they are disabled through and through… they don’t understand that we can love and look after a child just as well as normal people can, and in many cases, much better” (50). However she feels moving to England encouraged her further in not letting her disabilities get in her way. She received a great deal of help from her doctor, Dr. Healey, who encouraged her and aided her in every way possible. She explained that “he was more than a doctor to me, he was more like a father.” (56)

Pauline’s physical disabilities improved impeccably and her journey to learning to live with her disabilities and utilise them to the best of her advantage is precisely why she began these memoirs. She wants to show the world that disabilities do not get in the way or normal life. Memoirs written by people with disabilities are so important, not just for their own mental well-being, as Pauline has shown, but also, it is an important mode of memoir writing for other people who live with disabilities. By writing memoirs that discuss and tackle prejudice and discrimination regarding disabilities. As Sara White explains, “Understanding disability as a form of oppression empowers people with disabilities to confront ableism, or discrimination based on functional limitations because restrictions are seen as denial of rights rather than merely the result of their physical, sensory, or cognitive impairment” (White, 2012:115). Pauline has been able to do this in her memoirs, in fact, this was the precise reason why she wrote them in the first place.

Pauline at work.

Pauline ends her memoirs with a very powerful message that encapsulates her reasoning and acceptance of her disabilities:”On my passport I came here with it said ‘retarded’. it makes me have to joke about it. How can a retarded person live on their own and write a book about their life? My new passport says ‘disabled’. Saying disabled don’t bother me because there are many, many people who are disabled. That don’t make me a fool. I wish people would see that” (69). This acceptance of her being referred to as disabled can be linked to the idea Carol Thomas explains: “ownership and understanding of a derogatory term, similarly with terms such as ‘queer’ or ‘black’… the same has occurred with the term disabled” Thomas, 1999:13). After years of oppression Pauline has felt in regards with her disabilities, both physically and socially, she has been able to comes to terms with it and use it as an expression of her uniqueness and individuality, however she is not defined by it.


Image 1:
Wiltshire, P. (1985). ‘Living and Winning’. Centerprise publisher: Hackney.

Image 2:
Wiltshire, P. (1985). ‘Living and Winning’. Centerprise publisher: Hackney.

Thomas, C. (1999). Philadelphia: Open University Press. Accessed: 24/4/2020.

White, S. (2012). 2012, Vol. 75, No. 1, pp. 109-124. Accessed: 24/4/2020.

Wiltshire, P. (1985). ‘Living and Winning’. Centerprise publisher: Hackney.

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