What Freedom Looks Like

What does Freedom look like to you?

That was the question that dropped into my inbox at the end of last year. It was in an email from a BBC team asking if I’d take part in Freedom 2014, a new season exploring what freedom looks like to different people from around the world. It launches today.

To me freedom means being able to make choices, and there are two things without which my life and my ability to choose would be severely restricted. These are my support workers and my wheelchair.

My support workers are key because being able to do things safely relies heavily on the help of other people. But I could have the best support worker in the world and still be restricted in what I could do if I didn’t have a wheelchair. We wouldn’t be able to pop to the corner shop, let alone go swimming, dancing, or head for the hills.

So for my image of freedom I chose a wheelchair:

When my leg tics first began to affect my mobility I tried to move about as I always had, but short journeys took much longer, I fell repeatedly and had to rely on the strength of my friends to stay upright. As a result I injured myself frequently, and became intimately acquainted with the ground and whatever was on it.

The decision to start using a wheelchair was a difficult one. When I look back at the pros and cons list I wrote at the time, many of the points on both sides related to other people. The two big worries I was balancing were how other people would respond if I started using a chair and what the risk was of injuring and exhausting my support workers. What I’d completely missed was the extent to which using a wheelchair would improve my quality of my life and sense of control.

It isn’t surprising I’d missed this because wheelchairs are frequently presented as a symbol of restriction and confinement, with terms such as ‘wheelchair bound’ still present in everyday language. But I understand now that wheelchairs are actually beautiful liberators.

While I recognise that it’s important not to reinforce the idea that disability = wheelchair, I decided to talk about my chair because it’s transformed what I’m able to do.

My wheelchair gives me freedom. It’s inaccessible environments – without ramps, lifts, or space to turn – that take that freedom away.

This way of understanding disability is called the social model and it’s had a real impact on how I view myself and think about my condition. It helps shape my expectations of other people and how I contextualise the impact of Tourettes on my life.

I’m very lucky to have the chance of to share my image of freedom with the rest of the world in this way. Everyone has a strong sense of what freedom looks like, and if you’d like to share yours, you can do so here.

Also, check out some of the other videos made as part of this season. I was blown away by astronaut Commander Chris Hadfield’s picture of Berlin taken from space. In the photo he took while orbiting the earth you can see a city lit by two different types of streetlight. It’s a visual reminder of a physical barrier – the Berlin Wall – that used to divide the city. As Chris explains, the image is poetic, “silently, mutely broadcasting to the universe a lingering echo of a freedom that has been regained.”

You can also see former hostage Norman Kember, the founder of Wikipedia Jimmy Wales, and anti-female genital mutilation campaigner Leyla Hussein sharing their images of freedom.

If you’re interested in finding out more about Tourettes and Touretteshero please explore this site. You can find the answers to lots of frequently asked questions here. Read my daily blog, enjoy thousands of vocal tics, marvel at the gallery of tic-inspired artwork, and create and share pictures of your own. Come and find me on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube and if you like what we’re doing please consider making a donation.

The opportunity to see what freedom looks like from other people’s perspectives is important because it has the potential to help us understand each other better.

Freedom is complex and can feel contradictory. I hope this international season of programmes will help promote a greater appreciation of what freedom means, and support those around the world who are campaigning for it.

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