Heritage may be best described as valued objects, such as unspoiled countryside, and old buildings, as well as qualities such as cultural traditions that have been passed down from previous generations. My family, at least on my paternal side, is of Irish descent, with generations of my family going back to the 1800s having relocated here from Ireland. From a very young age, all I heard from anyone around me was their desire to travel back to Ireland to visit the place they originated from, which many of my family did. My grandmother, who I never got the chance to know, loved to play the accordion which many hoped would be something that I embraced and loved as much as she did because they thought I was just like her. Plus, as a wheelchair user, they knew that it was an instrument I would be able to play. After my grandmother died in a car crash, my grandfather remarried and my step-grandmother loved to step dance. I would watch in complete awe at how fast her feet moved to any number of two-step dances or jigs, which are common ways of dancing locally. My entire childhood was filled with outdoor festivals and kitchen parties accompanied by drinking and storytelling. I enjoyed watching the dancing and hearing the stories, but it always came with the feeling of being out of place, especially with the dancing, as a wheelchair user. With the drinking and kitchen parties, there was an issue of safety and inaccessibility that made things extremely uncomfortable because I would need to be physically lifted into a house where I would end up being placed in a random corner and be stuck for the rest of the party. For better or worse, we have very strong Irish traditions.

One particular image from a family album that I will have forever burned in my mind is of my grandfather when he visited Ireland and kissed the Blarney Stone. I’m not sure I understand the concept completely, but to visit there seems like a rite of passage as it is a location that is highly regarded and somewhat sacred that people go to kiss the stone. In the picture my grandfather is laying with his back to the ground, the upper half of his body leaned into a hole where he then leans up over a rock wall to kiss the stone. Disability aside, that seems like an awful lot of work and a very awkward position to get into just to kiss a rock! Nonetheless, it is something that I clearly wouldn’t be able to accomplish which makes me feel a little less Irish because of my inability to do so.

Growing up I was a member of the local girl guide troop. During one of the meetings, as part of some badge work, we invited a teacher who taught our group about the traditional dances from our province and how to actually do a few of them. It is really challenging to include someone in a wheelchair in a dance that involves a lot of movement within a space when that space is very small, and there are many twists, turns, and fancy footwork. In such situations, I preferred to sit on the sidelines watching, but there never seemed to be a polite way to say it. Being involved, while people awkwardly tried to include me, was extremely uncomfortable.

Those with disabilities are part of the largest minority and marginalized group in society. We are typically born to parents and exist within families where there are no other disabled people or disabled people with the same type of disability. Genetically and generationally, by all accounts, I am of Irish descent, but with traditions that are highly valued being inaccessible, plus the reality that I am one of two members in my family with a disability holding Irish as a part of my identity is not something I feel deeply rooted in, or connected to. Something less acknowledged and often undermined, not being seen as something that is real, is that a disability community exists. Many of us feel the same way toward it as we might toward our generational and genetic heritage. A few of us, like myself, might feel more deeply connected to the disability community and culture than we do our genetic and generational heritage. I think it’s a difficult concept for people to grasp because they often view disability through the medical model which sees it as a condition. The only parts of the community that they get to see are connected to rights and justice, which they don’t consider part of their history, identity, or heritage. This creates questions of legitimacy resulting in not seeing the value and importance, or realness of it. Unfortunately, this results in a lot of attacks based on fear and not understanding, which comes with a whole other set of challenges for the community.

For myself, even though the disability community is advocacy based, mainly existing because of the importance of fighting for the rights and justice of disabled people, it is a far more comfortable community to belong to as within it we aren’t the only ones. It’s a place where we are valued and accepted. As much as I might enjoy many things that belong to my Irish heritage it is more challenging for me and awkward to be part of and identify with. The disability community is equally as rich in culture and history as any other community. I once heard it said by a fellow member of the community, Stacy Park, that our ancestors are the members of the community that came before us. As disabled people, many of us honor and value it, even though it means looking into the past and seeing the horrible things that have happened to people that came before us. Looking at it that way does it really seem any different than any other group of people with any heritage?

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