Nina Tame shouldn’t need an introduction. A counsellor and disability mentor, she has built a huge following on Instagram with her educational content about disability, told in her unique, witty and fierce voice. A trained counsellor armed with personal experience, she is dedicated to helping others come to terms with their own disabilities and showing us exactly how we should all be talking about things differently.
What led you to train to be a councillor?
I trained as a counsellor ten years ago because I wanted to understand people better. I always knew I wanted to do a job where I could help people. But my work used to focus primarily on self-esteem issues and not disabilities even though I had a walking stick and a disability myself. I just didn't identify with being disabled and to be honest, didn't really have a clue about any disability stuff.
How did the Instagram account come about?
I already had an Instagram account. I've had it for years, just posting pictures of the kids and the cats and whatever else. Then one day, I did a post about not asking strangers why they use walking sticks or crutches. I was so nervous about posting it because the people in my life at the time had very much taken the stance of those people asking are only ‘being nice’. Their response was always, ‘it’s not a horrible question’ or ‘you’re making a fuss’, but I thought I'd go for it so I put the post up anyway and just had such a good response.
After this, I found the hashtag #babewithamobilityaid which kind of blew my mind because it was like, wow, all of these people look so cool and so hot, so surely, I can be that, too. Once I started talking about disability stuff, I didn't shut up and now I'm doing this.
Very quickly I realised actually how useful my personal experience and counselling training could be, that's when I thought I can put this to use and work with disabled people.
“Shedding shame around disability and mobility aids - having confidence in a disabled body”
What do you cover?
Whatever somebody is bringing to me really. I do get lots of people who are newly disabled and navigating coming to terms with it all. Learning to deal with all those different feelings that arise led me to realise that there was a huge gap in counselling as a profession. From the training to the actual therapy available, disability wasn't covered, as I got more into my work, I started looking around at other therapists and most of them didn't even list whether they were accessible or not.
Something I talk to a lot of my clients about is rational anxiety and rational depression. Because if you are a disabled person or a person of any minority group, you know how this kind of discrimination and everything a disability comes with, affects you. Reacting to this process is not irrational and as a disabled person, visible or not, it is a process. For example, it is not irrational to feel anxious before walking into a room of non-disabled people because chances are somebody is going to stare or say something.
I think maybe a non-disabled counsellor or a counsellor who's got no clue about ableism or disability wouldn't pick that up. And often, they will try to use CBT to find your way out of it. But really, I think it's a big learning gap in a lot of therapists' training. I soon realised I had a lot of clients coming to me who've had really negative experiences with therapists, who've completely invalidated them because they just haven't understood what it's like to live with a disability or to live with a chronic illness.
So yes, my focus is definitely on helping people adapt to living with a disability and learning how to address with friends, family, strangers and all the realities that come with that.
Perceptions of disability vary enormously. Do you think there's anything specific abled and disabled people could and should be doing to drive awareness?
I think perception of disability a lot of the time stems from what we are shown and what we're around. I think it needs to start within the media, it needs to start with stories that are being told. At the same time, I don't think it's enough just to plonk a disabled person in a story. We need disabled writers, we need disabled people behind the camera, behind the scenes and telling stories. Sadly, we are such a long way from that, the reality is there is very little representation at all.
Do you think the COVID-19 pandemic affected perceptions at all?
During the pandemic, I definitely found everything became so heightened. There were literally so many of us screaming to non-disabled people about how many disabled people were dying and the reality of how disabled people were being treated etc. but people just didn't take any notice. Since the pandemic, I've definitely noticed a decline in people wanting to learn as well. Whilst we were in and out of lockdowns and the threat seemed real to able bodied people as well as disabled people, everybody was keen to learn more about the different groups of people and what their reality was. Now it doesn't affect abled bodied people anymore, people have lost interest.
“The wheelchair makes you incredibly visible and invisible all at the same time"
How was your experience using crutches and walking sticks, what advice would you give to someone starting to use them?
The reaction I got when I was using my stick or crutches was very similar. A lot of the time people presume you've had an accident. So, I would say to anyone reading this, just be prepared for it. You will be asked what happened and some people don't mind talking about it. But a lot of the time we are caught off guard and answer on the spot because we think it is polite. But the thing is, you don't need to put your own comfort above a stranger's. If you have had an accident, it might be traumatic to talk about, and similarly, why should you be expected to talk about your medical history with people you don't know?
In my experience, when people did ask me what was wrong and I would tell them my medical history, they'd still go, oh yeah, and just leave anyway. And then I got to the point where I was brave enough to say, there's nothing wrong with me, I'm disabled. And that would always prompt, Oh, I'm sorry. And then I'd say, well actually no, you don't need to be sorry. I've got a great life.
But now, it’s just no. That’s my boundary. I don't answer medical questions from people I don't know. By saying I don't answer medical questions it kind of highlights how rude it is. I think sometimes when we just want to talk about that, it can come across as ugly or oh, you must be ashamed or embarrassed, you know, which I'm really not! When I want to talk about it, you can't shut me up.
As a mum of 4, do you think having children has changed your perspective at all?
When I had my son, who has got the same disability as me, at the same time, my own mobility started to decrease. I started to use walking aids again. I was using a walking stick and then I progressed to crutches. When he started school, everything changed, suddenly I took notice.
When he started infant school, he would come home and tell me people asked him about his disability, first of all, we were like, look, you can make up a story. You can tell them whatever you want. You know, just tell them whatever you want. But it still didn't occur to me to say to him, you don't have to answer. It took a few more times of him just coming home a bit fed up for me to say you don't have to answer these questions. And it was just this real moment of just kind of giving myself permission whilst I was giving him permission, that we don't owe anybody our medical details.
And it was a big journey for me because, you know, I shared quite a lot of his journey on Instagram when he was small. It was obviously being shared with a much smaller account back then, but there were still strangers on there. I would share physio appointments and medical appointments, and it just kind of took a while for everything to kind of click in my head. I'm telling him he doesn't have to answer questions, but I'm also writing about him on the Internet. So that was another kind of moment which was really useful for me to go. Actually, no, we don't do that now.
As my Instagram account has grown, it's made me consider how I share. My older two don't want to be on my account at all, which is fine for teenagers. But even with the youngest, I'm way more cautious now than I used to be.
“There’s no right body and wrong body...This is how mine works and there's nothing wrong with that.”
Is there anything you would tell your younger self, based on how you feel now?
Yes and no, I suppose, because from the age of 12 through to about 22, I was in and out of hospital, using crutches, a wheelchair and living it. But then my symptoms improved and suddenly, I was using no mobility aids so I think I'd love to be able to go back to teenage me who was dealing with it and explain to her that there's no shame in any of it. I had a horrible time at school and I would love to just go and give her a big hug and tell her that all her feelings are really valid and eventually she's going to meet this amazing community of disabled people that are just going to change everything. To say there's so much good tied up in all of it. It's not just this negative thing that's there, the constant oh, my life would be better if I didn't have that. That life actually contains amazing stuff as well.
What would you say to anyone coming to terms with a disability?
You need to really get an understanding of what ableism is. Throughout my whole life I thought I was the problem. I think when I found out what ableism was, when I found out about the social model of disability, those sorts of things were changing points for me because I was able to say, hang on, this is my body. There’s no right body and wrong body, it’s very much a spectrum of how bodies work and operate in the world. This is how mine works and there's nothing wrong with that. The reality is actually, society, the media, everything else is just telling me that there's something wrong with that. So, being able to examine that and also to find other people who share your experience.
I bang on about community all the time but because I didn’t have it growing up. I was just the only disabled person. And it's very easy, to internalise stuff and think it is you when you are on your own. But I think when you know, whether it's that you're following other disabled people on social media, whether you're talking to them, following the relevant hashtags, whatever it is to find people in a similar boat to you, there's nothing else more validating than that.
If you could change one thing for the disability community overnight, what would it be?
Definitely for everything to be accessible and to have equal rights. I'd love to be able to just click my fingers and improve everything, to still have the accessibility we experienced during lockdown which has now been taken away. And, you know, it's only so all disabled people can access education and have social lives and go to medical appointments with the same ease that normal people can.
Do you have a favourite place abroad or in the UK that you think has brilliant accessibility?
Nowhere! Please tell me if anybody has found somewhere – I want to go there. We went to France the other day. It was so lovely. And you know what? It was really inaccessible. But luckily, I went to the loo at the first kind opportunity and at the big places like Calais which were accessible. We went through an old medieval village, so that wasn't accessible, but that doesn't bother me. It becomes a fun challenge of working out how to get around because I don’t expect it as much.
It’s when I'm going to places like London – that is ridiculous. There are accessible places, I remember having this amazing experience at the Southbank Centre with accessibility, just best seats, best access, everything else. And I was like, oh my God, this is the dream. But then the next time I went there, I had the worst experience with access. So now, we just go places and hope for the best. Obviously, you check it out online, but I don't actually take any of that to mean anything because people just say, yeah, we're accessible because we've got a ramp. How steep is your ramp? Have you got gravel anywhere? Also, inevitably there's a ramp and then the loos are actually up three steps.
I've heard good things about Majorca, we were supposed to go there this year. Apparently, it's got loads of accessible beaches and it's apparently just quite flat and really good. But we've not been able to go. But yeah, in answer to your question, I do not know of any dream place in the UK.
You have got buckets of confidence and as a result inspire a lot of people. Any tips on how to get to where you are?
I would be lying if I said I was fully there because people can still catch me off guard. About a year ago a door fitter came to the house, he made a passing comment about my wheelchair and I was just so caught off guard. And then as I tried to explain he said, it was such a shame, so young. I kept trying to say, no, I'm great. I'm not even that young. He just kind of spoke over me and I didn't get a chance. When he left, I was so annoyed with myself for not saying something.
You know, I always say to people, don't give yourself a hard time if you haven't answered how you planned, don't beat yourself up about it because it isn't a position you should have been put in in the first place. And I think I'm confident online because it's very easy for me to be in my kitchen, very safe and working on my phone. But my confidence doesn't always extend out into the world.
I also think what helps me is remembering all of this when it comes to my son. I'm so fierce and I'm such a good advocate for him that I always just remind myself I'm doing it for little me as well. Because if somebody comes up and asks about him, I've never missed a beat. I would always just say no.
“At the end of the day, the only person's opinion that actually matters is your own. And if you tell yourself that your walking stick, your crutches or whatever else is really f*cking cool, then it's really cool.”
I started using a walking stick in 2012, I think it was, and I just had this generic walking stick I got from the garden centre that every single picture I would nearly kill myself falling over because I didn't want to have my stick in it. And I look back now I've got I've not got many pictures of me holding the walking stick and I've got this one and I think I look so cool with Nick, you know? Now I'm like, why didn't I make more of it when I had a stick? Why wasn't I buying ones in beautiful colours like ones you do? I don't have many regrets, but I just wished I'd embraced it sooner because, everybody's going to have opinions in the world about you, about what you look like, what you wear and everything else and it doesn’t matter. Everyone has different opinions and that’s fine.
Thank You Nina!
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