A sitting disability occurs when someone finds it difficult to sit or is unable to sit entirely. This is usually due to experiencing pain. You don’t have to have any other chronic issues or disabilities to experience a sitting disability, however, many people can experience both chronic illness and sitting disabilities simultaneously. The term ‘sitting disability’ is unfortunately not well known or recognized. I myself didn’t know this term until early this year, despite me having had trouble sitting for over 12 years. Issues with sitting are often an invisible disability, which can mean it’s easily overlooked by people who don’t experience it. Sitting disabilities can have many causes, mine is the result of pain in my lower back and hips caused by Fibromyalgia and muscle tightening in my back.
I do not consider my sitting disability to be on the severe end of the scale by any means, yet it impacts every second of my life. Whether I’m sitting on the couch, traveling on public transport, going to the movies, or sitting in class; I have to be mindful of how my body is positioned and how I can minimize my pain levels, otherwise my back could end up being in serious, constant pain for the rest of the day and I can end up very exhausted.
Mobility Issues Are Not Cancelled Out By Sitting Disabilities
Things become even more complicated when you have a sitting disability as well as issues standing and walking. It can be difficult having to explain to people why you have difficulty both sitting and standing for long periods of time, and how one isn’t the solution to the other. For example, I was discussing future career options with someone I knew. They knew I had mobility issues, so they suggested I become a truck driver. They said this was the solution to my problems because I would be sitting for hours on end and wouldn’t have to get up and move around often. As I explained that I couldn’t sit for long periods of time either, this person became more and more perplexed. Likewise, a job where I’m walking around a lot and barely sit wouldn’t work for me either. I’d have to find a way to balance the two and minimize my pain levels as much as possible.
Experiencing a Sitting Disability Throughout Childhood
When I attended primary school, we used to have to sit on a wooden floor in the gym for assemblies. This would cause me a lot of pain in my lower back and hips as well as numbness in my legs, so I started sitting with a cushion between me and the floor instead of directly on the hard floor between the ages of 9 and 12. This made sitting on the floor a bit more bearable but didn’t take away the discomfort. Sitting on a cushion when other students did not made me different, which as you can imagine left me open to teasing and bullying from my peers. Even once I entered high school and no longer had to worry about sitting on the floor as often, students who attended the same primary school as me would point at me and say things like “that’s the girl who sat on a cushion” with a malicious undertone.
Road trips were also (and still are) very difficult for me. Along with family holidays, there were also school trips and sports camps. While my family quickly learned how to make road trips easier for me (and therefore the family as a whole) by doing things such as taking breaks more often and letting me have the seat with the most room, school, and sports trips were a lot less flexible since there were other kids and adults to worry about. For these situations, I made sure to have a pillow/cushion on me for lower back support and my pain meds in an accessible place.
For people with severe sitting disability, public transport such as trains, busses, and planes can be practically inaccessible.
I travel two and a half hours each direction by public transport to attend university across the city. As you can imagine this is not ideal for someone with a sitting disability. In order to get through the trips with as little pain as possible, I try to sit on the right side of the bus or train so I can lean against the wall for support. Then if the seat next to me is free I tuck my right foot up under my left thigh on the seat, which can take up a bit of the seat next to me. This is the position that causes me the least amount of pain. I try to be as mindful of the people around me as possible, so if the train or bus is full I’ll sit normally, despite the near agony it causes me. Despite the fact that I need to sit in this position in order to be able to get through the day, I often receive dirty looks, and sometimes the train managers will tell me to get my foot down. Whenever this occurs, I comply with the train manager because it seems like that will take less effort than trying to explain my situation to them. However, whenever I do sit in a “normal” position for any length of time, I end up in a lot of pain and become shaky and tired. It doesn’t go away once I stand up, either. So, I can end up feeling like that for the rest of the day.
I’ve found the only time I haven’t received any ridicule for sitting with a leg on the seat is when I had an ankle injury and had a moon boot on. The moon boot acted as a visible symbol that I was having trouble sitting in a specific position, whereas without it people assume there is no issue, which couldn’t be further from the truth.
After traveling for two and a half hours, 90% of which is spent sitting, my back is often already stiff, sensitive, sore, or all three. Sitting in classes that are over an hour can be very difficult, especially if the chair is uncomfortable and has limited lower back support. This can also be an issue during exams. However, I’m very lucky to have the support of my university’s Disability Services, who do their best to provide me with supportive chairs in lectures and exams. These supportive chairs allow me to sit longer with less pain, however, do not take away the pain and exhaustion completely.
One of my favorite spaces at university is a room in the library which has bean bags. If I arrive at university early or am waiting between lectures, I enjoy sitting on bean bags because I can just sprawl there without having to support myself, which keeps the pain and exhaustion at bay.
Dealing with a sitting disability on its own is hard enough, however, it can become even more difficult when you have to deal with chronic illness on top of it. Sitting disabilities can make everyday activities become difficult and can make tasks that are supposed to be simple to become extremely tedious. While disability activism has and is making great strides in our society, there isn’t much awareness surrounding sitting disabilities, though I’m sure many people experience it in one form or another.
I’ve read a lot of horror stories about the way people with sitting disabilities have been treated in public and it hurts my heart. I’m lucky enough to not have experienced anything serious. Yet, I hope the spreading of awareness around sitting disabilities will prevent such conflicts happening in the future.
Amy Clements is a 20-year-old who has lived with chronic pain, the result of Fibromyalgia, since childhood. In her teens she was diagnosed with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome in her wrist, which was the result of a netball injury. Amy lives in New Zealand and studies Business part-time at University. She enjoys reading novels and writing. She especially enjoys writing about her experience with chronic illness.