Illustrated: 4 Part Guide to What Disability Is

Number 1 — A see-saw

Nikki Waterson
9 min readOct 22, 2021
© Nikki Waterson 2021

Here’s how this is going to go. I’m going to explain some things about the way I wrote this article, the images I drew, and I’m going to piece it all together as we go along. It’s going to be a weird experience for all of us. I would apologise, but I like weird.

Why is this article going to be weird?

Okay… If you don’t already think this story is weird, then this explanation will help.

This article was going to go differently in my head. I wasn’t going to tell you what disability ‘is’. Instead, I was going to start like this:

I’ve been experiencing the classic see-saw lately; the disability see-saw that is commonly experienced one way or another by people who have any kind of disability.

Whether it’s a see-saw of medication, pain, mood, finances, relationships, or some other factor. We can all relate over that up and down feeling, sometimes bearable, sometimes soul-destroying.

And before I even wrote that paragraph, I had this thought because I’ve never been one to do things in the right order or at a normal pace.

I’m an artist, I could illustrate some quick companion images.

Sweet, let’s do this.

So I drew a See-Saw. Simple and crude, just like my sense of humour.

© Nikki Waterson 2021

And then Disability, the see-saw talked.

© Nikki Waterson 2021

Disability the see-saw has a cute, sweet voice. Imagine Ralph Wiggum from The Simpsons. In this story, Disability, the see-saw identifies as male.

Here’s what we all know about Disability:

Most people know that Disability the see-saw is irritating, frustrating, or exhausting. Sure, you might not always realise how bad it is when you look at Disability.

But even people who are abled can see that being stuck with Disability (the see-saw with no choice to get off) would suck.

And as I sat there, looking at Disability personified, stark white MS Paint screen surrounding him like my empty future, I realised something.

I had been about to write about how everyone already knows that having a disability is like sitting on a see-saw.

So I stopped. Why would I write about that when everyone knows it? Even people without disabilities can understand that analogy of Disability and probably don’t need to be told it.

What was I to do?

As I looked at the scene still in front of me, one lone see-saw with two beady black eyes and a sea of white, the tiny part of my brain where analogies live began to unfurl. Honestly, it evolved from a Charmander to a Charizard. For those of you who don’t know, that’s skipping a link in the chain of Pokemon evolution.

Yes, those were three analogies in three sentences. I told you, the analogy cortex unfurled!


I started to think about how having a Disability is so challenging to comprehend for able people.

And then I thought about what the reality of Disability feels like and how it’s not that the classic expressions are wrong. No, I still believe that the analogies are very fitting — being on a see-saw, on a rollercoaster, being a science experiment or in a hole.

But I realised that I could tell each of these analogies in a new way to bring a better understanding of what having a disability feels like.

So here goes, the reality of having a disability — illustrated.

The 4 Part Illustrated Guide to What Disability Is

Disability, the see-saw

© Nikki Waterson 2021

This is Disability, the see-saw. At least, this is how I see him. He is there to destroy me. I’m fighting him constantly, and if I don’t win, I’ll lose everything. Thanks to him, I’ve already lost things — my career, friends, savings, and the future I had planned.

How? He looks pretty harmless, right? He just goes up and down!

Right, because most people don’t tell you what Disability the see-saw does. He uses his insidious, underhanded and sneaky tricks to destroy your world.

And in my life, it’s no exception that I don’t share the depths of Disability the see-saw’s impact on my life. As a 10-year cop, it was drilled into me not to put information about myself out into the public. I’m only just starting to do it for the first time now.

And a big part of that is trying to express the destructive and heavyweight power that the see-saw has over me.

A bird on the low end of a see-saw looks at a worm in the grass, while a stick figure lies underneath the high end of the see-saw.
© Nikki Waterson 2021

That’s a worm there on the left. The bird is eyeing it off. I’m the masterfully drawn stick figure. We all know how this scene ends, but some of us have lived it.

It’s very different from sitting on a see-saw. But it’s still my see-saw. Even if it isn’t what you thought of when I first introduced you to Disability, the see-saw.

He’s a constant threat sitting there, reminding us. Even when we’re as healthy as we can possibly be — The see-saw will drop on us again. It’s not just about the ups and downs; it’s about the drop and knowing there is always the next one.

Disability the Rollercoaster

This isn’t about Disability, the rollercoaster that takes you for a ride, spins you out, makes you feel sick and then doesn’t let you get off because of the bar across your body.

This is about the other Disability, the rollercoaster. The one you may have never thought of if you don’t have a disability. This one follows us every day.

When you queue up for a rollercoaster, there is a logical rule. Anyone above a certain height is safe to ride.

© Nikki Waterson 2021

Possibly the greatest cognitive dissonance I’ve ever had in life has been working to comprehend how I feel. At times, I feel cognitively capable and able, but people, processes, and systems see me as unfit.

That’s Disability, the rollercoaster. Sure, the other one exists too. Everyone has been on some kind of rollercoaster in their life; Relationship breakdowns, having children, acute mental health issues, and the list goes on.

This version, above in the picture, is unique to when you have a disability. That’s the real rollercoaster that many able people don’t realise exists. It’s heartbreaking, and it shakes your self-image and self-worth to your core.

As I mentioned, I lost my career thanks to my Disability. I can’t be a police officer anymore. I worked for seven years to win a detective spot. Then I won it. Then I got sick.

Here I am, three years later, requiring a carer and unable to even cook for myself. It’s taken three years to begin to accept my new ‘future’. And no doubt most others who have a disability have had some similar experience. Disability, the rollercoaster, takes time to come to terms with, but it is agonising along the way.

Disability, the science experiment

I absolutely feel like a science experiment sometimes. I am luckier on the scale of Disability in terms of not requiring hospital visits or procedures. My science experiments involve these sorts of things:

  • Recording medication doses or trialing a new combination.
  • Working hard to get the right cocktail of lifestyle factors right.
  • Doctors tell me they just don’t know the way to go because they aren’t familiar with my rare condition.
  • Being passed from specialist to specialist.
  • Doing this all while experiencing extreme fatigue and zero motivation.

And I’m sure that comes as no surprise to you or anyone else reading this. It is probably in line with your idea of how someone with a disability may feel like a science experiment, right? So I drew the other kind of science experiment.

The one where you lose your personhood, and you forget how to have normal social interactions.

© Nikki Waterson 2021

I actually had four phone calls today, and in everyone, they asked the standard “How are you doing?” That was just the phone calls.

What’s wrong with that? Right? That’s very normal.

I know, but here’s what isn’t normal.

1. I read into the way everyone asks me that question.
Are they asking How I am? How am I coping? How am I sleeping? How is my new medication regime going? How am I feeling? Or maybe something else.

Many of them are asking one of the above specific questions. I know this because of the number of times I’ve kept it vague or said, ‘Great! How are you?’, and received a very specific follow-up question that I had suspected they were angling at.

2. I’ve become a robot.
I can rote cite the most commonly theorised cause and process that leads to my condition. I can spout off the dealings between the drug company with my expensive medication and the Therapeutic Goods Association who aren’t putting that medication on the publicly funded scheme. I can explain at a specialist medical level and also at a 5-year-old level my experiences, illnesses, medications and everything I have been through.

And I’m tired of it. I’m lucky enough not to be a science experiment who gets poked, prodded and worse — I truly am. But I’ve lost some of my humanity in this process just to survive, and Disability, the science experiment, is the reason.

Disability, the big hole

The fourth and final twisted analogy for Disability I drew is this one. The big fucking hole we all sink into. But you know the game here, it’s not going to be what you think, right?

Classically, yes. I’ve used phrases like being sucked in by a black hole or falling in a hole to describe that overwhelming feeling of dread. A lot. And sure, you fall in the big hole, and you get that feeling. But there’s nuance to it. That’s what I drew.

Sure. I’m overwhelmed, but I’m desperately seeking reasons and solutions.

“Who put this fucking hole here?” © Nikki Waterson

When I fall into Disability, the big hole, I don’t just feel overwhelmed. I feel as lonely as it must feel to be living on a planet without any other living creatures.

I plead, sometimes out loud to others in my life, most of the time internally, for someone to help solve this problem. Maybe if I know who put this hole here, I can fix it? Perhaps if I call out loud enough and long enough, something will change? Maybe if I have more answers, I’ll escape?

The perception of people falling into a hole is often rooted in a person who isn’t trying to change their situation. But so many of us are screaming out and searching. That’s Disability, the big hole.

And that wraps up my four versions of disability analogies. Whatever your condition or lack, I hope you found this article equal parts helpful, interesting and entertaining.

If anything here did resonate with you and your experience, please comment or leave a private note to let me know. I thoroughly enjoyed creating this badly illustrated piece, and if others enjoy reading it, I will probably make more.

Thank you, friend, for taking the time to read till the end! ❤️️

Oh and if you want to know more about me and my condition, here are two articles on my experience.

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