Author Michelle Butler Hallett is exploring the nuance of her disability, one bike ride at a time

·2 min read
Michelle Butler Hallett has found freedom and inspiration with her electronic bike, which she calls Sopwith. (Heather Barrett/CBC - image credit)
Michelle Butler Hallett has found freedom and inspiration with her electronic bike, which she calls Sopwith. (Heather Barrett/CBC - image credit)
Heather Barrett/CBC
Heather Barrett/CBC

Michelle Butler Hallett's electronic bicycle is much more than just a bicycle.

For the award-winning St. John's fiction author, it's a way to get around, come up with new story ideas and explore the nuances of disability.

Butler Hallett lives with a disease called ankylosing spondylitis, which can cause some of the vertebrae in the spine to fuse together over time. This fusing makes the spine less flexible and can result in a hunched posture.

After using crutches to get around mobility issues for years, a tweak in her medications lead to an upturn in her health — and the desire to get moving.

She purchased an electric bike she christened Sopwith, and says it's much more than a way to get some exercise.

"This is way more than a toy to me. It's even way more than just a bike," Butler Hallett told CBC Radio's Weekend AM in a recent interview.

"This gets me places I'd never reach even on foot…. It's given me back a lot of freedom, a bit of dignity and lots of independence, which has been a big boost to my mental health."

LISTEN | Weekend AM Host Heather Barrett joins Michelle Butler Hallett on a bike ride through St. John's:

The e-bike allows for Butler Hallett to take necessary breaks when riding, as she can kick in a battery to keep moving when fatigue or joint issues set in. While she says Newfoundland's weather can sometimes impact the desire to ride, she's found joy in sharing her trips on social media.

"I never regret going on a bike ride. It might be hard to get out of the house, but when I'm done I'm like 'Yes!" she said.

Butler Hallett said her rides have also served as a way to develop plots and characters in her writing, something she used to do on long walks before her condition declined.

Her disability has also seeped into her writing, highlighted by This Marlowe, her 2016 novel that follows a character with ankylosing spondylitis.

"With that character I really wanted to play with the Elizabethan ideas of disability.... That a perceived fault in the body signified a fault in the character," Butler Hallett said.

Heather Barrett/CBC
Heather Barrett/CBC

"This, of course, is utter nonsense, but that character does terrible things and he's disabled. He's not doing it because he's disabled."

She hopes to play with the trope of characters with disabilities in more of her writing, partially thanks to her own experiences with Sopwith.

"We're so accustomed to thinking of disability as a binary. You are or you aren't, there's not a whole lot of room for nuance," Butler Hallett said.

"I would argue I'm no less disabled than I was last year, but I just have a new tool, which is able to help me get around a bit better. And the very good luck ... of having access to a rheumatologist and being able to get the meds I need."

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