For those living with disability (like myself, for I am now effectively paraplegic) a tiny object of fascination is when exactly will we see the Queen out in public in her new wheelchair? For some abled people, this is a truly grisly, horrifying thought. One of those seemingly interchangeable upper class female columnists on the Mail wailed that she “will surely hate the indignity” without thinking of all of us commoners for whom a wheelchair is the only key access to some form of mobility.
I look forward to seeing HRH ditch these assumptions, and despite my grumpy lefty nature, I’ll be the first one to say “welcome to a life on wheels Ma’am” – even though I guess her life will be far better supported than mine. For what it’s worth, I gather her outdoor events will be in some kind of stately golf buggy, but this can’t be used indoors, so we will see what is offered to her.
Living in a wheelchair
Living in a wheelchair when you are out and about is a game of chances. There are the upsides. In some ways it is pleasant to be hooking heavy shopping on the back hook, rather than lugging it on or off a bus. Long uphill gradients no longer equate to breathlessness. But the downsides dominate. The one big one is evening use – especially during the longer winter nights. By definition, a paraplegic alone on a powered wheelchair is an ideal target of choice for a possible few quid and a mobile.
The impact on other people
One aspect which never hit me is how much it impacts on people around you. When you sit in a wheelchair just watching the world go by on a busy High Street pavement on your own, without moving for any length of time, people eye you as they pass. After a while, you stop feeling self-conscious and start to enjoy their responses. There’s the “Is he a beggar?” sidestep. It’s an especially big sidestep if you meet these people’s eyes, because that makes them think you’re going to pull out a mangy mutt and wave an empty coffee cup at them and embarrass them. They move on quickly. There is “are you all right?” inquiring head turn: the kindly people, sometimes a little too kindly, who want to be sure you’re not in need of their help in some way. They can be lovely but they can also be a niggling nuisance – bless ’em.
Selective eyesight and “what’s really wrong?”
Then there are those with selective eyesight. They are the people who simply see you as part of the street scene, something to negotiate, like a couple who’ve stopped to talk, or a tree, or a bench, or a raised flower planter. One up from this group, if you are on the move, are the people walking purposely in front of you at a place that matches your chair’s motor, but then stop dead to examine their iphone screen. That there are so far few bruised ankles in this patch is more down to luck than judgement. I’d like to fit them with brake lights.
Then there’s “what’s really wrong with him?” look. It’s either a direct head to toe scan, or it’s a furtive appraisal. These people tend to be our able-bodied meanies, the kind who criticise anyone who can both walk (even if only a couple of yards) and uses a disabled parking bay, or who think you are only using a wheelchair as it allows you to live a life of limitless luxury on undefined ‘benefits’ that someone once heard all about ‘from a friend.’
Having said all this about being on the street, that’s a trifle compared with being in a confined space – a shop, a cafe or a pub. There, with little of the space of the street, is when the real negatives come out. The girl standing smack dab in a narrow doorway making an interminable phone call, and who isn’t going to move – even an inch. Another pub I know has the fruit machine near to a narrow gangway, and there are some guys who must be physically welded to the tinny beast so unwilling are they to tear themselves away for a few seconds.
Mind there are the others – and it is you who make the difference. The ones who chat to you instead of “at” you, and another little feature I’ve noticed in some ladies of a certain age who see you as a kind of surrogate new grandchild on a baby walker and go out of their way to help and encourage you – bless you all, and as the very late Hughie Greene would have said “I mean that most sincerely.”
An uphill struggle
But generally, it is still an uphill struggle. As the tetraplegic journalist Melanie Reid recently wrote in the Times:
“Like it or not, this is the symbolism a wheelchair retains, even in an age when so much is done to normalise difference. In a chair you feel stigma, loss of power and dignity. I speak what I have lived. Notwithstanding decades of discrimination legislation, a wheelchair brings with it a crashing loss of authority. It sends a message of dependency and decline; the sensation of being pushed, physically manoeuvred, is really horrid. To be brutally honest, deep down people still regard those in wheelchairs as second-class citizens, ripe for ignoring or patronising.”
Well, Ma’am, welcome to my world. Won’t you come on in? Miracles, I guess still happen now and then. Mind I could do with some miracles – but, as the weeks go to months and the months morph into years, I’m gradually finding my legs (black humour has its side as any ex-service veteran knows) and gradually finding my place as a citizen of this new world.