Suddenly becoming disabled, be it due to Fowlers or any other illness/injury, completely changes the way in which you view the world – and in the way in which the world views you.
Using a wheelchair, you realise how uneven pavements are, or how tightly packed some spaces are. You realise how unpleasant disabled toilets combined with baby changing facilities are.
You also discover that the attitudes of society towards the disabled often leave a lot to be desired.
I recently attended a national political conference in my wheelchair and while, on the whole, I was treated pretty equally one particular incident sticks in my mind:
Perusing the huge array of stalls set up in the foyer of the venue, I came to the stall selling party merchandise. One of the staff clearly saw my physical disability and assumed I had some form of mental impairment too – her condescending, patronising manner towards me, literally patting me on the arm and giving me some “lovely pencils and notepads dear” was proof of that. My Dad’s response that they would come in handy for my university work clearly shocked her! Unfortunately this is far from the only example I could give. People have a tendency to make assumptions about why a young person is in a wheelchair – the idea that it’s purely down to a physical limitation often seems to be unexpected.
Another bugbear is the way in which people seem to think manhandling somebody in a wheelchair is being helpful. While I fully appreciate that it’s wellmeaning most of the time, if we need help we’ll ask for it. Invading the personal space of a person in a chair by maneuvering or otherwise making physical contact with them is not appropriate.
Being adjudged to be faking or exaggerating a condition is also depressingly common. A young person with a blue badge is often viewed with suspicion and we’re frequently expected to justify ourselves. Just because someone is young, attractive and clearly not paralysed, that does not mean that they are abusing the system and playing the disability card for easier parking or shorter toilet queues.
Even animals can respond differently to the presence of a disabled person. Recently, I visited my local pub in my chair and a little terrier-type rescue dog who wasn’t used to seeing wheelchairs got rather over-excited every time I moved, giving chase where ever possible. I’m actually not comfortable around dogs so this wasn’t a pleasant experience!
I guess what I’m getting at is this: next time you see a person walking with a stick or using a wheelchair, don’t judge. Don’t assume that they are just physically disabled, just mentally disabled or faking. Don’t feel entitled to treat them any differently or with any less respect than you would if they were able bodied.