Thursday, 25 June 2015

Being in a wheelchair

Ever since I was of an age to really understand, I’ve always had the utmost respect for people in wheelchairs. I’ve sympathised with their predicament but I don’t think I’ve ever fully understood it until now.

In 1996 or 1997, one of my University residential course investigations was about the attitudes people have towards those in wheelchairs. Six of us aspiring psychology graduates, back in 1996 or 1997 took to the streets of Brighton to investigate whether people, in general, give those in wheelchairs due respect or if they talk to the person pushing the wheelchair.

We set the investigation up in such a way that we had a person in a wheelchair and another acting as a carer; pushing the wheelchair. The rest of us strategically positioned ourselves, at various angles, to observe people’s behaviours as they were approached by our colleagues. We each took it in turns to be in the wheelchair, as well, so we could get a real sense of what it was like in the firing line so to speak.

As part of the investigation we got the person in the wheelchair to stop people at random and ask them for directions or information. What we found was that 7 out of 10 people would respond to the carer and not the person in the wheelchair. It was shocking and appalling to say the least.

We also found that when we pushed the wheelchair head on into people, in an accidental way, and without any direct contact that could cause any physical harm, the majority would look away or look at the carer. In each case, they ignored the person sat down.

From that day forward, I was always my awareness of the attitudes people had towards disability was somewhat enhanced. I actually found it quite heartbreaking on a lot of levels.

Just recently, my broken foot and having to totally rely on another person, for everything, has taught me that it’s one thing to be placed in a wheelchair for an hour or two and then be able to get up and walk away. Yet, it’s a whole different story when you are completely confined and unable to get up at any time.

Personally, I found there is nothing more frustrating than having a very strong mind, a cast iron will, a perfectly capable upper body and a lower limb that’s just not having any of it. It won’t move, it can’t move. It’s too painful to bend or stretch. It’s just there; dangling and doing nothing.

Every time I felt I just wanted to get up and walk across the room, the physical interfered and the mind, that wanted to scream, was forced to shut up. I might add here that it’s taken years of Meditation and a fair amount of Buddhist practice to learn to listen when I tell my mind to shut up. Mental silence is the only thing that has kept my sanity over the last 5 weeks. Well, that and painting, writing, working from home and catching up on so many things I’ve let go by the wayside for a long while.

From my 4 week experience of life on wheels, I’ve learned so much. Life in a wheelchair really does takes on a whole different perspective and I don’t just mean in one’s outlook. I mean, physically, mentally and emotionally. Everything changes.

So much that we take for granted, as vertical bipeds becomes so difficult, virtually impossible or unbearable.

A few examples:

Getting in and out of a bath for a shower. Standing on one foot to have said shower. I’m not even going to go into the dangers of showering on foot. I’m sure you can imagine them. 

Cooking and washing dishes. In a wheelchair it’s quite difficult to reach any standard sink properly just to wash one’s hands let alone wash dishes. The same applies to cookers. I’m seriously thinking that standard kitchens are predominantly designed for bipeds and too high for proper wheelchair access. 

Shopping, which also means completely relying on someone to get the wheelchair in the car, drive to a shop, get the wheelchair out of the car, get things off shelves, (which are also not designed for people in wheelchairs), push a shopping trolley, bag all the shopping and carry it out of the shop back to the car where they then have to put the wheelchair back in the car and drive all the way home. Now, I’m not saying this is the case with every person in a wheelchair but it may be the case a lot of the time. 

For a biped who’s use to just popping out to the local store when she’s run out of bread or fancies a bit of chocolate, there is nothing more frustrating than having to wait for a particular day and time that someone can go to the shop for you or take you there. The only positive aspect to this is that one can quickly learn the art of shopping discipline. By that I mean how to make a proper shopping list, how not to forget anything and how to learn to do without, and find alternatives, when something runs out.

Going to a doctor or going for a hospital appointment. There’s the same old reliance on someone to get you there. Once you’re there, there’s the problem of parking, going up ramps, finding the ramps in the first place, getting into and out of lifts, especially when the lift is small and filled with bipeds who are faster than you and standing behind you. You could cut the air of angry frustration among some of them when you’re trying to maneuver out of their way and you’re taking a little more time than they would like. 

Generally, just being at home all day and all night at the mercy of the kindness of someone who will help you or take you out. Life seems to be very limiting, and confined, when you’re not able to drive yourself, get yourself on a bus or in a taxi.

In the few times that I’ve had the great pleasure of being able to go out, and trust me, after a while even a trip to the doctors feels like a major outing, I’ve had a mixture of reactions from people towards the wheelchair and I. Some people smiled at me sympathetically. Others had that curious: “I wonder what’s up with her” look. Some looked a little disturbed by my being there and just a few kind souls wanted to help me, push me, get things off top shelves for me.

I found there were still cases of people avoiding eye contact with me but, I’m not sure if that can be owing to the fact that we’ve become a cold, segregated society where we don’t generally tend to make eye contact or if, in fact, it was because of the wheelchair.

Surprisingly enough, or not, there were also a few times where people would almost fall over the wheelchair. Yes, I’m still boggled by that one but, let’s face it, there are people out there who are so wrapped up in their own little bubble that they haven’t got a clue what’s going on around them.

Over the last few days I’ve progressed out of the wheelchair and taken my first few steps with crutches. It’s an alleviating feeling to be upright again. I feel a sense of victory at finally moving my limbs.

Yet, I noticed, for example, that my visionary field had adjusted its perspective to cope with my new situation. When I went into the kitchen, as an upright biped, I had a little difficulty viewing the correct depth and distance of the counter tops. My brain thought it was odd viewing the kitchen again from a taller point of view. It threw me off balance for a few moments.

Every time I stand now, I feel taller, which of course I am, compared to when I sit in the chair. It might seem like no big deal but it is to someone who has always considered herself a shorty.

I still can’t drive yet, so my freedom is still limited, but I am able to slowly hobble out onto my balcony with my crutches and admire the sea, breathe in some fresh air and fill my soul  with something other than four walls of concrete and a computer.

The great thing about all this is that I’ve had major time to reflect and admire how we as people have the capacity to adapt so rapidly to new situations when we go with the flow instead of fighting against the tide. When our mind is resolute and our will is strong, nothing can stop us from doing anything and no amount of change can break us.

If ever there was a time I was grateful for my mind, (and everything in it) and this body and its capabilities, that time is definitely now.  Don’t take what you have for granted. Appreciate it and look after it.  After all, you don’t want to lose it.

To all of you out there in a wheelchair, you have my utmost respect and admiration!!! You truly rock!!!

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