We experience things we haven’t experienced before, and tell you about them. Despite the stern warnings of parents and teachers, Nick Coquet never did end up breaking his back through swinging back on a chair and spending the rest of his life in a wheelchair. But he could have done, so what would it have been like?
We’re all guilty of swinging the car into a disabled parking space, or occupying a disabled toilet. It’s only for a minute. There are too many of them anyway. No one ever uses them. But they’re there for a reason. I wanted to see how it felt to be reliant on able-bodied town planning, see if it measured up.
I borrowed a wheelchair off the Martlets Hospice, friends of SOURCE and all round good people. The plan was to spend a day going about my business from the vantage point of a self-propelled seat. I could have sat at a desk all day in my wheelchair, but there’s no real challenge there. So I went into town for some shopping.
I live at the top of a bastard-steep hill, which can barely be walked up, let alone wheeled. So I parked down the bottom and got the chair out. Strapping myself in, I wheeled along to the bus stop. So far so good. The pavements aren’t great, and you quickly realise that even the mildest bump or kerb can almost pitch you onto your face. I don’t get buses too often at the best of times, so wasn’t sure if the two that sailed past me as I sat patiently at the roadside were because I wasn’t waving them down or they couldn’t be arsed. Let’s assume the former, as the driver who stopped for me actually got out to push me on, his suspension not quite dropping to kerb level. I asked if I needed a ticket, he said not to worry. Nice guy. It turned out I was facing the wrong way so I did a 19-point turn among the buggies and put on my handbrakes. “That’s better,” said a biddie in one of the elderly seats. “We can see you now!”
The last stop was outside the old ice rink by Churchill Square. Again, the kerb wasn’t quite flush with the bus, so a guy also getting off gave me a push. You kind of wonder if you should ask if a wheelchair user wants a push, whether you’d be patronising or something. I’d take all the help I could get frankly. It’s knackering pushing yourself along the whole time, especially on streets where the pavement’s camber constantly conspires to put you in the gutter.
So Churchill Square is quite wheelchair friendly, it turns out. The disabled toilet is well appointed. None of the shops have steps into them. I had a good wheel around in there, in and out of various shops perfecting my manoeuvres, and then out onto Queens Road. Wheeling down there was a breeze; I had to slow down to avoid hacking down pensioners. I cut into the North Laine, which was pretty busy. I know how hard it can be dragging a buggy round town, but that has nothing on this. To start with, your only eye-level companions are those in buggies, who generally stared at me with the quizzical innocence of youth. But while most people did try and get out of my way, plenty just blundered into my path as shop windows caught their eye. It’s a proper ball-ache weaving around idiots who don’t think to step slightly aside as you trundle towards them.
Crossing the road, I saw another wheelchair user coming towards me. Now, I drive a VW Camper, and used to ride Vespas. When you see someone else with one you give them a cheery wave, and for a second it crossed my mind to maybe do the same – maybe a passing high-five or pointing at my legs and giving a smiling shrug. But she didn’t look like she wanted to acknowledge our seated kinship, probably for the best really.
The shops here weren’t nearly so manageable. Steps, narrow doorways and cramped interiors all made for irritating challenges to my mobility and purchasing potential. Maybe disabled people don’t buy retro clothing or chintzy nicknacks; they certainly don’t buy them easily here. Stopping off at The Dorset for a swift half, I had to wait for someone to unbolt the double door to let me in. But at least I got a seat outside once I’d been served.
From here I wheeled back out onto Queens Road to get the bus back. I thought I’d go to Sainsbury’s. I kind of needed to anyway. By now my dexterity with the chair had gotten pretty good, though I say so myself. I was able to shunt myself onto the bus with a minor wheelie, and weaved into my allocated space with the athleticism of that BBC One ident wheelchair bloke with the dreadlocks.
The supermarket was a breeze. I didn’t go on the travelator thing, fearing it might not end well. There’s a lift there, so I used that. The nice customer services lady got me a trolley extension, and kind people got high shelf items down for me. I did wonder how I’d carry all the gear home so I went easy on the shopping list, but the bags hooked onto the chair’s handles easy enough. Back out onto the street, across Lewes Road and back up Coombe Road, where once no one was looking I miraculously regained the use of my legs and guiltily folded the chair down and stuck it in the back of the van.
WAS IT WORTH IT?
It’s certainly an eye-opener to experience life from a challenged perspective. Mostly people were kind and helpful, without being patronising. No one tutted at me, and I did breach a few toes in the Churchill Square lift. But I’m going to be a bit more careful swinging back on my chair now, just in case.
There are more than 750,000 wheelchair users in the UK, 1.5% of the population, with 20,000 new users every year.