I wanted to scream out, ‘I wasn’t always like this!’, whenever I caught a look that was tinged with pity, or saw yet another prospective friend (or even boyfriend) not sparing me one look, yet alone two. I’d been in a wheelchair for 2 months, and was bursting with frustration.
I’d broken my arm before, and then again, ever reckless when climbing trees, higher and higher, relishing the feeling of looking down at the already shrinking forest floor below. I was used to constant movement, my schedule packed with ballet, netball, hockey, jazz and more. At first, this was what bothered me the most when I ended up in the chair – the feeling of restriction. The growing restlessness as I was unable to do any of the things I loved. Then it was the lack of autonomy. Freedom of movement was a thing of the past. Even on flat ground, when I should have been able to push myself, people didn’t listen to my protests and simply took the handles of the wheelchair, taking me to wherever they wished me to go.
Slowly, gradually, I noticed something else, something that bothered me even more. My condition, although perhaps long-term (the doctor had advised we purchase a wheelchair), didn’t necessitate a cast, or even a bandage. Maybe if I’d had a cast, people would have treated me the same way as they always had. After all, when girls in my class had broken limbs, everyone crowded round, eager to have their name displayed proudly in Sharpie bubble writing across their cast. As soon as this thought crossed my mind, I would feel immensely guilty. I had always been, like many others, unsure of how to react when I saw someone in a wheelchair, especially if they were my age. In the face of the dilemma of whether it was better to make eye contact and smile, or whether it would seem pitying, or patronising, sometimes it was simply easier to let your eyes flit over them as you scanned the room.
Now that the shoe was on the other foot, it was difficult not to be slightly bitter about the sudden change in the way I was perceived. I had never before comprehended the difficulties disabled people face. People had to bend their necks uncomfortably to talk to me, or they bent down to my level, regularly using slightly slower and louder voices, as if my intelligence and age were somehow diminished by my lack of motor movement. I was unable to attend most of my classes at school, despite it having just had a new, expensive annex added, as most of the other buildings were too old to be equipped with an elevator. I sat in the school library by myself for hours on end, trying in vain to teach myself endless equations without social interaction to lessen the boredom. My school was on a steep hill, so, despite being able to attend lessons on the ground floor, I was forced to rely on people to shuttle me from building to building as the path was too steep for me to have control of the chair, making me feel not only helpless, but like a burden on my friends and teachers. One of the only positive memories I have from that time is when a friend of mine, pushing my chair, sprinted down the corridor, much to our excitement and the annoyance of my history teacher, whom we almost ran over.
Nevertheless, my attendance fell rapidly, there being simply no point in attending if I could only attend one lesson that day. I’d always been an avid reader, but now it dominated my free time, a method of escapism from how trapped I felt. Celebrations with loved ones were difficult to navigate, with the awkwardness of trying to navigate the narrow passages of a restaurant often culminating in the disenchantment of discovering the tables were much too high, or too low, for me to eat at comfortably.
There are so many other small ways that being in a wheelchair affects your day-to-day life, even when supported by family and friends – things that I would never have even considered had I not been forced to live through it. Although I haven’t been forced to return to a wheelchair since, the nearly 6 months spent as a wheelchair user completely changed my perspective when it comes to the world of the differently-abled. There are 1.2 million wheelchair users in the UK today, 90% of which are currently living in a home that fails to meet their needs as a wheelchair user. They face countless more issues outside their homes, with barriers to accessing the same job opportunities, using public transport (the bus ramp is often broken, or takes a long time to unfold, leading to irritation from other passengers) and more.
The UK still has a long way to go to achieve full accessibility. Physical adjustments to public spaces and buildings needn’t be extreme, and are relatively inexpensive to implement. There are many temporary ramps and handrails available that are designed to be easy to transport and store when not in use and are a perfect solution for areas that haven’t been built with a ramp in mind. This simple solution would have a large impact for wheelchair users who report difficulties in doing activities we take for granted, such as shopping (20%), going to the cinema (15%), dining in restaurants (14%) or visiting a museum (68%). Awareness of wheelchair-friendly games, such as wheelchair basketball, could be raised within schools and institutions to decrease the social isolation felt by those with disabilities.
These institutional changes are integral to making wheelchair users feel more accepted in our public spaces. But one thing that made me feel so much better about my condition is when people treated me just like anyone else, when they made normal conversation with me. What I still remember are the people who, upon entering the room, would simply look at me as if they saw me, make eye contact, and smile.