Hello people of the internet. While I’m busy trying to knock up some sentences that will hopefully resemble a blog of sorts, here is a treat this week we have a guest blog, from the author of the wonderfully informative “Seeing Double, Understanding Autism” Blog, Gwen Greenwood.
Gwen talks about what she learned from pushing her mum in her wheelchair recently. I forget how inaccessible the U.K Can be, for two reasons, I Don’t get out as much as should and I’m just used to it I guess. I expect inaccessibility, Ironically that’s probably why I don’t get out as much as I should. There’s just so much planning and things I can’t prepare for, in my teens I was liberated when I was able to bring my powered wheelchair home, as I could go out by myself, no adults. no supervision. Now I don’t feel like I can, what if I get stuck? What if I have to ask for help? What if they don’t understand me? What if I get bullied? Sorry I went off on a tangent their but never the less Accessibility is, as Gwen points out a human right. It is really easy to over look, accessibility in the town where I studied was a null concept it seems and this hugely impinged on my social life. Many wheelchair users can’t just decide to go out with mates it almost always has to be planned like a military operation.
Wheelchairs are novelty and fun when introduced at first, they soon become mundane, I’m unsure about there usefulness in sexy ways although I have been known to use the phrase “once you go spack you don’t go back!”… Enjoy the Blog.
What I Learned Through Pushing My Mum’s Wheelchair
My mother has a degenerative health condition, meaning although she can walk, she cannot walk very far before she gets tired. Since she loves being out and about, she recently bought a foldable, light weight wheelchair to get around in. She walks until she gets tired; we push her for a bit, then she walks again.
Since no one in my family has used one before, initially the wheelchair caused more than a little excitement in our home. During one drunken conversation, my Dad actually confided in me (and a group of our bemused friends) that ‘a wheelchair is basically the equivalent of a sex toy for older couples, it spices up the relationship and you get to try lots of new things!’ Of course, the ‘new things’ he was referring to are not remotely related to sex. My parents spiced up relationship now consists of my Dad practicing wheelies and pushing my Mum down every hill he can find at top speed shouting ‘weeeeeeeeeeeeee!’ In many ways, I suppose this experience has bought them closer together.
I went out with my Mum in the wheelchair for the first time a few weeks ago. We were on a trip to The Industrial Museum; a slightly run down local attraction that features wide, smooth paths, lots of ramps and accessible toilets. At the time I took all of this for granted. The wheelchair was exciting and new, so I enjoyed pushing my Mum about, shouting ‘weeeeeeeeeeee!’ each time we went down a ramp and even hitching a ride on the back when I could. I asked loads of times, but she wouldn’t let me have a go on it.
That first outing was fun fun fun, the only vaguely challenging bit being getting the wheel chair in and out of the boot of the car. I’ve always struggled with folding chairs and flat pack furniture, so you can imagine why this was tricky. However, I learned some hard truths during our second outing.
Despite our painfully funny lack of coordination (I have dyspraxia, and the rest of the household is just plain clumsy) we’ve always been an outdoor family. The highlight of my childhood was the long walks we used to go on every Sunday, though of course I moaned and groaned and begged to be left at home watching the telly. We currently live near some woods, where my Mum loves to go for long walks. But thanks to her declining health, those walks have become shorter and shorter. The last time we went for a walk in the woods together, we took the wheelchair.
I agreed to push my Mum excitedly, the whole thing still being somewhat of a novelty for me. Since we live on a steep hill, the first part of the walk was the hardest. It’s a light-weight wheelchair, and my Mum’s one of the skinniest people I know, so I was shocked when I found myself straining to get her up the hill, my body almost horizontal in order to stay anchored to the ground and produce enough energy to push. By the time we got to the top of the hill I was pretty out of breath, but my Mum’s not to blame. I’ve spent the last few months sitting on the couch, guzzling wine and trying out as many types of cheeses as I could. It wasn’t until I pushed my Mum to the top of that hill that I realised how truly unfit I’d gotten.
Once we’d made it to the top of the hill I spotted my neighbors white fluffy cat. I immediately parked the wheelchair and rushed over to pet it, not realizing I’d made a huge error. I’d forgotten to put the brakes on. Luckily my Mum realised and put them on herself before she went hurtling down the hill, but I should have been more careful and alert. Next time we’re out together, I’ll try not to be distracted by cats.
We reached the entrance to the woods. It was a beautiful day, bright sunlight filtering through the green leaves and glittering off the pond. As we reached the first gate (easily wide enough to fit a wheel chair through) I noticed that it was chained and padlocked. Why padlock a well maintained, accessible gate when all it leads to is a public wood? There was a small kissing gate that had been left open for pedestrians. We stopped, and my Mum got out of the wheelchair while I folded it up and (with the help of some friends we’d bumped into) managed to heft it over the gate. I unfolded the chair, and my Mum got back in.
For us this was a difficult process that required a little more upper body strength than I possess (at least I was getting the hang of folding and unfolding, a skill which I hope to transfer to that pesky flat pack furniture). For someone who didn’t have a fold-up wheelchair, or was unable to get out of their chair and walk, it would have been disastrous. They would have had to abandon their leisurely walk in the sunshine and head home, despite the presence of a gate that’s easily large enough to accommodate their needs.
Unlike the smooth hallways of the Industrial Museum which the wheelchair practically glided over, the terrain of the woods was rough and rocky. I had expected this. But what I wasn’t prepared for was quite how difficult it would make the journey for both Mum and me. She was bumped and knocked about all over the place as I tried to manoeuvre past rocks, sticks and other detritus. Every so often we’d come across a thick tree root that blocked the wheelchair completely, meaning I had to tilt it back until it rested on two wheels to get over the roots. Poor Mum was practically hanging upside down like spider man.
Soon we came to another large gate that was next to a small kissing gate. Just like at the entrance to the woods, the larger gate was easily big enough for two wheelchairs to go through side by side, yet it had been chained and padlocked shut. Which of course meant folding up the chair again, and squeezing it through the small gap in the kissing gate while my Mum got up and walked round. By this time I was pretty fed up. Why were these gates closed when they looked perfectly operational? What was the reason behind it?
Eventually we decided to stop and rest. I parked my Mum (remembering to put the brakes on this time) and sat down on a nearby log. For a few minutes we remained there, enjoying each other’s company without saying a word. It was a beautiful area of the woods, the canopy of leaves above us softening the light and tingeing it with green. I could hear bird song from every direction, and the soles of my shoes were sinking into the soft, yielding earth. I knew I was in a very special place. A place that everyone should be able to visit easily. But sadly, not everybody can.
The way back home was easier. We still had to lift the wheelchair over each gate, but as it was all downhill my Mum was able to walk most of the way. However, I was still reeling from the fact that a journey which I’d normally finish in a few easy minutes had been so long and difficult. I was clearly taking my own mobility for granted. As I lifted the wheelchair over the last kissing gate, a woman came out of one of the houses. She explained that she was a member of the Woods Trust and could open the gates for us next time if we knocked on the door and asked for the keys. My Mum nodded politely. But for me, this wasn’t enough.
This woman wasn’t always going to be at home, and even if she was I resented the idea of a woman I barely knew coming on one of our private family walks. And what about other people who wanted access to the woods? What about users of heavy duty wheelchairs unable to walk through the gate? What about families pushing prams, or elderly people who use zimmer frames? All these people deserve access to the woods, but thanks to some bizarre insurance policy, none of them have it. (Apparently the safety of a pile of wood chippings is more important than the safety of people).
There was no sign explaining which house to go to if you needed the keys. And even if there was… My own experience of disability (Asperger’s Syndrome, Dyspraxia and mental health issues) means I know how horrible it is to have to keep asking for things, to say please and thank you and apologise for needing extra help over and over again until you feel physically sick. I like to visit the woods with my family because it’s one of the few places where I feel relaxed and at one with my environment. I know my Mum visits them for similar reasons. If she had to ask for someone to open the gate every time she went there (in addition to having a family member push the wheelchair) those trips would just become another reminder of her limitations.
So, what did I learn through one afternoon of pushing my Mum’s wheelchair?
1) We should never, ever take our health or mobility for granted.
2) Public spaces need to be made accessible to EVERYONE. This is not a privilege. It’s a basic human right.
3) Accessibility should come before EVERYTHING ELSE.
4) Disabled people shouldn’t have to constantly ask for what they need to survive.
5) Caring for someone with a disability that effects their mobility is hard. Living with that disability is 100 times harder.
6) Contrary to my earlier beliefs, wheelchairs are NOT a funny novelty. They’re just a part of daily life.
Check out Autism vs Cerebral Palsy (A Day in the Life of) which Gwen and I Co wrote
Thanks For reading!