August 11th 2010
In the course of having a couple of fractured Achilles tendons repaired I have spent some time, recently, in a wheelchair with both legs in plaster from my toes to my knees. I am now on crutches and will shortly graduate to my own two feet.
I recognise that I am hugely fortunate. The best efforts of the national health service have put me back together and in a relatively few weeks my life will return to what approximates to normal in the Gale household and for that I am hugely grateful to all those who have assisted me. Some people are not so lucky.
Our troops returning from Afghanistan, for example, with limbs missing, may spend years before being rehabilitated and taught how to use prosthetic limbs. Those suffering from debilitating and progressive diseases have to live, to the end of their days, under circumstances that for me has been at worst a tiresome inconvenience.
I am, curiously, hugely grateful for the experience. While I would not recommend life in a wheelchair unless vitally necessary it has, for this Member of Parliament, been an interesting and worthwhile learning experience. We all think that we know about these things, of course, but it`s not until you try it for yourself, without the option of giving up and walking away from it for five minutes, that you really find out what it`s like.
Those who are permanently confined to chairs may stop reading now. I am, first, about to teach you how to suck eggs and, second, you will say with complete justification “yes, chum: now try it for life!”
Most significantly, of course, most homes are not designed for wheelchairs and older doors are only just wide enough to permit access. That gives rise to some knuckle-bruising experiences. Chairs cannot navigate stairs – so we had to put a single bed and a commode in the sitting room. Long-term, other arrangements would have to be made but for five weeks shaving and bathing consisted of a plastic bowl on a collapsible table and a towel. Luckily there is a small porch off the sitting room and that translated, with wires trailing through the house, into an office from which, since early June, every piece of work that I have done has been carried out. Wheelchair accessible. Great!
No such luck with the garden: we needed a ramp to permit excursions. Covering each leg with a “limbo” (a commercially produced leg-covering plastic bag) we discovered that with the help of a six-foot-five son it was possible to have a shower by sitting on a plastic garden chair and having warm water poured through the rose on a watering can.
First outing, in the chair, to participate in a charity fundraiser with Laura Sandys from South Thanet and the senior family Newfoundland outside a supermarket. Nobody expects to see you in a wheelchair – so they either look over the top of your head or they do not recognise you at all. Those that do stop have a cheerful habit of grasping the rear handles and leaning over you, invading your personal space in a manner that they would not dare if you were upright.
(Note: experienced chair users know that you can spin the vehicle in its own length by rolling one wheel forward and the other backwards simultaneously. This has the startling effect of hurling the `leaner` full-length on the floor about four feet away from the occupant. “So sorry – I didn`t realise that you were being held up by my chair”!)
And why do people think that because you have the use of no legs and are captive in a wheelchair you also have no brains and are incapable of communication and decision? It`s bad enough having to rely upon other people for every last damned thing without being treated like an imbecile as well. “Is he alright, dear? Would he like a cup of tea? Does he take sugar………..”? No, thanks. He`s quite capable (still) of answering for himself and he`d infinitely prefer a pint of beer.
Which causes another problem of course. Ordinarily the Used Beer Department is readily accessible. Not in a chair, it`s not. Happily, though the next greatest invention to the Banana Board is the plastic pee bottle. This, at a price of about four quid from most good pharmacists, gives a sense of freedom and independence hitherto undreamed of.
The Banana Board is a boomerang-shaped piece of strengthened plywood capable of carrying, I am told, about 20 stone. With one end inserted under the backside and the other balanced on a commode or a car seat it is possible to move seamlessly from perch to perch with minimal help or risk. The inventor ought to have received a knighthood.
You cannot, of course, drive and you quickly experience the next set of obstacles. Modern public buildings are disabled friendly, aren`t they? With ramps and wide doors and easily accessible parking spaces. No. As a matter of fact they are not. Take the QEQM hospital in Margate, for example. They will not object to my telling you this because they have been hugely responsive and changes are planned. At the time of writing, however, none of the drop-off bays have space for a wheelchair alongside the car and once you have solved that problem and disembarked you find that the first ramp cannot be used without tipping the chair backwards and, having crossed the main internal road the next set of ramps are like the north face of the Eiger. Not too bad for someone with good upper-body strength assisted by a fit helper – but how does a frail, elderly, lady cope with a sixteen stone chair-bound husband? And the brand new Outpatients` building has no direct disabled access at all!
I will not bore you with more. It has been educational and, curiously, enjoyable. I just hope that when I am once again sports fit and back to kicking political opponents I do not forget that there are a lot of people who need to have their voices heard. A little more thought, forward planning and good old-fashioned consideration would go a very long way.