One of the unforeseen (by me at least) consequences of being in a wheelchair is your inexplicable attraction to nutters. Let me stress that 99% of the people I encounter couldn’t be lovelier. I spend a lot of time asking people for help – it seems an axiom of my new life that whatever I want in the supermarket is on the top shelf and many people at petrol stations have been accosted by me hanging out of my car window and asking if they could get one of the staff inside to come out and fill up my petrol tank. I have found this a more effective way to get fuel than following the signs that ask you to sound your horn, flash your lights, put on your hazards and display your disabled parking badge. Not only is this a feat of co-ordination that requires some planning but, on the one occasion I succeeded in doing all these things, people just looked at me like I was the nutter (including, I might add, several police officers who you would have thought would at least come to investigate) and gave me a wide berth so I went back to hanging out my car window like an enthusiastic Labrador. Either way, I have asked people of all ages, hues, backgrounds and professions for help and all of them have been only too happy to do so.
Then there is a small handful of people who are determined to help you whether you want it or not. I have, on a few occasions, had people grab my wheelchair and start merrily propelling me somewhere apropos of nothing at all from me. I feel about this much as you would feel if you were wandering down the street minding your own business and someone suddenly came up behind you, picked you up and forcibly carried you somewhere you hadn’t asked to go and didn’t want to be. This small group also appear to be selectively deaf because they take no notice of your protestations as they ‘help’ you because it appears that what is important to them in this encounter is how they feel about having helped a disabled person rather than how the disabled person feels about being ‘helped’. I can also report that they get quite upset when you let them know as well.
But the really fun ones are the grade A nutters. Most of these are the harmless ones that sidle up to you and do/say random things – examples of these for me include the following:
The woman who sat beside me at a lunch and alternated between telling me what a marvellous example I was and then, when she looked at me, how glad she was that she wasn’t in my position…for about two hours.
The homeless alcoholic who pitched up with a case of beer on a skateboard and invited me to join him and his buddies in the park. When I declined politely and pointed out that I was in fact there to get some exercise, he continued to wave at me frantically every time I went past on a lap.
An elderly gentleman dressed in more hi-vis gear than I have ever seen on a human following me on his bike and intermittently overtaking me to pull into my path and shout randomly at me.
A lady who had a friend who was ‘paralysed for no reason’, wanted to know whether I believed in God, what I’d recommend for the friend and to tell me, repeatedly, that I was an inspiration for being outside on my own.
Honestly, I think their intentions were good but nul points for methodology or execution. It’s quite difficult to make a rapid escape in a chair so, when accosted, I have developed a smile and nod technique that I employ whilst they talk. I have also toyed with escalating this to screaming loudly whilst waving my arms around in an attempt to out-nutter them but I have to confess that I haven’t been brave enough to try this yet.
Then, at the top of the pile sits Karma Guy who basically forms a subset all of his own. I encountered him in the picnic area of a remote national park in Australia. A friend and I had just discovered that the Park Authorities idea of ‘accessible’ included 45 degree slopes and lots of steps through a forest so we were on our way back to the car through the picnic area when a shout rang out “YOU THERE. YOU IN THE WHEELCHAIR!’ and Karma Guy was upon us. He emerged apparently from nowhere, clad in a T shirt and tracksuit bottoms that had both not only seen better days but retired hurt some time ago and made a beeline for me. Pointing, he asked
‘DO YOU KNOW WHY YOU ARE IN THAT WHEELCHAIR?’
‘Yes’ I replied. “I fell off a horse’
“NO!’ he countered. ‘YOU ARE IN THAT WHEELCHAIR BECAUSE OF KARMA!’
‘Nope’ I responded ‘I’m in this wheelchair because of gravity.’
‘I BROKE MY BACK SO I KNOW WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT!’ Karma Guy cut across me and proceeded to roll up his tatty T-shirt to show me, admittedly, a pretty big scar on his lower spine that did look as though he had had some form of spinal surgery. I decided to try and divert him slightly, resulting in this exchange:
“‘Wow, that looks fairly serious. What happened?’
‘I FELL OFF A CLIFF. BROKE MY BACK IN TWO PLACES, PUNCTURED A LUNG, BROKE FOUR RIBS, MY ARM, SERIOUS INTERNAL INJURIES…’
‘Ouch – that sounds bad. How long were you in hospital for?’
‘YEAH, I HAD A GREAT SURGEON. I’LL GIVE YOU HIS NAME BUT THE REAL REASON I’M WALKING AND YOU’RE NOT IS BECAUSE OF KARMA’
‘BECAUSE NOTHING’S REAL, RIGHT?’
‘Nothing in your story appears to be real, no…’
‘THIS WHOLE WORLD’ windmills arms about ‘THIS WHOLE WORLD IS JUST AN ILLUSION. WE ARE NOT HERE HERE, YOU KNOW?’
‘SO IT’S YOUR OWN FAULT YOU CAN’T WALK. MY KARMA IS GOOD, THAT’S WHY I AM FULLY RECOVERED. DO YOU WANT TO KNOW WHAT YOU NEED TO DO?’
‘I think I’m pretty sure about what I need to do, thanks’
It was at this point that Karma Guy began to pick up on my less than enthusiastic reception to his miracle tale and sensed that it might be time to move onto some other unsuspecting tourist.
‘RIGHT’ he said, ‘WELL IF YOU WANT TO STAY IN THAT CHAIR, THAT’S ON YOU.’ At this point he produced a spliff and lit it whilst continuing ‘GOTTA GO. STUFF TO DO, PEOPLE TO SEE’ and with that he ambled back into the bushes by the BBQ, presumably to prepare his next ambush. It occurs to me now that, given the inaccessibility of the trail we were by, he’s probably still there waiting for someone else in a wheelchair to rock up. I like to think of him peering through the undergrowth muttering to himself ‘No, that one’s walking…and that one…and all those. All walking, dammit’. I am quite sure that the irony of him living in a picnic area whilst telling better dressed strangers with homes and jobs that their karma is much worse than his has also not landed.
Um, so where am I going with this? Basically – if you treat someone in a wheelchair like they are a normal person you’ll be golden – because they are a normal person. They are you but with a certain part of their body injured. You wouldn’t behave weirdly around someone who’d broken their arm or leg so there’s no need to do it around someone who’s broken their neck or back instead. When it comes to asking someone whether they want help, personally I never mind this – probably because I often do and I always take it in the spirit that it’s intended. More able paraplegics may feel that you asking impugns their independence so my guideline would be to offer if they look like they’re struggling but don’t be offended if you’re turned down. Sometimes we want to do something ourselves just to prove we can even when it would be easier to be helped. Certainly, I’m sure everyone reading this would happily help if specifically asked and I’d add don’t be alarmed if some girl hanging out a car window starts shouting at you on a petrol station forecourt. It will probably be me.