A holiday, in Cornwall. Pearl decides to do some beach walking.
Unable to use her trusty Kaye Walker on the sand she relies on Dad’s hand, stubbornness and occasional crawling.
The family becomes silhouettes on the shoreline, and I am marooned with the new, cumbersome, wheelchair buggy, unwittingly about to take part in a social experiment.
The buggy is new, green, and slightly reclining, it also holds weights up to 14 stone.
It’s sunny. The small girl shape on the shoreline is digging. I have a book. So, I sit down on the deckchair substitute I’m minding.
Soon I start to feel uncomfortable. I’ve positioned myself just off the main path to the beach, so I can see the sandy explorers, and be as close as possible when Pearl’s energy runs out.
People are passing, as they have been since I arrived. Something however has changed and I’m not sure what.
As crowds stream past, adults look over my head, some glance at me and look away as soon as I catch their eyes and smile. Those who do say hello often accompany it with a head tilt, and a mild look of sorrow.
I am in direct eye line with sandy dogs and small children, who feel free to stare, but generally return my smiles, even the dogs! (Famously known for being a bad influence on children and dogs, I tend to over excite both!)
A couple my age are struggling up a steep embankment and having difficulty managing the climb, and a lively canine.
“Can I help you by holding the dog?” I ask.
“No, no, don’t worry we’ll be fine" comes a swift reply.
I look at their kind, concerned faces. Then it hits me.
I believe I’m sitting in a chair, but all the passersby think it’s a wheelchair. The feeling of dislocation has come from the reactions to a chair and a young(ish) disabled woman.
I think of Pearl, and my best friend who has CP and is a wheelchair user. Do they get this? Every day?
I get up to help the dog walkers, who are astonished at my miraculous recovery.
This also gives me pause. What if I was an occasional wheelchair user (like Pearl) would people have an opinion on that too? Perhaps they'd think I was inventing a disability?
I chat about this to the dog walkers.
“I’m sorry," he (who incidentally was one of the only people to look me in the eye and grin and greet me when I was in the chair) said. “I just assumed.”
I talk about my feelings at swapping places with Pearl and say: “I think everyone should be made to sit in a wheelchair in a public place for half an hour it’s been an eye opener”.
Ms Dog walker agrees. Her best friend at school had been a wheelchair user, and she’d had a go in her chair: “Didn’t like it, everyone treated me differently and nothing was in my reach or eyeline”
Do people look at Pearl like that? Does she notice? I hope not but being nonverbal and having challenges with her understanding of verbal language, I’m sure she does. She is a very astute reader of body language and facial expression.
I would urge anyone to try this. I found the power in an exchange shifted very subtly. I was literally being looked down on. Not only that, but the burden of beginning an interaction, lay with me as people over empathized and felt uncomfortable about how to acknowledge me.
So to all of us who get around on two feet.
No cause for alarm.