Captain Wheels: A Short Story.

The pub door swung open, and a tall, muscular woman entered and looked around the room. Finally her eyes settled on the man she wished to speak to, perched precariously on a bar stool with his wheelchair directly to his right. She marched across the room to him and tapped him lightly on the shoulder, causing him to swivel round.

“Captain Wheels?” she asked.

“Yes,” he replied, “want to take a selfie?”

“No. Actually, I’d like to speak with you in relative privacy, perhaps in one of those booths?” she pointed to the opposite wall which was lined with tall, secluded booths.

“Oh, OK, sure. Give me a minute.” Captain Wheels shifted into his wheelchair, stretched up for the half-drunk pint still on the bar, and followed the woman across the room to the booth in the far corner. He manoeuvred himself from his wheelchair, which couldn’t fit in the booth, onto one of the high-backed, cushioned seats.

“My name is Nicola Rage, and I’m recruiting people with special abilities to form a team,” Nicola began, “In searching the newspapers for reports of such people, I came across several articles discussing your activities, and I decided to that you might be exactly what I’m searching for.”

Captain Wheels raised one eyebrow slightly, “And what exactly is this team for?”

“Government intelligence services has found evidence of a criminal organisation that is in ownership of multiple significant threats that have the potential to destroy entire cities. What these threats are is as yet unknown, but when those threats present themselves, as appears to be inevitable, we need someone to protect us.”

“And that’s me?”

“Potentially, as part of a team of like-minded individuals,” Nicola said calmly, “but first I need to talk to you to discuss what exactly those abilities are, without the exaggeration of excitable journalists.” She flipped open a notepad on which were scrawled a handful of questions, and before Captain Wheels had the chance to say anything else, began questioning him.

“How did you obtain your powers?”

“Well, personally I don’t especially like recounting that experience-“ Captain Wheels began, but was interrupted by Nicola.

“Captain, I realise that asking someone how they obtained their special abilities is a sensitive question, but I am not asking this to satisfy my own personal curiosity. I need to hear it from you.”

“7 years ago doctors found a tumour in my brain. A cancerous one. The operation to remove it went wrong, severely limiting my mobility and putting me in a wheelchair, but while I lost control of my own body, I gained the ability to control other physical objects. I can move things with my mind, get things to levitate very briefly, and can even influence the actions of those around me to some extent.”

“So you’re telekinetic?” Nicola asked in a matter-of-fact voice, almost sounding bored.

“Yeah, I guess so,” came Captain Wheels’ reply.

“And how do you use these powers?”

“Probably my most frequent job is to move extremely heavy objects if someone is trapped, say in a building fire or a collapsed building following an earthquake. I’ve also been able to prevent car accidents and the like, and I can move objects to block and trap criminals allowing them to be caught by the police before they cause any more harm,” Captain Wheels said.

“So, you could perhaps trap terrorists allowing them to be apprehended, or move a bomb to a safe distance away from inhabited buildings and businesses. And you could help anyone stuck within the wreckage if we weren’t fast enough,” Nicola proceeded.

“Yes.”

“Could you get them to change their minds about their intentions?”

“It’s possible but not certain, I’m afraid. I may be able to slow them down by making them question their actions, but once an idea is imprinted firmly in someone’s mind, I can do very little to change it,” Captain Wheels explained.

Nicola Rage sat back against her seat in thought, before continuing.

“Would you be willing to be a member of an elite team, all of whom have their own special abilities, to help reduce the threat to our society on an international scale?” she asked.

“If my powers are useful to you, then yes, absolutely,” Captain Wheels said with sincerity.

“Then welcome to the Protection Squad.”

***

Captain Wheels slowly seated himself in his new wheelchair. Instead of the cold, grey lump of metal he was used to, this was warm and comfortable, more like an armchair on wheels. Like his old wheelchair it was powered, but here the similarities stopped. The batteries had an extra-long life, and could be charged using solar power as well as the charger. The control panel was cluttered with a myriad of buttons, which Nicola guided him through.

“The top one is for stealth mode. It silences the motors and dims the lights on the control panel, activates the chameleon panels which help you blend into the background just like the ones on your uniform, and switches off the horn so you have no chance of alerting someone to your presence accidentally.

“That one is for the jet pack, which will help you levitate your own wheelchair at great heights for longer, so you can focus your powers elsewhere. This one here is for the parachute should something go wrong.

“This one is for the gun incorporated into your left arm rest, and will reload automatically from the magazine of bullets under the seat. We’ve added special receptors that can enhance the effects of your telekinesis, allowing you to aim the gun hands-free.

“Obviously all of these things take some power from the battery, so should be used carefully, but with these batteries I can’t imagine you’ll have to worry about it too much.”

“Wow,” Captain Wheels said slowly, “just wow.”

Nicola smiled, “I had an inkling that you might like it. Are you ready to meet the other team members?”

Captain Wheels nodded, and followed her into the next room. In the centre of the room was an oval-shaped mahogany table, with three men and two women in the same uniform already seated around it as if they were attending the worlds’ most unusual board meeting. Captain Wheels manoeuvred into the space left for him at the table, while Nicola took her seat at the end of the table.

“Welcome all of you,” she said, “you were hand-picked because of your special abilities, and together you are the Protection Squad. I advise that you get to know each other quickly; the latest government intelligence suggests that the first threat is imminent, and we will need you to defend us. Now if you will excuse me, I have a strategy meeting with my superiors to attend, after which you may well be called upon.” She stood up and left.

There was a short, awkward pause before the darker-haired woman introduced herself as Dominique, her power being the ability to shape-shift. The second woman, known only as the Blood Assassin, briefly described the genetic and surgical enhancements she had been subjected to against her will that had turned her into a super-warrior. Doctor Raven described himself as a super-intelligent telepath, and Jerry Lightning introduced his ability to run faster than the speed of sound. Finally there was Thoron, affectionately nicknamed for his strength and odd resemblance to the Nordic God of thunder. The last person to introduce himself was Captain Wheels.

“I’m Dave Heyton, otherwise known as Captain Wheels,” he said as all eyes turned to face him, “and I’m telekinetic. My wheelchair also has special stealth settings, and a jet pack.”

“So what are you without the wheelchair?” Thoron scoffed.

“A telekinetic, cancer-surviving badass,” Captain Wheels kept a straight face as he said this, while Dominique struggled to supress her smile. Before anything else could be said, the door opened and Nicola Rage entered.

“We have a situation,” she said.

***

Tactics were discussed in the helicopter while they headed to their destination, an allegedly disused block of offices in the financial district of London. It had been reported that a gas-emitting bomb was to be hidden there by the criminal organisation shortly before rush hour, when it would be set off, releasing poisonous gases that would result in horrific widespread disease, essentially turning people into mindless zombies.

“This weapon is designed to cause mass panic on a national scale as much as it is to harm people,” Nicola Rage said, “if it goes off, not only will we have a horrific disease to manage, but the country will be in uproar. The mistrust of governmental departments is bad enough as it is; something like this would push the country into disrepair and self-destruction. And that means that someone new can barge in and take control, because in that situation the public simply want a leader to follow, and they won’t give a damn who that will be.

“You will be dropped off here,” Nicola pointed to a location on the map, “and will make you way through this series of back alleys to the office block in question. Raven; we want you on the top floor of the building providing us with information as to the whereabouts of the criminals in the office. Dominique; follow the gang through the building by blending into the environment, providing us with further intel by thinking it for Doctor Raven, and joining in the fighting when we apprehend the gang. Assassin and Thoron; using the intel provided we will guide you through the building until the right moment, when you will start your attack. Lightning and Wheels; you will use your speed and levitation powers in combination to quickly transport the bomb to our bomb-disposal team in their secret base, in the most remote part of the Scottish highlands. Understood?”

Everyone nodded, and soon the helipad where they were to land came into view. Instead of waiting for the lift to arrive to carry him down to ground level, which was taking far too long, Captain Wheels decided to use the jetpack and go down the stairs, which proved trickier to control than he had anticipated. Quite how the scorch-marks left behind him would be explained to the cleaning staff he didn’t know.

Once they were on the street they moved swiftly through the back alleys until they arrived at the office block. As expected, there was no evidence of activity yet, so they slipped into the building unnoticed. Doctor Raven checked with his telepathic powers that the building was indeed empty, and then set off for the top floor. Dominique disguised herself as a small spider spinning a web in the corner, ready to follow the criminals when they arrived. The rest tucked themselves in the dark underneath the stairs, activated their chameleon suits, and waited for further instructions to be fed to them through their ear pieces.

A short later their earpieces crackled into life, and Nicola Rage’s disembodied voice confirmed sighting of the gang headed towards the office disguised as delivery men, driving an unmarked white van. About two minutes after this Doctor Raven said he could detect ten people, all men, approaching in a white van. While nine of the men were highly anxious that some sort of suspicious activity was going on, only one seemed to actually know what was being delivered. Doctor Raven tracked the men as they entered the building; two stayed on the ground floor, two outside the first floor, and two more stayed outside the door into the second floor while the remaining four entered the offices. Dominique was completely unnoticed as she scuttled into the office underneath the closed door.

At this point Blood Assassin crept out from beneath the stairs and stealthily made her way towards the two men in the reception area. Silently, she knocked them both unconscious simultaneously, and gently placed their bodies on the floor. When she returned she clambered onto Lightnings’ back, and in a flash she was up the stairs, having knocked out both sets of guards. Captain Wheels and Thoron could now make their way up to the second floor, where they grouped together.

Doctor Raven said that the package containing the bomb had been put down, and that the three men who didn’t know what was in it were making their way back towards the stair well. Everyone pressed themselves back against the wall on each side of the door, something Captain Wheels found particularly difficult, blending into the dull grey walls almost perfectly. The three men left the second floor in silence, and once the door had closed behind them Blood Assassin knocked them all unconscious, propping them up against the wall.

As they were about to enter the office to apprehend the one remaining man, Nicola Rage reported that a helicopter was progressing towards them. Once Doctor Raven found the relevant vehicle, he said that there were four men in the helicopter, all in the know. They were planning to kill all the other men involved in the operation, acting as security until the bomb went off, when they would succumb to the disease just like the man already in the building. Thinking quickly, Nicola ordered them to enter the room and apprehend the one man there, telling Lightning and Captain Wheels to remove the bomb while only one man was present, leaving the rest to fight the approaching criminals.

Captain Wheels deactivated stealth mode and violently kicked the door open, which promptly swung back and slammed his legs. Thoron leant across him and pushed the door so hard the hinges snapped. Dominque transformed into her human form, blocking the doors on the other side of the room. The criminal screamed that he was under attack into his own walkie-talkie, before firing his gun at his attackers. Only two bullets had been fired before Blood Assassin had disarmed him, both of which missed their target, at which point Captain Wheels levitated the bomb towards him. Thoron kept the enemy in place while the two women headed up the building to deal with the helicopter that had just landed, and Captain Wheels was propelled out of the building at super speed by Lightning.

Once outside Captain Wheels activated his jet pack, flying close to the buildings so that Lightning could run along them, continuing to push the wheelchair at speed. Within seconds they were out of the city, running along buildings and hilltops, flying in between, and in only a couple of minutes they were approaching the bomb disposal unit. Travelling at such a speed through the cold, wet Scottish highlands was not the most enjoyable experience, nor was it good for slick hair styles, but both men were far more concerned with the bomb than they were about their own discomfort. It was only as they landed, soaked to the skin, that they even noticed just how cold they were. The bomb disposal team took the bomb from them as soon as they had landed, and almost immediately Captain Wheels and Lightning embarked on the return trip.

As they arrived at the office block, they were informed by Doctor Raven that the fighting was already over. Dominque and Blood Assassin had rapidly disarmed the men from the helicopter, and he himself had hacked into the still-working security system to lock the doors of the room they were in once the women had escaped. A police squad were on their way to pick up all the men, and in the meantime the Protection Squad were to wait on the roof of the building for further orders, bar Thoron who was still occupied detaining the apparent mastermind behind the scheme.

From the roof the Protection Squad had a reasonable view of the police arriving in vans and dragging out the unconscious men, before finally putting the rest of the men into high-security vans with the aid of Thoron. As this progressed a crowd gathered, and soon extra police had to be called in for crowd control. Soon enough the police were escorting their prisoners to the nearest station, and the Protection Squad worked their way down the building to meet the enthusiastic people outside, who were particularly interested in Captain Wheels’ chair. Camera’s flashed and journalist yelled questions at the top of their lungs, all trying to find out what exactly had happened. Nicola Rage reminded them not to say a word as she sent a van to pick them up.

The following morning all of the newspapers headlines were as predictable as a B-movie science fiction film; all of them were desperate to know just who the Protection Squad were. Captain Wheels smiled at the photograph plastered across every front page; only the very top of his head could be seen as he sat beside his standing compatriots. He didn’t have long to relax, however, before Nicola Rage called upon him again.

The Final Student Day.

On the 17th July 2017, I woke to sunlight streaming between the slats of the venetian blinds, and was about to turn over and go back to sleep when the alarm started. I wondered why I had put an alarm on for a Monday morning when I wasn’t working, and it took me longer than I would care to admit that realise that it was graduation day. Mornings were never a strong point.

Jarred and me made it onto the university campus by 10 am, and immediately went into the union to collect tickets for myself, my parents, and an additional one I had got for Jarred as he was my “carer” for the day.

Then we wandered through to the back of the union to collect my graduation robe and hood. A porter was directing people to the correct rooms, depending on whether they were taking or returning robes, or whether they were going to watch the graduation ceremony live via a livestream. Without asking first, the porter directed me towards the room for watching graduation ceremonies. Surely someone in a wheelchair couldn’t possibly have obtained a degree?!?

“I’ve just been awarded a first class degree with honours,” I said in a matter-of-fact tone, “and am here to graduate.”

The look of surprise on his face was akin to the expression people wear when I tell them that my disability originated from meningitis; somewhere between Taylor Swift and brain-dead.

“Oh…” he eventually stammered, “then you need to go into this room please.” He ushered me into the robing room.

Putting on the robe was something of a calamity. Long, flowing material has a tendency to become entwined around the motors and wheels of my wheelchair, and I had to be careful not to get it tangled in the seat belt (most wheelchairs have them, I’m not just a really bad driver). As I came out of the robing room, the porter looked so sheepish that I was surprised not to see a yellow anti-sheep-theft tag dangling from his ear.

After greeting a few of my friends and course mates, Jarred and I went to meet my parents. Another period of awkward small talk in the midst of a crowd ensued, and then we were being shown into the Great Hall.

The front of the stage in the Great Hall was weighed down with ivy more plastic-looking than Nicki Minaj’s rear end, and the flowers weren’t much more organic either. I was given a seat on the front row, allowing me quick access for the lift onto the stage when it was needed.

Once everyone was in the hall and seated in the correct places, the next half an hour was spent clapping almost incessantly. I felt akin to a seal trying to earn an extra fish off its trainer. When I wasn’t clapping, I was high-fiving my course mates as they went past upon returning to their seats. Soon, my hands were red and tingling, and given the warmth of the day whilst smothered in black robes, they were sweaty too.

My surname means that I am always towards the end of any such procession, so it was quite some time before another porter was helping me into the lift, ready to ascend to the stage. For the most part, the clapping hid the droning noise as the lift hauled me up stage, but one awkward silence between clapping while a name was read out was broken only by the noise of the lift. Fortunately, it had solid sides, so I don’t think anyone noticed my face-palm.

The porter opened the lift door at the top, and my name was called. I drove across, positioned myself for the obligatory photo, collected my certificate, and returned to what I presume was the loudest lift in the entire world.

Recieving degree.jpg

After the ceremony came the free lunch, which was the reason why so many family members had attended, and photos of the whole year group were taken. Then I was driving around, finding as many of my friends and lecturers as I could, posing for photographs, giving well-wishes, and saying goodbye to those I wouldn’t see again.

Once I had done all I needed to, I returned the robe to the sheep-porter (still looking sheepish), and meandered back home through the city centre. In the blink of an eye it was over, I had a degree, a huge student loan to pay off, was no longer a student, and was now expected to act like a proper adult. For all the happiness of achieving what I had, there was also a little sadness that it had come to an end.

Mike and me.jpg

Mum’s left foot is doing the disabled equivalent of a photobomb…

The Student Days.

It’s only after I’ve been writing this blog for several months that I’ve come to realise that I’ve never actually discussed what I do on a day-to-day basis. Admittedly, the “day in the life of” trope is somewhat clichéd and overused, and since my daily habits have changed drastically over the past few months, it’s a little difficult to give an accurate representation of what I would deem an ordinary day right now. Therefore, I’ve decided to write what an ordinary day entailed as a disabled university student, and in the future when my routine has settled down, I may be able to tell you what life as a disabled employee is like.

The alarm clicked into life at 7 am, and the sounds of Planet Rock slowly pulled me back to the land of the living. A few minutes later, I would feel the bed springs move underneath me as Jarred hauled himself out of bed, while I remained immersed among the sheets. The kettle was switched on, and I gradually sat myself upright while Jarred prepared breakfast, which he insisted on bringing me while I was in bed (although I didn’t exactly resist). While we eat breakfast, Jarred read the news as if he were in a 1950’s sitcom, but with a futuristic twist; the news was on his phone.

20 minutes, 1 cup of coffee, and a bowl of cereal later, I finally forced myself to leave the warmth of the bed, and wandered over to the medicine cupboard. I’ve got into the habit of swallowing all the pills I have in a morning in one gulp to save time, and very occasionally one would get stuck on my tongue, leaving a bad taste even after I’d brushed my teeth. After a quick wash I got dressed, usually jeans and a sweater or t-shirt, brushed my hair, applied a little make-up if I could be bothered, and pulled on my trainers.

At this point I often sat down at my computer and caught up with all the emails and messages that had accumulated overnight, and then I would nip across to the union to pick up something for lunch.

Lectures often started at 9 am, perhaps 10 am if I was lucky, and the rest of the morning was spent moving between different lecture theatres, writing down my notes as quickly as I could, often compromising on legibility in the process. If I didn’t have lectures in the afternoon, I was meeting with team mates for group projects, meeting with my supervisor for my dissertation, or working in the laboratory. The time often passed quickly while I was kept occupied, and I relished the experience.

By late afternoon I was usually pretty tired, so I would go home, ditch my books and bags on my bed, and head back to the canteen for something hot to eat, reuniting with Jarred in the process. After eating whatever was on offer that night, and catching up on how each other’s days had gone, Jarred and me would return to my apartment, where I would write my lecture notes up neatly. Longer tasks like researching and writing assignments, or things for group work, I would complete at the weekend when I wasn’t as tired.

I had usually finished my work by 8 pm in the evening, when I would have a warm shower, most of which was spent washing my ridiculously thick and frizzy hair, before pulling on the comfiest pyjamas possible, and crashing in front of my favourite YouTube channels alongside Jarred. If we were feeling particularly silly, we would play Snakes and Ladders with all 6 counters that came with the board, adding an element of strategy by having to think about which piece to move to avoid the snakes, and put ourselves in a favourable position for the ladders. By 10 pm I was often yawning every thirty seconds, and so I would have my evening medication (which was too numerous to take in one gulp) and clean my teeth, before crawling back under the sheets. It always takes me quite a while to go to sleep, and my student days were no different as I stared at the digital clock face blinking the seconds away before I had to do it all over again.

Such a routine might sound a little dull, tedious even, and I cannot honestly claim to have enjoyed every single minute of it. However, it is undeniable that every single one of those minutes was worth it, because the rewards were simply too great to be overshadowed by anything.

Wheels of Fortune: A Short Story.

As soon as I arrived home, I rang my mum, who I knew would be waiting my call. She answered almost immediately.

“Hi mum,” I said.

“Hey sweetie, how did it go?” mum never did like small talk.

“Not well,” I replied, “They turned down the appeal; I’ll only get the lower rate of mobility payments, and nothing at all for care costs. According to the doctor in charge of my case I could choose to use crutches to move around, and a manual wheelchair on bad days.”

“That’s ridiculous,” mum exclaimed, “You did explain that you can’t walk very far on crutches, and that you can’t push yourself any distance in a wheelchair, yes?”

“Of course, mum. They just said I would have to have someone to push a wheelchair on bad days.”

“But they haven’t given you any money for care,” mum sounded as exasperated as I felt.

“Apparently it should be such a rare event that I can simply rely on friends and family.”

“How utterly ridiculous. If they had to live with a disability-“

“I know, mum, I know,” I interrupted her before a long rant ensued.

“So now what?” she asked.

“Well, I can no longer afford payments on my powered wheelchair, so they’ll be coming to collect that in less than a month.”

“Can you try and push for a pay rise?”

“Mum, without a wheelchair how am I even supposed to get to work, let alone get a pay rise? There’s no chance of me being physically able to walk around the office on crutches all day, and my colleagues have work of their own to do; they can’t be my carers.”

“Oh Susie, I wish your father and I could help you out, I really do, but he’s still hunting for a job and his redundancy pay has run out.”

“That’s OK,” I said. There was a short pause, before I asked, “Any ideas as to what I should do?”

“Short of robbing a bank, Susie, I don’t know.”

***

Dave was driving an adapted mini-van hired specially for the occasion, with Sam sat beside him. I was sat in my wheelchair in the back, with the wheelchair steadied on the floor by series of straps more convoluted than the Lord of the Rings trilogy. We pulled up outside the bank, and Dave craned his neck round to face me.

“You don’t need to do this, you know,” he said, “I’ll do it.”

“Are you saying that because I have boobs or wheels?” I retaliated.

“Fine, fine, it’s your money. Got your mask?” he asked.

“I’m in a wheelchair,” I said levelly, “that’s a pretty damn obvious clue towards my identity.”

Dave looked horrified, but Sam was grinning from ear-to-ear, his balaclava pushed back to look like a normal hat.

“Everyone knows that wheelchair users are invisible,” he pitched in.

“Yep,” I agreed.

Dave rolled his eyes, and climbed out of the drivers’ seat. He opened the back door, put out the ramp, and released my wheelchair. I reversed down the ramp with ease, a practised manoeuvre I was very used to.

“I’ll be here when you get back,” Dave leant casually against the open boot of the car and crossed his arms, clearly not happy about my lack of a mask.

Sam and I moved towards the platform lift provided for wheelchair users to traverse the flight of steps into the bank. A piece of paper with the words “Out of Order” was pinned to it, waving in the breeze. Clearly the lift had been out of order for some time, as the paper was dirty, crumpled, and damp.

“Right,” I said to Sam, “the actual disabled entrance is round the side.”

“Sure,” Sam replied.

I traversed up the narrow ramp which had a tight hair-pin bend half-way up, and hit the button for the automatic door to open. As usual, the mechanism wasn’t switched on.

“I’ll get it,” Sam heaved the door open, which due to the rather pointless automation was incredibly heavy and cumbersome.

Once inside the bank we joined the back of the queue, and slowly we moved towards the cashiers’ desk. Aside from getting caught in the tightly weaving line set out by flimsy barriers, this was uneventful, and even boring. After what seemed like an eternity, we reached the head of the queue.

“Next,” a bored assistant said in a monotone voice, “How can I help?”

“This is a stick-up,” I said to the marble panels lining the front of a desk so high I would have needed a periscope to see over it.

“Pardon me, but I can’t hear you,” the assistant said.

“This is a stick-up,” I said loudly. Everyone stopped what they were doing and turned towards me, a stunned silence sweeping the room. I was used to being a spectacle, so this did not perturb me. Sam turned to face the crowd, his balaclava obscuring his face, and pulled the most realistic-looking toy gun we could find out of his back pocket.

“I need £6,000 in cash in this bag, now,” I said, “and nobody gets run over.” I gave the bag to Sam, who put it on the counter for me.

“Very funny,” the assistant didn’t laugh, “now what are you really here for.”

“Gimme the money!” I shouted in my most gangster voice.

It dawned on the assistant that we weren’t actually joking, and she must have hit the emergency button underneath the desk. Red lights started flashing as the alarm screamed, and the doors locked themselves. Everyone started running around like madmen, trying to cram themselves into the offices lining the walls of the bank for safety.

“The money, in the bag, now!” Sam yelled, turning to face the assistant and pointing the toy gun at her.

“That is not real,” she said.

“Wanna risk a bet?” Sam levelled it at her head.

“Yeah I would be, since the armed response team will have real guns to shoot you with on the off-chance that yours is real,” she retorted, “so I suggest you put it down and take a comfy seat until the police arrive.”

“C’mon Sam, let’s just go,” I was disappointed, but I knew when I was beaten.

I put my wheelchair on the highest speed setting, and rushed towards the disabled exit. Since the automatic mechanism wasn’t switched on, the door hadn’t locked. I hurled myself through the door and down the ramp, and headed towards the car, only to find another car parked over the space where the pavement levelled with the road. I could see that Dave was already arguing with him.

“I’ll only be hear a minute, what’s the rush?” the driver was saying, dangling his cigarette out of the window and dropping ash onto the road.

“Move or I scratch your precious car,” I said from the pavement. The driver saw Sam behind me, toy gun in hand, and looked as if he had had an accident that didn’t involve cars.

“OK, alright man, chill,” the driver reversed his car the two feet necessary, and I hurried towards our mini-van.

The ramp was already down so I could drive straight into the vehicle, but then began the complicated business of strapping the chair to the floor. It was a full minute before this was complete, and as Dave pushed the ramp in behind me, three police cars screeched around the corner. Almost before they had stopped moving the officers were out of their cars and running towards us, and were quickly joined by a van-load of officers with viciously barking dogs.

“Stop right there!” an officer yelled.

“The armed response team is only minutes away, so I suggest you cooperate,” he continued, “Now let the hostage go, and nobody gets hurt.”

It took me a second to realise that by “hostage” they meant me. As this sunk in Sam threw his head back and laughed loudly, sending the dogs into a burst of loud barking and growling. The officer who had spoken looked stunned.

“She ain’t no hostage,” our cashier hurried down the steps towards us, almost stumbling in her ridiculous heels as she did so, “She’s one of the robbers.”

The officer opened his mouth to speak, but she told him that it was her who had sounded the alarm before he could ask how she was involved.

“I have no doubt that they were using this poor woman as some kind of protection, almost like a human shield,” the officer raised one eyebrow and glanced over at me.

“She was one of the robbers alright,” customers were now filing slowly out of the bank, and among them was the middle-aged man who spoke. A few officers were occupying themselves by stopping them from leaving the scene, as they were all valuable witnesses.

“Are you?” the officer gaped at me. I figured there wasn’t much point lying, as every witness would testify otherwise, so I told the truth.

“Arrest them all,” he ordered his subordinates. Quickly Dave and Sam were cuffed and placed in the back of separate police cars, while being given the usual spiel about having the right to remain silent. However, I presented a problem; none of their own vehicles were accessible. Even when the armed response team came screeching around the corner a minute later, there were no facilities capable of transporting me in my wheelchair. Thinking on his feet, the officer ordered that I was cuffed, and that a couple of officers drove the car to the police station.

The ride back to the police station took no longer than five minutes as we followed the cars containing Sam and Dave, but upon arriving at our destination my case presented yet more problems. It took ten minutes for the police officers to figure out how to release my wheelchair from all the safety measures, and then they realised that while cuffed driving my wheelchair would be rather difficult.  They tried to push my wheelchair, but it wasn’t designed to be pushed by others, and it was extremely heavy. Eventually they had to settle for my slow and shaky driving as they escorted me into the police station.

The reception desk in the police station was as high as the one in the bank, and yet again I found myself taking to a wall, wishing I had a periscope. After signing in I was escorted to a holding cell down a corridor so narrow it was virtually impossible to fit the wheelchair through. What the people already in a cell must have thought when they heard an electronic whine combined with the scraping of metal on whitewashed walls I do not know. The door of the cell was too small to allow the wheelchair through, and so I had to hobble over to the bench on the far side of the cell bracing the walls, and my wheelchair was taken somewhere where I was told it would be safe. Once the door had been slammed shut, I was amused to hear the sounds of the policemen struggling to drive my wheelchair to said safe place.

That evening mum and dad came to see me, just as I was swallowing the last of something that barely qualified as food. Dad looked bemused and a little concerned, but mum had a face like thunder.

“They’re releasing you on bail until the trial comes round since you didn’t actually hurt anyone or steal any money,” dad said calmly, “but only if you live with us until then, with a curfew, and if you go out alone you’ll be arrested again. Count yourself lucky that this is some kind of wheelchair perk.”

“Oh, and surprisingly enough, you’ve been fired. So now you really are out of money,” mum snapped.

I heard the barrage of whining and scraping that signified the re-appearance of my wheelchair, and an hour later I was lying on a flimsy camp-bed in my parents’ cluttered lounge, trying to get to sleep while being licked by their dog, Ringo.

***

The day before the trial I sat on the kitchen floor and scrubbed my wheelchair clean; they do say that appearance is everything in court. I picked out a matching dress and jacket combination, and made sure that my leather boots had been polished. Outside a group of photographers and journalists lounged on my parents’ garden fence, which was scuffed and dented thanks to all their attention over the past months, much to my mothers’ dismay. I was actually grateful for their media coverage, as my motives soon came to light, and public pressure had forced the reinstatement of my disability benefits, allowing me to keep my wheelchair. It seemed that even after my little escapade, most people felt sorry for me because of my wheels.

For most of the introductory speeches at the start of the trial, I remained lost in my own thoughts rather than listening to what was being said, all the while trying to maintain the appearance of being riveted for the benefit of the jury. The state-provided defence lawyer had advised all three of us to plead guilty to charges of attempted robbery, since there was an overwhelming amount of evidence in the form of witnesses and security camera footage against us.

Once Sam and Dave had been called, pleaded guilty, and been sentenced to a short stint in jail followed by many hours of community service, I went to take my place opposite the witness stand. There was, however, one minor inconvenience. Despite the excessive media attention having taken great pains to emphasise my disability, turning me into the victim of the piece, between me and the microphone where I would confess my guilt, there was a step. When the press saw my plight, uproar ensued as photographers leant dangerously far over bannisters to take pictures of the court stupid enough not to provide accessible facilities.

The following day while lounging in my prison cell I was given a newspaper by a guard who had finished reading it. On the front page was a birds-eye view photograph of me seated in my wheelchair, looking at the step in the court room. The focus of the article was not the fact that I had attempted to rob a bank, but the fact that blatant discrimination still existed in a court of law. The scathing headline summed it up perfectly; “COURT NEEDS TO STEP-UP THEIR GAME.”

Wheelchairs in Academia.

Emma Steer (Diary of a Disabled Person) and Aidan Bizony (The Disability Diaries).

From September 2014 to June 2017, I studied Nutrition at the University of Leeds. One extremely common misconception is that nutrition it is a relatively simple subject to study, with very little hard science to get to grips with. The reality is that over my three year course, I spent many hours in the lectures studying biochemistry and human physiology in great detail, and I used knowledge from physics, chemistry, biology, and mathematics on a daily basis. In addition to the lectures, I also spent a great deal of my time in various laboratories, working on food processing procedures, food analysis, and studying the effects of nutrients on cell cultures.

Much like any other academic subject, the lectures were central to help me understand my course. At first, some of my peers seemed to think that I had been given a place on the course out of pity, but soon learned otherwise when I consistently answered questions correctly, and received high marks for my work. This train of thought is entirely forgivable though, given some peoples’ attitudes to political correctness.

I was provided with an assistant to help me get around the university campus, holding open doors and lifts, moving tables and chairs to accommodate my wheelchair, and fetching and returning books to and from the library. In addition, I was offered support with note-taking, especially as my lectures were intense and fast-paced, requiring a rapid rate of note-taking that produced handwriting something akin to that of a doctors’. However, given that my main technique of learning involves repeatedly writing out notes, I decided to write my own notes in order to help me learn, and simply learned to cope with the ache in my wrist at the end of the day.

Unsurprisingly, it was in the laboratories where I needed the most support. People had to help fetch equipment and reagents, and return them to their rightful places or the cleaning station at the end of the experiments. I was allowed to perch on a rather uncomfortable wooden stool, on the condition that I could still move quickly enough if an accident occurred. Many of these experiments took several hours to complete, and by the end I was usually so tired that I could barely sit upright, despite having all the help the university could possibly provide me with. However, I only ever left the laboratory early if it was necessary, earning the respect of my tutors and peers alike.

By the end of the course I had made many friends and learned many skills. I had transformed from a miserable hub of self-consciousness to a confident and relatively independent scholar with a passion for science and health care. University helped me develop into what I am today, as it does for any other student, regardless of subject or disability.

 

In February 2016, I started an Undergraduate Degree at the University of Cape Town in English and History.  Initially, I wanted to do Law but decided to embark on my passion for Literature instead – something I’m extremely glad I did now that I think about it. While a lot of my old high school buddies spend their types in laboratories or in Finance Lectures, I chose to spend my time debating word-choice in centuries-old novels. I’m happy with what I do. It, too, is one of the few avenues in my life that can be entirely disentangled from disability. Don’t get me wrong, disability is a part of who I am, but I don’t want to be dominated by it all the time.

As much as my field allows me to separate me from my physical limitations, sometimes the campus itself and the ideologies of those around me find a way, as John Keats put it, “toll me back to my sole self.” Granted, a physical disability is bound to bring with it some challenges that mean the experience is different, but I don’t see how the real-world complications should be allowed to creep into my academic life. To think, though, that 150+ year old university built on a mountain must suddenly redesign itself for a relatively small portion of the population who have certain physical difficulties is naïve – particularly when you consider all the other problems South Africa must address.

Regardless of the various difficulties I have in navigating the campus, there are several groups who strive to make the academic experience as separate as possible from the disability limitations students face. For instance, since the campus bus system is not wheelchair accessible the UCT Disability Service arrange alternative, accessible transport so that I do not have to be beholden to friends and/or family to get me to my classes and my classes are taught in wheelchair-accessible venues.

Close to the end of my Second Year and rapidly about to be thrown headfirst into my third and final year, I continue to realise that despite the various access problems and some people’s warped understanding of what it means to be disabled, my disability has not solely been a limitation to me or my fledgling university career. In fact, considering my life-long disability has had a dramatic impact on who I am as a person, the friendships I developed at university (which I hope will remain long after we graduate) have been directly influenced by the fact that I’m in a wheelchair.

Insofar as my disability shaped my interaction with university, I think university has equally influenced my perspective on my disability. Given the largely protected nature of high school, the fact that I am exposed to a wider variety of opinions towards my disability and still can thrive illustrates that while disability forms part of your life, disability doesn’t define you.

Mission Impossible 2: Get Educated.

Ever since I first became ill, I have frequently been advised by doctors to give up my education, right through from my GCSEs and A-levels, up until the end of my degree. I was told that it would only make my health worse, and that I wouldn’t get decent grades or even pass. This advice may seem sensible on the surface, and for some people it works even when they don’t have any choice in the matter, but I found this guidance difficult to accept from people already with a high level of indication, and a nice job to boot. I therefore opted to go against what the doctors said, something I would usually be cautious to do; they’re the experts after all.

First and foremost, my academic performance did not suffer significantly as a result of my illness. I passed my GCSEs and A-levels by giving up less important things like attending after-school clubs or workshops out of term time, and when I started university I moved into catered halls of residence, so I wouldn’t have to cook for myself, saving me energy. I would be lying if I denied the satisfaction I felt by proving the doctors wrong, but in fairness to my GP, he took it lightly and wished me well.

The doctors were right in that my physical health was worsened by my choices. I had no energy to put into the various therapies that people tried to cure me with, and I had far less rest than the ideal. However, as someone who has always become bored quickly, I found that resting gave me time to brood on my situation, and I would very rapidly go from restful to depressed. What my education took from me in terms of physical health, I gained as a boost to my mental health, by taking my mind off the situation, and giving me a positive to focus on. For me, mental ill health has always been harder to cope with than physical health, as there is so little that can be done to relieve the symptoms once a relapse hits. As a result, I threw myself into my work with the force of a hurricane, but burning the candle at both ends drained me of any energy I had so quickly that within days I would be back in bed. It took some time before I perfected the balance between the focus on my education to improve my mental health, and the rest I needed to maintain my physical status.

There was also one other minor flaw in the medical advice given to me; employers don’t see M.E as a valid excuse to have a weaker education and less work experience than anybody else. There should be allowances for such cases, but then, who would employ somebody that would need lots of time off work due to illness over someone else with a curriculum vitae as long as their arm? Perhaps people like me actually contribute to this problem by falling in line with employer’s expectations, allowing employers to think that if one of us can do it, all of us can. Whatever the case, I decided that obtaining an education was best for me under my own circumstances, particularly because after a certain age, even obtaining GCSEs becomes extremely expensive.

Some people seem to think that I’m some kind of badass straight from a movie for going out and getting an education, but the reality is that I used it as a distraction from said reality. The right person could probably make a good argument saying that this was actually an act of cowardice, and I wouldn’t oppose them. Although I did not make my decision to please those who think I’m lazy, it is true that I haven’t exactly stepped out of line with society’s expectations, and the very definition of a badass is someone who defies expectations. Whatever the case, I ask people to respect my decision, as education was simply the right path for me, and the decisions of others should not be based on mine.