A Special Encounter.

Empty blue wheelchairs in a row.

Due to the pandemic, I haven’t been out and about enough to have any encounters worth writing about for some time. This has actually made producing content quite tricky at times, as one of the best ways to get ideas for articles or to beat writers block in general, is to go for a wander. On many occasions going on one of these strolls has allowed me to observe or experience something worth writing about, but even if nothing of note happens, it helps to provide a clear head to think. Perhaps losing the ability to do this quite so freely is why an unexpected encounter from over a month ago still sticks so strongly in my mind.

Early on a Monday morning, with fresh snow on the ground making it somewhat tricky to guide my wheelchair along the pavements, I headed to one of the local hospitals. Unusually for me this trip to the hospital was on business rather than a health-related issue. I had set off earlier than I usually would due to the snow, and due to an issue with one of the operating theatres the doctor ended up being slightly late to meet me. While I was waiting, I grabbed a coffee from the café in the reception area, and as always placed it in my trusty cup holder for transport. I headed back to our agreed meeting point and soon my colleague appeared; our business was conducted promptly so that he could get back to surgery quickly. The emergency department was rather busy due to a steady stream of patients who had broken bones slipping on the patches of black ice littering the streets.

As I finished bits of paperwork, a patient in a dressing gown propelled themselves nearby in a wheelchair. They were clearly new to using a wheelchair as they fumbled with the cold rims, moving forward in short bursts before coming to a halt, but they were doing well. A few minutes later, as I drained the last of my coffee and stuffed paperwork into my bag, she came past again, this time with a coffee in hand. Her progress was somewhat hindered by the drink as she was having to push with one hand while the other held the coffee, before switching hands to push the other wheel. I noticed that there was a small coffee table blocking the aisles between chairs, and seeing that she was heading that way I pulled it to one side. Learning to use a wheelchair is difficult enough without unnecessary obstacles.

She nodded her thanks before noticing my cup-holder, and stopped to ask me where I had purchased it. Like many accessibility aids it actually came from a sports shop, and was intended to be attached to bikes. That said they function just as well on wheelchairs, and this small adjustment has made a significant difference, especially when in the office. This sparked a conversation where she explained that she was in hospital recovering from an amputation, and this was only her second or third day using a wheelchair. Admitting that I have almost eleven years of experience using a wheelchair, I answered questions concerning everything from the practical aspects of using one, to applying for benefits, to finding work as a disabled person.

Since she was heading outside for some fresh air, and I was about to head home, I carried her coffee for her. The conversation lasted a few more minutes before sadly I had to go. My final piece of advice was simply to explain that adjusting to life with a disability is incomprehensibly difficult, and not to be too hard on herself. She remarked that I had given her hope that life could and would continue, albeit differently. I had to swallow back tears.

On the way home, I contemplated the conversation and how hard it had been adjusting to being disabled over a decade before. I thought my life was effectively over, and that disability was the worst thing that could happen to someone aside from death itself. On many occasions I believed that I would have been better off dead. It took an extraordinarily long time to come to terms with being disabled, to adapt to my body’s new needs, and to learn to live with disability. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that while many negative experiences have stemmed from being disabled, just as many positive ones have also stemmed from it. While I would prefer not to be in constant pain or have to deal with endless ableism, being disabled isn’t the life-ruining problem I imagined it to be. I can only hope that at least a little bit of this positivity rubbed off on that woman, who has a very long road ahead her. Chances are I will never see them again, but I hope they’re doing OK.

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