If you use Twitter and you haven’t seen the #AmbulatoryWheelchairUsersExist campaign then I’m offended, because that means you aren’t following me.
In all seriousness, that little phrase is being used across social media to raise awareness of wheelchair users who can sometimes stand and walk, usually with walking aids. I myself have a rollator, which is basically a cross-over between a Zimmer frame and one of those shopping baskets on wheels that are a pre-requisite condition of being a pensioner, with a seat to perch on when needed. This means that on the occasions where I am only going around the corner to post a letter or buy a pint of milk, I’m not dependent on my wheelchair.
There is an attitude that ambulatory wheelchair users are lazy attention-seekers, faking the severity of their illness to obtain additional financial support. The reality of the matter is that, as with any illness, some days are going to be better than others.
The first time I used my rollator was on a wild trip to the supermarket to pick up a few basic sundries. It was undeniably strange to feel the pavement beneath my feet; I was acutely aware of the bumps in the pavement, and the hotter temperature of the concrete exposed to the sunlight. I managed to maintain a slow, steady pace down the hill and round the shop, revelling in the luxury of being able to see what items were on the top shelves, and not have to become a contortionist to reach the items I wanted. I could even reach to the back of the refrigerator to select the freshest milk.
I went to the self-checkout, paid, and placed the packed shopping bag on the seat of my frame. Halfway up the hill a strong gust of wind sent my shopping sprawling across the street, and as I bent down to collect everything as quickly as I could, I was tutted at for being in the path of passers-by and absolutely no one offered to help. It was strangely reassuring to know that I was as invisible on the frame as I was in the wheelchair.
Since then I have used the frame on an almost daily basis, and on the whole I have enjoyed the freedom it has given me as single steps and curb drops are now climbable, if a little difficult. The only real difficulty I have faced is that, just like in the wheelchair, I am expected to go around other people, prams, groups stopped on the street, and even badly parked cars. In the wheelchair this is incredibly annoying, can greatly slow my progress, and often leaves me vulnerable to verbal abuse. On the rollator there are an extra two steps needed to move out of the way of someone who absolutely needed to respond to a message that instant, the rest of society be damned. Add up the number of times this can happen in one small street and I can end up walking an extra 10 – 20 steps. This sounds insignificant but with each extra step my muscles hurt more, my dizziness increases, and my body temperature rises at an alarmingly uncontrolled rate. This is one of the main reasons why I simply cannot use the rollator over long periods or distances without risking a serious relapse.
I might leave the flat one day in the wheelchair and then be using the rollator the next. This does not make me a fake, nor does it make me heroic for putting up with the pain. I’m just trying to live a little, and I am far from the only person doing so. Ambulatory wheelchair users do, in fact, exist, and we are going places (albeit very slowly).