The fatigue I had first noticed when I was away became more obvious once we had moved to Harborough Road. I could neither stand nor walk for long, even using a stick. The physio told me to contact the wheelchair service. As with all gleaming new toys, the wheelchair, when it arrived, invited me to try it out right away. There was a superb French delicatessen, run by an avuncular ex-sea captain, at the end of the street. It would have been pain to walk it. I decided to ride there in my new wheelchair.
The pavement looked bumpy, so I launched into the street. It felt very comfortable not to be standing up, and I was encouraged by my first push. But soon I ran down the natural slope of the road into the gutter. Pushing myself back up the camber I found that I could make stately if hazardous progress along the centre of the road; but uh-oh: anything – maybe a road repair – could easily put me off-line and down I went back into the gutter on one side of the street or the other. I returned home exhausted, but with a bag full of croissants and with increased respect for those parathletes you see on televised track events.
It was around this time that I was given another salutary lesson in disability. I had naturally progressed from using one to two walking sticks, and was grateful for the extra balance provided and for the fact that many people gave me due consideration as a disabled person, but I had not physically realised exactly what this meant until I decided to post a letter. There were postboxes at each end of our street and so naturally, I selected the nearest and set out on foot. Subconsciously, I had always thought that I could walk to the end of the street. I now learned that I could not. I was shocked. Of course, I could easily get someone else to post the letters, but, like my first few weeks at work, it was a rite of passage. Or rather, of no passage. With the diagnosis, and arriving as an apprentice in the disability field, I had recognised my disability conceptually, rationally and politically, but now I felt it physically, and that translated into another aspect of the concept: I began to feel it emotionally.
The wheelchair, however, was soon put to use, in particular for shopping and looking. By this time, shops had become a pain on foot. I no longer even tried to enter my favourite Shrubbery Row bric-a-brac antique shop. Streatham High Street clothes shops always used to tempt me in to look for shirts or jeans. Now, if I went in at all, I grabbed the nearest rail to hold onto and chose something nearby. After I had come home with fairly inappropriate garments (I remember a pair of tartan jeans that looked good enough in the shop) a couple of times, out of sympathy for my wife and friends, I stopped browsing.
With the wheelchair, there was no problem. In fact, I developed a liking for shopping malls, which I had previously shunned as downmarket. Picture galleries became a joy once more. The Turner Galleries at the Tate were revisited with an increased relish for the huge, spacious rooms combined with the depth of light and colour on canvas. I feel an almost euphoric sense of calm there, only matched by visits to concerts, which often take me back to sublime days in the fifth row of the second violins in the school orchestra.
Oddly, something that I previously regarded as an imposition became a pleasure. With alacrity I volunteered for supermarket shopping. I would load the wheelchair into the car, park in the wheelchair users’ space at Sainsbury’s, wheel to the entrance, attach a special trolley to myself and enjoy viewing the plethora of goods and shoppers on show. Of course, it was still a nuisance if they had moved the Loyd Grossman pasta sauces to a different aisle, but now I didn’t mind going back. After all, I might find another delicacy on the way. Contrast that to my previous dismay on finding that I had to walk back the length of the store to find something. Smug or what?
I was reminded of one of the interviews I had done for London Disability News. I had gone to see one of the GLAD stalwarts, a woman who I was told was a veteran campaigner for accessible transport for disabled people. I was experienced enough by then not to concentrate too much on how or why she had become a wheelchair user. I asked her about her professional life, and found that she was a medic and in particular, a nutritionist. This intrigued me. How had she jumped from nutrition to transport? “It’s simple really,” she said. “I was working with disabled people, and their carers or the institutions in which they lived weren’t getting them the food that they wanted or needed. Far better that they went to the shops and chose the food for themselves. Getting about would give them some independence too.”
I could see what was coming. “So they needed transport to the get them there.” This redoubtable woman had therefore campaigned in the LCC, GLC, and anywhere else she could for accessible transport. I had already reported on the campaign for LDN. It had now taken the form of direct action in which disabled people, in wheelchairs or not, positioned themselves in front of the inaccessible buses. Of course, it was not difficult in London traffic jams to do this. Sometimes they chained themselves to the vehicles to make the point. The direct action movement mushroomed from there. It took me back to my days as a student ‘revolutionary’. Now, as a journalist within the disability movement, it gave me some satisfaction to be part of it.
The manually-operated wheelchair design, which hasn’t changed much over the last century, is still very useful to me on flat surfaces, that is, or in places that my power-chair cannot penetrate because of steps or stairs. But my manually-powered attempt to reach the end of Harborough Road had been a real ‘Mrs Armitage’ moment. With Lewis I had been reading Quentin Blake’s stories about Mrs Armitage. In them she pragmatically keeps adding equipment to, say, a bicycle — with the words “What this bicycle needs is: a seat for my dog” (when the dog tires of following); “a sail” (when she gets tired of pedalling) and so forth. Once getting around, even in the house, became a problem, I told myself “What someone in my situation needs, is something along the lines of the powerchair I used to see in use by my colleague, Brenda, as she defiantly sped to work through Brixton.”
As I describe elsewhere, the employment service fortuitously provided the answer: part payment for a ramp at the entrance to the house, and a power-chair that I could use for work, including getting to the post box, which, happily again, was right outside the French delicatessen. I’m not sure whether the pastries I purchased there were exactly what my Department of Employment assessor had in mind, but they certainly did my morale a power of good.
Soon after the new powerchair was delivered, intoxicated with its manoeuvrability, and bypassing my new ramp, I unintentionally drove it backwards down the flight of steps beside. Happily I picked myself up, dusted myself off, and started all over again.
Pleased with my new-found mobility, I invited a friend to go out with me to a local Indian restaurant. Not yet depending entirely on the powerchair to move around, I decided to leave it outside and walk in with my sticks. I was soon given a negative lesson in my generally trusting attitude towards the citizens of Streatham. My dinner companion glanced out of the window and saw somebody making off with the powerchair!
Luckily, the thief was a prejudiced type, and clearly did not care to be seen using the powerchair himself. And so he was trying to drive it by walking alongside. Not an easy task. My friend Liz caught up with him and remonstrated. He claimed that he thought that it had been abandoned, and that it would be very useful for his little boy to roll around in.