One in a Crowd

Summer 2010 #1

Peering down through glass doors into the lift-well I could see a fellow in a wheelchair. The elevator was obviously stuck, but he waved up at me, seeming more amused than worried. I tried to signal something reassuring to him, and rolled off to find help.  He must have pressed a few more buttons, or perhaps the lift just came to its senses; either way he was rolling out when I rolled back. A bright, indomitable sort of bloke; he was soon urging me to take my chances in the lift. The machinery had issues only with going up, he assured me, not with going down. It was either give it a crack, or miss the train waiting on the platform below…

Up until today I can’t remember that I have actually conversed with a fellow “wheelchairperson”. Which sounds odd I’m sure. Aussies abroad are drawn toward one another by their shared accent; birds of a feather flock together; but disability holds to different rules.  A close friend is an amputee, and he once explained to me the awkwardness of chance encounters with strangers in the same state.  I know now just what he meant:  such meetings produce a strange pressure.  Beyond the superficial layer of immobility, do we actually have anything in common?  What is this expectation that we should automatically associate?  In such moments many people avoid eye contact altogether.  Being obsessed with independence I find the idea of an ‘association of dependants’ somewhat unattractive.  Perhaps ignoring the obvious connection is a style of denial.  In five months on busses and trains I have seen just five wheelchairpassengers; and, to my shame, I have done no more than smile at any of them.  Less, at times.  But this, it seemed, was going to be a day of a different sort…

A small-framed, anxious man in a chair boarded the train with assistance from a platform attendant, and immediately implored that the doors be kept open. In obvious panic he wailed almost incoherently, loudly fearing that he would be unable to breathe once the car was sealed.  But electric train doors do close, and they did, and as we pulled away from the platform this poor fellow writhed clutching at his throat, making the appalling noises of suffocation.  His wheelchair was old and battered, his appearance unkempt, and his clothing dishevelled.  I was closest to him (in proximity and perhaps in other ways…) and I sensed an assumption amongst the rest of the carriage that I would be the obvious choice to assist.   I did my best, I called to him, I got as close as B4 would permit, I held his hand and shoulder, trying to reassure but with little effect. As the doors opened at the next station my fellow wheelchairperson finally calmed down somewhat, and another passenger summoned the driver.  My friend stated with incongruous composure that the only way he could continue to his destination was if he were to travel in the driver’s cabin. This, the driver explained with firm kindness, was not going to happen. Did he wish to leave the train?  No, he was ready to try again. Our man kept his composure from then on, but retreated to a corner of the carriage and withdrew into himself. Some people lead sad, sad lives…

I lost count at fifty, but I’m sure there were a hundred people in power wheelchairs, and as many again in manual chairs of every kind. This was Melbourne’s Federation Square; and quite accidentally I was in the middle of the “International Day of People with a Disability”.  Wheelchairpersons as far as the eye could see, in every permutation imaginable; it truly was a rousing sight!  Men and women were there because of, not in spite of, their disability. Folks were greeting one another warmly; eyes met with unguarded confidence; everywhere there was a buzz of affirmation.  Volunteers manned booths demonstrating all manner of accessible sport and recreation. Bands played, TV crews tried to catch the vibe.   An engaging wheelchairperson named Rod (see, we had more than one thing in common after all) explained for my sports-challenged benefit how a game of wheelchair basketball was progressing.   He pointed out the players who had represented Australia at the Paralympics, and tutored me on the admissible number of “able-bods” who can make up a team.  I chatted easily with several: and never, not once, about our wheelchairs…

I was there to meet a friend (an able-bod), and as we sat in a Cafe my eyes drank in the sight of numerous power chairs coming and going. People just like me!  Ordering coffee, sitting at tables, some were in pairs, some with a walking friend, some in family groups. A vital looking man in a power chair was accompanied by his wife and two young daughters and they looked so at ease…

I’m nowhere near as apprehensive about my wheelchair as I was when B1, “Good old Bugger” first appeared in our garage twelve months ago. Nonetheless I still take a deep breath many a time before I venture out in public, especially when I am meeting family or a close friend. But today in Fed Square it’s the able-bods who are odd. I’m a fish back in water. No longer alone. This is great fun!

For today, at least, normal has wheels.


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