Tuesday, December 1, 2009

I'm Walking Backwards To Christmas

With apologies to Spike Milligan!

His famous ditty goes . . .
"I'm walking backwards to Christmas,
Across the Irish Sea,
I'm walking backwards to Christmas,
It's the only thing for me,
I've tried walking sideways,
And walking to the front,
But people just look at me,
And say it's a publicity stunt".

I don't actually go out with the express purpose of riding over able-bod's feet. I drive in a predictable manner. No zig-zagging, or stop-starting. But, able-bod's appear to see nothing below their eye level. They also appear to follow Spike Milligan's example and walk backwards more than they walk forwards. It all comes down to a simple affliction, these people don't look where their feet are pointing. We've got MD, kids munching fast food supposedly have ADD, but these folks have DoLoWheTFAP.

There is something strange about the way people walk. It's not noticeable in open spaces, but put them in a busy public place, and they all begin to walk backwards. They step backwards in shopping queues, they step backwards from shop windows, they walk backwards whilst talking to friends. Of course, to us invalids, the genuinely amusing thing is that look of distress, pain, and often anger on the offending able-bods face when they bash into you. Well, amusing is possibly the wrong word, maybe "satisfying" is better. It certainly is satisfying seeing them ricochet off my 140kg powerchair clutching a damaged foot or knee. Bingo! 20 points for another able-bod!

Add cellular technology to the equation and you really spice things up. Now, not only is their sense of direction gone, but their minds as well. Maybe it's the dangerous emissions radiating from the cellphone. Whatever it is, it appears to have the same reaction on the human brain whether they are driving a car, or walking. When the mouth and ear are otherwise engaged all contact is lost with the world, and by that I mean the entire world, even that just one metre away.

My years of wheeling has led me to the conclusion that, at least from a pedestrian point of view, humans are closely related to squirrels . . . you know, in the way squirrels run, hesitate, run, hesitate across roads. Well able-bod's do the same, they walk, stop, walk, stop. I recall one memorable incident in a local mall when an able-bod saw me coming and stopped, so I aimed to pass in front of him, then he stepped forward, so I compensated to drive around his back, then he stopped again, so I corrected, then he stepped forward again, and I nailed him, both feet, right over the arches. When you're as dumb as he was then you deserve to get run over. It was the Darwin Theory alive and well and on public view. This lack of pedesrian skills generates a quite satisfying crunching sound of bone being compressed between solid rubber and solid floor . . . usually followed by a high pitched squeal.

My first powerchair was very lightweight, and people bumping into me, and stumbling over me, used to knock the chair off its four wheels. They then used to try and compensate by reaching out and grabbing me, partly to steady themselves, and partly out of guilt to steady me. This resulted in my being grabbed by complete strangers around the head and shoulder region. Not a socially acceptable practice in my opinion. Fortunately the weight and stability of my present powerchair is re-assuring, for me, and downright scary for the squirrel. You would have to be a MacDonalds gold card client to knock my powerchair over. I feel secure, both physically, and in the knowledge that in any coming together of powerchair and squirrel, the rodent will always come off second best. I also no longer get groped or grabbed because while they're doing the two-step-of-pain I am long gone.

I drive my powerchair very well and responsibly, I do not speed excessively in public places, I am careful around small children, and I never bump into furniture. I am however unable to read people's minds, so when they exhibit squirrel-like behaviour in my path I do not feel even the slightest bit of guilt over crushing toes or clipping heels. Spike would have approved.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Power Of Power

Mankind underestimates the subtleties of body language. It’s a skill that we develop through observation and experience, and then carry with us subliminally for the rest of our lives. Well anyway, some of us do, others don’t. We learn it through watching our parents, family and peers. They are learned rather than taught, for no good reason other than that most parents do not understand the power, or possibly even understand the role, of body language. If able-bodied people struggle to come to grips with body language then how much more so is it for the mobility impaired?

Research has shown that female chimpanzees and gorillas that are born in captivity do not always have the skills to be good mothers. It’s a skill learned, not inherited or genetically ingrained. In much the same way the skills of body language are learned, and if the environment is such that learning is inhibited then we loose out.

Interaction with our fellow man is an integral part of our human nature. This is most often seen as a verbal medium, but body positioning, body movement, and gestures play a vital role. Gestures are not limited to hand, arm, or head movements, they are also performed with the whole body. Consider a meeting of three people . . . hold the meeting firstly over a telephone (i.e. no visual contact), now hold it around a table with everyone being seated, and then hold the same meeting with the three standing freely in an open room. The results would differ in each case, as the parties involved were able to utilise additional skills. Organisations such as Toastmasters who deal with communication every day around the world will tell you of the importance of body positioning when speaking. The body can be used to project positive or negative, re-assuring or distancing images. It can draw the audience in, or push them away. It can emphasize a point, or dismiss it. These rules apply regardless of whether the audience is measured in hundreds, a small group, or one.

Severely mobility impaired people will understand and appreciate the frustrations of being “rooted to the spot”. The mind knows what it wants, but the body cannot provide the solution. In the office, at a cocktail party, at home, able-bodied people move around one, stepping in and out of one’s personal space, in and out of conversation, in and out of one’s sphere of influence. In the game of body language it is not so much a question of “mobility”, rather one of “ability”. The ability to move during a conversation, the ability to gesture, the ability to turn to face someone, the ability to turn one’s back, the ability to “step” forward to greet someone, and the ability to “leave”. These are the subtle movements that are only measured in seconds taken, or centimetres moved, but the messages they convey are huge. Many severely disabled people complain of feeling like seated puppets, able to speak, but dependent on another for movement and motion. The powerchair can make the first move, the powerchair can control proceedings, and the powerchair can lead. A powerchair puts these abilities in their own hands. A powerchair user can achieve this with the flick of a joystick. Gone are the struggling movements to move a wheelchair on deep pile carpets. One can re-position without even breaking eye contact!

The powerchair can be an incredible accessory to communication if used effectively. It can be open and inclusive when positioned to face one’s audience. It can be furtive and elusive if kept on the move, never allowing the subject to settle. It can be final and conclusive when swiftly turned away. Whilst these initially may sound manipulative, pre-meditated, or calculated they quickly become natural when used in conjunction with the rest of one’s communication media, such as eyes, voice, and hands. It’s a transition phase, only lasting as long as it takes one to catch up with able-bodied mankind! Few powerchair users have been motorised since their youngest years. Most only manage to obtain access to a powerchair in their teens or later. This means that they have essentially missed out on those formative years of body language development.

It’s a strange thing but a powerchair gives one a distinctly physical presence. Somehow a normal manual wheelchair projects itself as a “chair with wheels”, but a powerchair demands attention. When you cruise into a room people notice! It becomes an extension of one’s personality. I often find myself “pacing” in the powerchair whilst waiting for lifts, something which is impossible in my manual chair. I can impose myself by riding straight up to someone, or can calm things down by slowly idling through a shopping mall, or lift the pace considerably when I’m purposeful or in a hurry. If I’m feeling full of fun I find myself weaving around furniture, spinning circles in shopping malls, speeding up and slowing down, or zooming over the grass lawns of Kirstenbosch when everyone else is sticking to the paths. If I’m annoyed and in a crowd I can hold my line and force people to avoid me. I can sneak up on my wife when she’s engrossed in a book. I can walk my own line when out with friends. It’s the games we all play.

Parents of severely mobility-impaired children need to be more aware than most of the importance of these skills, how their child can learn them, and more importantly how to put them to good use. As a member of the human race we have to accept that communication is integral to our makeup, we are sociable animals. In order for disabled children to achieve equity within the broader community they need to use communication and personality skills even more effectively than their able-bodied counterparts in order to compensate for physical shortfalls. Using a powerchair need not be seen as slipping down the ability ladder. Far from it. It is an empowering instrument, it gives more than it takes. It allows one to say “I am in control, I decide when and how I wish to move”. It’s the power of power.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Where There's A Will, There's A Way

It's a phrase which has rolled off all of our tongues at one time or another, and the trouble with such catchy phrases is that their truth becomes watered down over time. I have, however, recently had two experiences which brought home the true significance of this phrase for me. Both were disability related, one was at a personal level, whilst the other has far broader implications.

The first "will" occurred during a flight from Cape Town to London. Airline flights are always a flashpoint for us disabled travelers, particularly when is comes to the care and well being of our wheelchairs. I always ask for my wheelchair to be stored inside the cabin, in the coat rack, as I am entitled to do under aviation authority regulations. I've seen first hand how the baggage handlers treat wheelchairs and it's not a pretty sight. Most airlines try, and often succeed, in meeting my request. SAA always decline me, but on this flight there was a flight attendant with some savvy. She could see the way. Despite my being loaded into my seat, and my storage request dismissed offhand by her seniors, she, without fanfare, took it upon herself to negotiate for the storage of my wheelchair in the coat rack. She had the will, and knew the way.

Sadly, for the return flight, which happened to be on exactly the same aircraft, I encountered an aircrew which had neither the will, nor did they want to know the way. They were the exact opposite of the abovementioned attendant, instead choosing to be deliberately and calculatedly obstructive. They agreed to my storage request, loaded me into my seat, waited for the aircraft to take off, then told me they had not loaded the wheelchair and had sent it into the hold instead. Some people do not know the way, and never will.

But this story is far bigger than my personal battles with SAA. When I was last in London wheelchair access was possible, but with difficulty. The challenge was physical in the sense of ramps, steps, lifts, etc, but the greatest barrier I encountered was a mental one. London as we all know is a historical city, and the city fathers and their minions down the chain hid behind this historical legacy at every opportunity. All too often one would have the excuse of "this is a Grade 1" building thrown in one's face when looking for a lift, or ramp, or accessable toilet. In 1996 I could not get to certain V&A museum exhibits "because it is a Grade 1 building and we cannot build a lift in", yet they could not explain to me why Starbucks was allowed to have a coffee vending kiosk right on top of the gravestones in Westminster Cathedral.

But time has passed, and legislation has been passed, and it seems that some of the people who were so obstinate have passed as well, passed on that is. It is amazing to see how, when there is the will (or maybe the law) just how creative and innovative architects and builders can be in providing access for wheelchairs. It is equally interesting to see how financial resources can be freed up as well. The entire South Bank has been integrated and paved. One can roll down to Waterloo Station, catch a train (thanks to access ramps) to Hampton Court and tour Henry VIII's castle fitted with lifts and ramps and accessable toilets. Items which ole' Henry probably would have given his eye teeth for! Most of the bridges across the Thames are accessable. The majority of the famous red buses are fitted with wheelchair lifts. A large percentage of the city taxi's provide wheelchair access. Public toilets have private accessable cubicles, with fussy caretakers to boot! The nett result is a historic city which is now relatively easy to navigate in a wheelchair.

Much of the access is unobtrusive, with ramps being integrated with stairs, to the extent that the average Londoner is probably not even aware of its existance. As we have been pointing out to city planners for decades, this not only serves to assist disabled commuters, but also the elderly, mothers with prams, delivery personnel, etc. The cost of this access is negligible relative to all the development taking place, the benefit is potentially huge, as has been shown with the awarding of the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics to the city.

Access is about removing obstacles. Ten years ago London was riddled with obstacles, the largest of which were mental. During this period there has been a mind shift, a big one, and suddenly the obstacles have been cleared away and replaced with opportunities. The way to achieve this turn-around is not very difficult, nor is it expensive, all it requires is the will to do so.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

archie & mehitabel . . .

while in high school i was introduced to the poems of archie and mehitabel, a verse libre poet reincarnated as a cockroach, and mehitabel, an alley cat of somewhat loose virtues who may have been cleopatra in a previous life. the story goes that a writer inadvertently left a sheet of blank paper in an old manual typewriter overnight. during the course of the evening archie, the cockroach, discovered this and began writing by jumping off the typewriter carriage onto the keys. he was obviously not able to depress more than one key at a time, so all his work was in lowercase, with limited punctuation. he filled the page with his stories, and the following evening the writer would refresh the paper in the typewriter. his stories told of life in the back alleys, of the mice and the rats, and mehitabel the cat.

if archie's method of typing sounded torturous it was nothing compared to some of the poor souls i have seen trying to type in the office. i grew up in an era when, at school, girls typed, and boys did woodwork. what they forgot to mention to all of us poor boys was that in a few short years someone was going to invent the personal computer, and companies would buy them in their tens of millions, and grown men were going to be placed in front of these machines and be expected to use them. the inevitable was delayed somewhat thanks to the presence of more skilled secretaries, but with the advent of email one suddenly became personally responsible for ones own communication. and so the single digit typist was born. i recall one corporate ceo proclaiming that if he could not take a memo to the gent’s washroom then he did not want to see it. a year later he was gone. no-one was immune. visions of brawny rugger buggers sitting hunched over a keyboard turned into reality. the sight of a grown man, often a senior corporate manager typing an email, with one finger hovering over the keys in a posture not unlike auguste rodin's 'the thinker' statue, was something archie would have related to.

archie's work got me thinking about modern communication, and of how we are experiencing an explosion of inter-personal communication right now. while face-to-face communication has changed little, the use of new technologies has boomed, with people now using cell phones and their verbal, text messaging, and multi-media-messaging capabilities, email, internet user groups, voice-over-internet or skype, and the list goes on. whether we are communicating any better, or more meaningfully, is debatable, but communicating we most certainly are.

this boom in communications, and the technologies which underpin it has the potential to impact disabled people in two ways. firstly that it actually enables us to communicate by providing a tool which we can physically operate and use. secondly it provides a medium through which we can express ourselves. disabled people can now reach across the world, share experiences, warn of problems, and promote triumphs. as tools we now have features such as voice-dialing, one-touch dialing, bluetooth headsets which can receive and make calls without one needing to actually hold the phone, and just the other day i saw a phone for sale in a telkom store with huge key buttons to aid those with sight or spasm problems. then we can go hi-tech and get into voice recognition software for computers which allow you not only to dictate memos and emails, but also to control the functioning of the computer itself. software packages such as dragon naturally speaking, via voice, commodio, and macspeech all perform these functions, and one can even configure the standard windows xp operating system to recognise voice as well. ok, so it looks a bit odd issueing instructions to an inanimate object much like one would to your dog, but it works, and just think how confused the dog sitting next to you must feel . . .

archie would have given up one of his many legs to have had access to the technologies of today. he would not have been limited by only having a single sheet of paper per night, and his understanding of a mouse might have been quite different. he may not have lived to experience this newfound communication freedom, but at least we do not need to leap off typewriter carriages to get our message across.

Monday, August 17, 2009

I beg to differ.

So there I was, minding my own business, waiting to be picked up by friends outside a hotel in downtown Johannesburg, when a well meaning gentleman took the time and effort to cross the street, walk up the front steps, and deposit a handful of cash in my lap! No, he wasn't trying to rid himself of the proceeds of a cash-in-transit heist. He thought I was begging! Curiousity was followed by shock, which was followed by a quick "Excuse me!", whereupon the money was returned. He looked sheepish, and I couldn't stop laughing. I wrote the incident off to him being Johannesburg-disadvantaged (a common ailment up there) brought on by a shortage of sea air and lack of mountains.

Then it happened to me again, this time in Cape Town, which blew my theory. I was sitting outside Fruit & Veg City waiting for my wife to park the car (because, surprise surprise, some able-bod had filled the disabled bay). Before I could say "artichoke" someone dropped a handful of coins in my lap! Flurry of activity, return of funds, and embarrassed looks all round. This time I put it down to my slightly dishevelled state having just got off an SAA flight. When flying with SAA in a wheelchair one often ends up looking in a worse state than your luggage.

In the bad old days our government legislated that if more than "x" number of people assembled together it constituted an "illegal gathering". Perhaps there is a parallel universe wherein if a wheelchair bound person sits in one spot for more than five minutes it constitutes begging?

A social activity one learns when in a wheelchair is "loitering". I loiter a lot. I linger longer. I loiter outside inaccessable shops while my wife runs amok with her credit card in a frantic but failing attempt to keep ahead of SAA Voyagers ever changing goalposts. I loiter outside shopping malls waiting for parking, and I loiter outside camera, watch and hardware stores, because I'm a man. If I'm in my powerchair then I "pace", and this movement tends to keep potential donors at bay. It's difficult for a novice good samaritan to casually sweep by and drop cash if the target keeps moving. But in my manual chair I'm rooted to a spot, and that runs the risk of turning me into a human ATM.

Begging is a profession made for us invalids. We don't need affirmative action, or employment equity, to give us a leg up. We're already half way up the proverbial ladder. What can an able-bodied beggar do that we cannot do better? We're naturally sedentary (that's a big word for seated), so a long day outside Woolies front door is just another day in the saddle for us. In India parents maim their kids to increase their begging potential but we've got built-in physical deformities. Some of us look pretty gaunt and scrawny, always a plus. The lean and hungry look is a big seller.

But for most of us begging is an affront to our disability. It represents the exact opposite of everything we are striving for. We seek financial independence, employment, and mobility. Begging represents financial dependence, unemployment, and physical inactivity. Perhaps this is why when a well intentioned donor drops some cash into one's lap it is such a shock. For a brief moment you realise that you are seen by others to be everything which you fight against every minute of your waking day. But there is another aspect, and that is the actual money itself. Those coins are viewed by the donor as being their contribution to our dilemma. But we know that money is not the solution. Deeds count for more. Far rather that person kept their coins, but made the effort to see to it that their offices had disabled toilets, or their local school was accessable, or the shop had a ramp. That would really make a difference.

Now if only these kind folks would deposit a REALLY substantial amount of money into my grubby little paws, then I might reconsider this begging thing . . .

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Assertively disabled.

I was raised in the late 60's, early 70's, by parents who wanted me to grow up to be a "nice" young boy. I was taught to be quiet, well mannered, considerate, courtious, and to always turn the other cheek when hurt. Sadly none of this "skills" were appropriate and upon leaving school and venturing out into the big bad world I had to put myself through my own crash course in real life skills which incorporated stating my case, learning to say no, becoming self centered, and learning to turn my back on others. Having to learn those new skills cost me at least five to seven years of my business career, but I learned them, and became more savvy as a result.

All this rushed back to me the other day as I read a story of a disabled girl, well, woman really. She was waiting for a bus one morning in her powerchair when the kid of some other passengers began hassling her, and messing with her chair. She was a "nice" woman, and didn't want to hurt the feelings of the kid, or its conveniently deaf and blind parents. The nett result was that the child pulled one too many of the powerchair's cables, thereby breaking it. The bus arrived, collected all the other passengers, but left the woman behind because she was not able to get her powerchair going and onto the bus. Help eventually came, but the damage had been done, not so much to the powerchair, but to the woman's persona. The cherry on the top of this story is that in resolving her powerchair woes the woman was advised by her friends that it was better that she had not asserted herself because she needed to stay a nice and sweet woman. What a lot of bollocks!

It is tough enough being physically disabled, without making ourselves socially disabled as well. Sure, no-one wants a disabled brat for a child. Come to think of it, I don't want an able-bodied brat either! But, as a disabled youngster one has to be taught to fight, not in the fisticuffs sense, but in an assertive way. My folks thought they could fight my battles for me, which was a noble thought, but sadly out of touch with reality. It is a dog eat dog world regardless of what people say and disabled kids need to be encouraged to become streetwise. Being disabled cuts little slack unless one is looking for pity or sympathy. That buys you a life of subservience, like a second class citizen. People who are nice to me because I'm in a wheelchair are being nice to me in a condecending way. Their niceness is therefore worthless. We have to learn, and parents have to teach, the ability to look others in the eye and know that we are better than them. We have to have the confidence to know when we are right, and they are wrong. Turning the other cheek, averting ones eyes, and being apologetic are traits of the downtrodden, of the oppressed. We don't need to apologise for who we are, look like, and want from life.

We spend too much time worrying what others think of us. This is particularly true of us disabled. We worry what others think of our misshaped bodies, of our broken speech, and our struggling mobility. We spend a lot of time and effort trying to minimise the differences between us and the able-bodied world, that world which so idolises perfection of the human form. I used to fret over those issues, until one day I came to the realisation that nobody actually gives a damn. The majority of the population is so caught up in their own little world that "we" are just passing curiosities. The boys at school used to point and comment, but five minutes later I was forgotten when the next short skirted girl came into view. People stop and look at me in the street, but again, once they see a sign proclaiming "potatoes for R10 a pocket" at P&P I am quickly relegated down the priority list.

Once I realised that my disability only occupied people's minds temporarily until their next thought came along, I was free. Who cares about funny walks (John Cleese has made millions out of his!), or wheelchairs, or skinny deformed bodies! If you've got a problem with the way I look then that's your problem, and don't make your problems my problems. But it does not end here, or it should not. The space created by ridding oneselves of needless concerns allows one room to grow. Its like a spring clean. Out goes the old unused baggage, and in comes the fresh new stuff. You might go through the spring-cleaning process again in the future but that's not a bad thing. It is a progressive process, not a retrogressive one.

In our new space we can be ourselves. We can even fine tune ourselves. Now don't get me wrong. I'm not a psychoanalyst, Stephen Covey, type of guy. I have a tough time grasping idealistic principles, but I do believe in believing in me. I believe in my abilities, my rights, my goals, and most importantly my space. I have the same freedoms at other human beings, I might just have to exercise them differently. If you choose to trample on any one of those then be prepared to have to deal with my wrath, because I also believe I have the freedom to be angry. I am entitled to be my own person. I don't need to be like others. I am comfortable in my difference.

I'm a friendly guy, some might even call me nice!, but I don't cruise around looking like a toothpaste commercial with a smile on my face all day. I have bad days as well as good, and if you rub me up the wrong way on a bad day I will growl at you. I get angry, I swear, I bear grudges, I seek revenge. I also smile, and laugh, and joke, and encourage, congratulate and commend people I don't even know.

The strange thing is I never shout, perhaps it has something to do with "children should be seen, but not heard" . . . but then that's another story!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Disabling Able-bods.

Do you know how to disable an able-bod? . . . dribble in front of them.
Works like a charm, and in no time they are putty in your hands.

This article is for the disabled people, so sensitive able-bods should turn to the fund raising pages. I was chatting to a fellow MD'er the other day over a cafe latte, with a straw. Nothing stronger for us powerchair drivers! The topic of conversation was the obtaining of grants or concessions which are dependent on one's disability.

Now I've just gone through one of these processes, which involved me completing and signing an official document detailing my disability, together with a three page "letter of justification". This was not good enough, despite it being a legal document. I had to be assessed by my GP, who also had to sign on the proverbial dotted line. It seems however that GP's can't be trusted as this too was insufficient and I had to be assessed once again by a local association which represents us invalids. Fortunately I was not miraculously cured in between the two appointments and the assessments matched. Whew! Sadly they too are of questionable standing since all the forms had to be submitted to Johannesburg-on-High, who presumably have some sort of mega x-ray powers that enabled them to beam down to us 1600km away and determine if we were collectively trying to pull the wool over their eyes. These Roswellian Johannesburgers then humbly submitted the now considerable pile of papers to a government department whose power it was to cast judgement over us all. It's a three ring circus, but circuses can be fun.

Now it is still not as cut and dried as it appears. We're dealing with pencil pushers here wielding considerable power, and they like to use it, and are not averse to putting some crip in their place when the desire arises. I was informed, in writing, that "disabled people who apply for a rebate are out to cheat the system". Damn! to think that after spending the past thirty years in a wheelchair trying to pull the wool over their eyes I've been discovered. My cover blown. Well at least my mother thinks I'm honest! But our Regime obviously believes this sentiment because the process took six months from date of submission, and not a day less. Presumably this time is spent checking on the GP, the staff of the local association, and the Roswellians. I guess it takes time to collect criminal records, shoe sizes, satellite photos, etc.

This sort of bureaucratic entanglement of disabled people is not only limited to South Africa. Just nine months ago I was turned down for a disabled train ticket on a European railway because I did not have a "letter from my government confirming that I was disabled". I didn't think in my physical condition, and after thirty years in a wheelchair, that I needed a letter to tell me I was disabled! Clearly I was wrong.

So, back to our conversation, and a cooler latte . . . how does one ensure a smooth ride, if you'll excuse the pun, through the paperwork gauntlet? It cuts across every fibre of my being, every strength I've developed through fourty eight years of permanent disability. But we're playing a game here, and the game has rules, however perverse, and the goal is to win. And if winning means showing able-bods what you cannot do for ten minutes, as opposed to showing them what you can, then so be it. Hey! Our national cricket team have been showing us all what they cannot do for years now, and they get paid a fortune to do it!

And so, as I sucked on the last of the latte . . . we concluded that there is only one way to successfully tackle the formalisation and assessment of our disability. We need to BE disabled. Immerse ourselves in our disability, milk it, show it, list it, wear it, . . . in a word, dribble.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Get your kid off my joystick!

I've been permanently wheelchair based for 30 years now, almost 10 of those in a powerchair, and I still have not worked out a tried and tested method of dealing with small children. They're tricky little devils, made worse by the baggage they bring along called "parents". To paraphrase a well known saying, I think the only predictable thing about kids is that they are unpredictable. Throw a wheelchair into the equation and it becomes a lottery.

You're OK while they are younger than about fourteen months, until then they can't move around much, and more importantly they can't speak! But after that things decline rapidly. The little guys come in four varieties ; the squashed kid, the tree climber, the question asker, and the joystick grabber.

The "squashed kid" is the least dangerous, often because they have already been squashed before you even know it. They operate at a low level, around the fringes of your space, are generally silent, often crawling, and are usually only to be found behind your back. Miniature fingers and toes always come off worse when pitted against wheelchair tyres. Add a pair of motors and a battery box to that and it is no contest. Solutions for squashed kids are to develop a strong sixth sense, eyes in the back of one's head are a must-have, and learn to drive the powerchair like a 90-year-old granny. When these fail a good set of ear plugs is recommended. One is well advised to seek solutions, particularly when in the company of good friends with their kids. Remember it is a short step from invalid friend, to kid maimer.

The "tree climber" sees you as a challenge. Not because they want to get into your mind, or because they're curious about your disability. Your chair as an obstacle, and all obstacles must be conquered. In no time at all they will be upon you, like monkey's. The nimble ones will think nothing of scrambling from the battery boxes at the back to the foot rests at the front by going right over you. None of them seem able to resist hanging off the side armrests like a cowboy in a stagecoach western movie. Whatever you do, resist all temptation to give the tree climber a ride. Who knows what monster you will unleash.

Things get considerably trickier with the "question asker". The little critters have grown to be far more cunning, and they now stalk you, waiting for the right moment to pop the question "why don't you walk?". They usually wait for you to be at your most vulnerable, such as in the company of friends when the conversation is at its most silent, in a crowded shopping mall, or in a restaurant. It's a tough one. I can't recall as a kid walking up to a black person and asking why they were black, or a woman as asking why she got big hooters? If you choose to answer the question asker be warned, by doing so you will unleash a torrent of further questions, many of which cannot be answered in good company.

Beware of parents who cannot answer "the question" themselves (or who are just as curious) and empower their kid to go bravely where no man should go and send him over to you. I mean, they won't send him over to ask the weight challenged lady at the table opposite why she's fat, but they'll send the little guy over to you and sit there waiting to see your response. This is what is known as a no-win situation. Answer the kid thoughtfully and you will open that floodgate again, chase him away and you're mean-spirited. I always choose mean-spirited, I'm sure the kids self esteem will be restored after suitable therapy.

And so we come to the "joystick grabber", the most dangerous of them all. Kids to powerchair joysticks are like moths to a candle. It's like a magnet for grasping little fingers! I'm a guy, I have a joystick. I would have thought that would be a babe magnet, but instead all I get are 2-foot terrors. The joystick grabber combines the stealth of the squashed kid, the agility of the tree climber, with the cunning of the question asker. They lurk on the fringes, feigning dis-interest and good behaviour, and then rush in to strike without warning! One minute you're sitting enjoying a peaceful conversation, the next you hear those dreaded words "what's this for?", and before you can say "Quickie" you're lurching around like a convulsing drunk.

A positive spin-off of the joystick grabbers is that they often end up as squashed kids since they most often pull the joystick towards themselves! It's a positive because this action usually cures them of their joystick grabbing vice. The negative spin-off is that after rehabilitation they are more cautious and become question askers . . .