It’s been a long time – they say a week is a long time in politics, but politics seems to drag on interminably right now. Today I’m not talking about the Election though; I have been pushing a wheelchair bound elderly lady round Cheltenham, and I thought I’d reflect on the experience.
The lady in question is lovely – we have been friends for many years now, and she is one of my neighbours, but after a fall in which she broke her hip early this year we no longer get to go shopping together a we had for the last few years. Still she is doing well – daily visits from the physio are working wonders, and we have no access to a wheelchair arranged by another neighbour, Alison, so we can quickly run in to town when the weather is not too bad. CJ pushing a frail old lady a few hundred yards up town and back, what could possibly go wrong?
Actually quite a bit! To start with, our road is really not made with any kind of vehicular traffic in mind. If you hit the little depression in the centre where the 19th century open sewer has been covered over, the wheel chair bucks alarmingly, and then we have to take a blind corner through the little passage that leads to the High Street, which is always a bit unnerving, as idiots occasionally come shooting down the pavement at speed on bikes. Even as a pedestrian I occasionally collide with people who simply do not realise the archway opens on to another street, though I have learnt extreme caution. Then out on to the lower high street, and we are away, moving up towards Tesco, our ultimate destination.
It’s interesting to reflect on peoples reactions. Elderly people shuffle past, and often pretend not to see us I think, or are lost in their thoughts, and perhaps the sight of another elderly person in a wheelchair is distressing to them — I don’t know. Other wheelchair users, young or old smile and nod, especially the self propelled young ‘uns who nod cheerfully and put on a burst of speed or demonstrate their great agility and skill, making me feel clumsy and useless as a push-person! Young women often smile, and sometimes ask if it’s my mum – they are often surprised to find it’s my neighbour, and pretty girls make friendly small talk, in a manner I associate with when I have had cause to carry a kitten. Muslim ladies in headscarves invariably seem to nod, smile, and make room for us – their manners are excellent. Men are on the whole exceedingly friendly – and men in their forties and fifties often make cheery comments, though many know the lady I’m pushing from her time working in a shop may years ago – she is incredibly well loved, and seems to know half of Cheltenham.
The “does she take sugar” syndrome, bane of many a chair users life, is completely reversed most of the time. People talk to the lady in the chair, especially old friends, and I’m just invisible as a “carer”. I don’t mind a bit, nd it’s nice to have a break while she chats to folks. It all sounds rather good doesn’t it?
It’s not. Where people are concerned, by far the worst are mothers with pushchairs. I’ve been hacked in the ankles many times in my life by the infernal devices, and let’s face it a push chair is a ghastly thing. Completely necessary, but after a few minutes of plodding through town with a wailing infant, often a gaggle strung out behind also demanding attention, and negotiating rough pavements and awkward pedestrians mothers seem to succumb to some kind of “pram rage” – they become surly, selfish and unthinking. I hesitate to condemn the whole breed, but I can honestly say that a mother with courtesy and a pushchair when faced with a wheelchair user is something I have yet to encounter. I know they exist, but today we were pushed in to scaffolding (while stationary) by being barged, and sworn at by a ten year accompanying what appeared to be a prosperous middle class family (dad behind pushchair) while trying to turn in to our alley; he could not see why we were turning right, so just assumed we were blocking the pavement I guess, but a momentary slowing and we would not have been slammed in to the wall. People with pushchairs move a lot faster than I do with the wheelchair. I’m hesitant, and slow, knowing my passenger gets travel sick if I zoom round too fast. I stop for pedestrians carrying burdens, and let others through – we are after all in no great hurry. To be rammed twice out of the way, once when stopped, by pushchair users sets a new low however. I can sense the frustration they feel — yet why do others who are disadvantaged and struggling have to be so damned unsympathetic? I wonder if some pushchair users actually ram other pram and pushchair users as much as they do us? I fear it may be the case. Perhaps there should be some kind of driving test to operate one?
However that was not the worst today — today the worst was when we were in Tesco. A woman in her fifties I’d guess was talking on her mobile, walked round a corner with her shopping basket under her arm and smacked my passenger in the face with it. She was apologetic, and luckily it was a glancing blow, but it could have been a lot worse – luckily no harm done, but it shook me up, while not seeming to worry my neighbour much. People talking on phones in busy supermarkets should probably stand still I think, but if they failed to see me and a wheelchair then maybe the phone made little difference.
Now disabled access – full marks to Tesco Metro Cheltenham High Street for trying, no steps at all, and getting in is easy. The exit ramp however is very steep, and the wheelchair pulls away from me as we leave and come down it like a bobsleigh accelerating down the Cresta Run. It’s unnerving, and the first time I did it I thought for a fraction of a second the wheelchair would tip over or launch in to the High Street in an inadvertant kamikaze run it to a passing bus. I’m used to it now, and can just about hold back, but the sickening acceleration does not impress my passenger. Have a look next time you are in town – it’s not high, but the curvature of the ramp is hard for me to negotiate. I think in future I may just ask if I can exit by the entrance, at least till I am better ale to control the chair. Again, great staff, wide aisles, good shop. It’s just a pity the exit ramp has to be so steep.
By far the worst bit though is half way between home and Tesco, by the audio shop, just before a zebra crossing, across the road from the public convenience (think bowling green/Istanbul kebab shop area). There are renovations going on in what I think is a housing association block of flats, and the pavement is blocked by scaffolding. You have to negotiate a slalom course between bins, a bench, a lamp post and the scaffolding, and the banked brick pavement is wide and perfectly adequate for pedestrians, but its hard work with a wheelchair – any slight slope and I lose a lot of control, and the banking of the brick area i am forced on to here is a bit hairy. Pedestrians sometimes move to one side, and I make it through — it’s only temporary, but it’s a bit dicey each time I grit my teeth and go for it.
Hey we made it back, and getting out to the shops seems to do her the world of good. Still, if I have to deal with many more pushchair psychos I will have to do some rapid work on the wheelchair, and fix lawnmower blades to the wheels – if it was good enough for Boadicea, it will work for us!