Thursday, 10 November 2011

Let The Wheelchair Through

A common enough request. But ask yourself, what is wrong with this statement? You don't know? Then read on...

41 years ago a child was born in Cardiff, South Wales. A very ordinary occurrence. Only this time there was a problem. The child was diagnosed as having a congenital spinal defect, Spina Bifida. As if this were not enough, its common companion Hydrocephalus, was also present.

To explain briefly. Spina Bifida is a condition where the vertebrae fail to develop properly. Ordinarily the spinal cord passes through the hole at the centre of each vertebra. In Spina Bifida, one of the vertebrae has not developed properly. As a result, the cord bulges out at this point, and any nerve reflexes below are terminated. The back of the foetus fails to develop at the point of the problem, with the result that, immediately following birth, surgery is performed to close the back and prevention a, probably fatal, infection. I should point out that this is true of the more severe forms of Spina Bifida, there is one less severe form.

The fluid around the brain usually cushions it from impacts. It is being constantly replenished, and the excess drains through the meninges. This does not happen quite often with Spina Bifida. This results in Hydrocephalus, literally ``water-on-the-brain''. Corrective surgery to this condition at the time involved insertion of a one-way valve, or ``shunt'' into the side of the skull, usually above the ear. This is connected via a catheter under the skin, in the first instance to the stomach, and later in life to the heart. This action prevents the fluid from, rather than cushioning the brain, crushing it under the extreme pressure that can result.

Despite lacking the benefit of the medical advances of the last four decades, the baby survived these dangerous times. He was now to face his next challenge.


He got a good start, the best he could have hoped for. Both parents, even in those days when the disabled were being treated as second-class citizens, decided to keep him. They thought he deserved a shot at the best life they could provide. They have done this, and more. They have provided him with the self-confidence and means to pursue any goal.
But there was an unforeseen problem. Society. His older brother started nursery school. His mother naturally wanted him attend the same school. Barrier Number One. She was told that she would have to stay with him all day. She reasoned that if she had to stay with him all day, it might as well be at home. At under four years old, for the first time he had felt the cold hand of discrimination.

Sad to say that today, over four decades later, this part of his story has changed very little.

After spending the first seven years of his educational life in a school environment of exclusively disabled peers, he got another lucky break. The nearby secondary school for the disabled was next door to a mainstream comprehensive school. For some years they had been sending the more capable students to the comprehensive for their academic potential to receive its best chance for fulfillment.

He was chosen to be one of the lucky few. The next challenge was acceptance from his peers. But after one or two niggles, a few scrapes, and the odd complete, but funny, disaster, this came. He was accepted as just one of the lads. Occasionally a damned nuisance, but then, aren't all teenagers? He got into trouble, as did his schoolmates. He was even made a Prefect during his latter school years. He eventually took his exams, passing some, resitting others, the usual student's tale.

He left school at 19, with 5 `O' Levels, an `AO' and an `A' Level under his belt. During the summer holidays he did work experience in a bank. He worked for seven years as a Senior Technician for an Internet Service Provider.

However, returning to the work experience. As he left the bank one day to collect his lunch from his car - yes, he can drive, having passed his test on the fourth attempt (nobody's perfect after all) - he was approached by the passenger of a passing motorist looking for a parking space. He was slightly nonplussed to be asked if his "mummy and daddy" would be coming back soon. He gave a negative response to the query.

Nobody would dream of asking an able-bodied 19 year-old, wearing a suit, where his ``Mummy and Daddy'' were. He didn't blame the lady for her ignorance, because he knew the fault lay in a lack of education and understanding.

The destruction, in whole or part, of this barrier, is the purpose of this article. For far too long the taboos have existed between the able-bodied and the disabled. The belief is held that the disabled do not wish, or even like, to talk about their disability. For this reason the questions are rarely, if ever, posed. The ignorance persists. That is not to say that the blame lies entirely with the able-bodied community. One phrase I have heard quoted is that ``A disability is a physical inability to perform a specific function. A handicap is another person's adverse reaction or attitude to that disability''. Whilst this statement is very true, if the disabled themselves are not willing to help dispel the myths then no amount of effort will have any effect.

To return to my point however; the disabled do generally want to be asked or at the very least do not mind a polite inquiry. Admittedly, as with all rules, there can be exceptions, but do not let this cloud your judgement or discourage you from asking. They are normal human beings, any physical differences being a purely superficial element of the person as a whole. To be stared at as if they are an alien species, or even totally ignored, is a common manifestation of the ignorance mentioned above.

If you will permit me a small digression. One story I have heard is of a person shopping in town, with their mother, celebrating leaving school and being accepted in University to study for a Degree in Political Science. Having just left a fast food restaurant, they were approached by a lady proclaiming ``I work with the mentally disabled'', and enquiring as to whether they ``would like a lollipop?'' This insulting question being aimed at the parent. The subject of the question was not pleased.

Just because a person is in a wheelchair, it does not follow that they are mentally disabled. This common misconception has been the cause of much of animosity between the two groups, quite unnecessarily. The person in the above tale went on to university, successfully gained a degree, and is now a successful athlete of world renown.

If only the able bodied instead of staring, approached the person, and asked their questions, then they may be surprised. Firstly, by the reasoned, intelligent answer. However also by the gratitude that for once someone has taken an interest. They are not being shunned by society, but are beginning to be accepted.

One simple action such as this could accomplish so much. Neil Armstrong once said; ``One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.'' Let's take that first step, and others will surely follow. You may be wondering how I know so much detail about this person's life. The answer is very simple.

Forty-one years ago, I was born in Cardiff....

Before I leave you to ponder the above, the answer to my original question:-

There is a person in the wheelchair.

Dedicated to all my friends online and off who without exception see the person, not the chair, 

Thank you all :)


  1. Beautifully written and truly inspirational. You're an amazing guy and all your Twitter buddies love you. Love your sense of humour and having met you in real life you're exactly the same in the flesh. Your Twitter buddies don't notice the wheelchair until you're running after them downhill!!

    Love Sandy xx

  2. What a fantastic blog, Julian. Thanks for sharing.