When will we be done?

It’s been about nine months since I lost my legs, but sometimes it still doesn’t feel real to me. I’ll be engrossed at my computer, turn to stand up and then realise I can’t. When I see a person struggling to carry something, my body will prepare to rush forward and help, but then I have to sit back in my wheelchair.

For the first few months after my amputations, it felt as though I was simply ill and as soon as I got better everything would go back to normal. But of course it won’t go back to that normal.

A new normal

Coming home to Cape Town jolted me into reality in many ways. My brother and I used to stand eye-to-eye, so when he picked me up from the airport and I saw him towering over me in my wheelchair, I realised for the first time that my legs were gone forever.

Driving through familiar neighbourhoods again, old haunts where I once had such a full life, brought home to me how different life will be now. At the time, I only saw all the things I could no longer do. The places I could no longer go. Sometimes that is still all I see. I try to think of all the things I can do now, or how I could do the old things differently, but sometimes I just can’t.

The big picture

Although I have no legs, in many ways I am more fortunate than many others on this planet. I’ve never gone seriously hungry and my family and friends have always done their best to support me (when I’ve let them). Thinking of people that have never been loved, have never had a full belly, and have never been given dignity and respect, changes my perspective on my problems slightly. But honestly … it doesn’t change that much or for very long. My problems are still real to me. And that’s okay.

Someone else may have no idea how to deal with my challenges and I wouldn’t know how to handle their debt or children or drinking habit. The truth is, we never know how to cope with something until it happens. And then, most of the time, we just do it. We get through it, because we have to.

For the first time, I am acknowledging my problems and doing what I can to change them, rather than pretending that everything is fine. Fixing me is going to take years, if it is ever completed at all. But then, we are all works in progress, aren’t we?

Aah, push it (but don’t touch)

It is remarkable how quickly I became possessive of my wheelchair, especially considering that my brain has still not made peace that some of my original limbs are missing. The wheelchair has become an extension of myself and I get irrationally irritated when people touch it.

The rant

My friends and family usually ask me to move if I’m in the way or let me know that they are going to touch my wheelchair, which is ironic, because they are the ones less prone to annoy me. When it comes to strangers, however, I am always caught between rage and disbelief that they have no qualms about pushing me out of their way like an errant trolley in a supermarket. Not to mention the number of times I find able-bodied strangers taking their time in the disabled toilet, which they prefer because it happens to be more “spacious” … how much space does one need to go to the loo?

The humour

Speaking of toilets, a funny thing happened when I visited the disabled cubicle in Heathrow airport before my flight to South Africa. After finishing up I couldn’t find the button to flush the loo. I looked all around and there, right next to the toilet, was a Big Red Button. Now, everyone knows you should push a Big Red Button when you see it, right? So I pushed it, Sugababes-style (or Salt-n-Pepa-style, depending on your age). It wasn’t the flush.

Wheelchair Button Shows Physical Disability And Immobility

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

An ear-splitting siren screamed my error for all of Heathrow to hear and, as I later found out, a bright red light began flashing above the cubicle’s door. Most disabled toilets I come across have an emergency button in case one gets stuck, and I realised that must be what I’d pushed. As I imagined hordes of burly men in uniforms dashing to my rescue from every corner of the airport (I wish), my search for the flush grew ever more urgent, so that I could dispose of what I’d left in the toilet bowl before any of them could see. Eventually I found it, and the solitary airport cleaner who strolled sedately over to the cubicle long after I had finished, reset the emergency button to stop the alarm that had been ringing for a solid five minutes.

The rest of my voyage passed without incident and, thanks to all the medication I was taking at the time, I slept most of the way.

The moral

Although we have wheels, pushing a wheelchair-user out of your way is just as bad as pushing someone who stands on two feet. Hogging our toilets and parking spaces (that’s a different story for a different blog post) is just as bad as someone else parking in your garage or blocking your driveway. I know it sucks that you can’t get that close to the entrance when it’s raining, but try assembling a wheelchair in that rain. So the moral of the story: Be as courteous and respectful to disabled people as you would want us to be towards you, and we’ll do the same.

Our liberation from “inspiration porn”

Sometimes when I am out shopping or wheeling my chair down the street, I am approached by strangers who tell me that I am “brave” or “inspiring”. Of course they mean well, but these people don’t know anything about me, my character or my work. How do they know I have achieved anything meaningful? This thought-provoking TED Talk by Stella Young questions society’s habit of objectifying disabled people for what she refers to as “inspiration porn”.

What do you think about society’s image of disabled people?