Going nowhere: My life in a wheelchair

The Independent's Business Editor David Prosser was told he would be in a wheelchair for weeks after a cycling accident. No problem, he thought. Modern Britain is adapted to the needs of those on four wheels – isn't it?

Monday 27 July 2009 00:00 BST

First, an apology. What I am about to say will doubtless come as no surprise to anyone with experience of using a wheelchair. But before such readers sigh with exasperation – I'm sure you've been complaining about these issues for years – let me just add this. We need to scream again and again, as loudly as is humanly possible, about the unbelievably shocking treatment that wheelchair users have to endure in this country.

Able-bodied people certainly have no idea about the challenges faced by those in wheelchairs. I know – I was one, until a fortnight ago. And like almost everyone I know, I assumed that in our tolerant, modern society, a wheelchair user ought to be able to get on with some pretty ordinary daily activities without too many problems. I was even dimly aware of a lot of whinging from shops and other businesses about all the improvements they have been forced to make to their premises in recent years in order to comply with disability legislation, so things must surely have improved.

Boy, how wrong can you be? Two weeks ago, after an unfortunate encounter with a car while riding my bike home from work – note to drivers everywhere, if you look before turning right you'll find far fewer cyclists riding into you at speed, and spend less time waiting around for ambulances and police cars – the nice accident and emergency doctor had some bad news. "You've broken your pelvis in three places," he said, doing his best to look focused while the self-harmer in the next cubicle screamed the place down. "There's no treatment as such, other than six weeks' bedrest."

Within a day or so, I decided I wasn't going to take that advice – literally or metaphorically – lying down. As pelvic fractures go, these breakages are relatively straightforward – just big cracks, really – and though I knew I couldn't walk, there was one way to carry on working while resting, and maybe even get a bit of play in too. Hiring a wheelchair – pretty cheap and quick thanks to the internet – was going to transform my recovery period.

So it did, and has. Now I can get from the bedroom to the study to the bathroom and back again without having to scream with pain. I can even wheel myself to the other end of the room where my – about to be – long-suffering wife has cruelly left both the painkillers and my chocolate supply within a clear line of sight. What I hadn't banked on, however, was the difficulty I would face trying to use my wheelchair outside of the home.

The first problem is the terrain. Have you ever noticed the cracks, bumps and gaps in the typical pavement? Well, if you're in a wheelchair, those imperfections the local council hasn't quite got round to dealing with can turn into crevasses that threaten to pitch you on to the floor at any moment, or leave you with one wheel stuck off the ground, rendering any movement other than some redundant circling almost impossible.

Our high street, in a relatively well-to-do suburb on the edge of London, seems to have been surfaced by an army of drunks intent on leaving mantraps every few yards. What should be an easy self-propelled jaunt for a wheelchair user becomes – for me, anyway – a terrifying and exhausting journey. Either I push myself, becoming increasingly frustrated about how difficult progress seems to be, or someone pushes me, leaving me in a permanent state of panic about the possibility of another painful crash.

That's before you decide to venture into a shop, of course. After 10mins of pushing and pulling, a coffee might be just the thing, and here's our local branch of Costa. As I remember from pushing babies' buggies in and out, there's no annoying step to navigate and the door is extra-wide. Should be a breeze.

Just one problem. The thing about extra-wide doors is that they turn out to be extra-heavy if you're trying to push them open from a seated position where you've got little purchase. It takes all my strength to cross Costa's threshold, though the people inside – both staff and customers – are some help. Not that they intervene, you understand. No, the way in which they watch me struggle without coming to my assistance annoys me so much that I produce enough adrenalin to complete the task of penetrating their comfortable space.

It's my first experience of seemingly being rendered invisible by the fact that I'm sitting in a wheelchair – but it won't be my last. After a restorative coffee, we call into the photo shop next door, to pick up some mugshots for my passport renewal application form. Unlike Costa, this shop has a small step to navigate, which I find pretty tricky. And, as an added bonus, I'm about to get a masterclass in the way in which wheelchairs seem to disempower their users.

It's me who needs the photos, so it's me who asks the shop assistant for help. It will also be me, in a moment or two, who pays the bill with my credit card. So why then, throughout this transaction, are all questions directed at my wife? All conversation, in fact. Does my wheelchair-bound status render me incapable of speaking for myself, let alone engaging in a spot of polite small talk? I'm pretty sure that, when I broke my pelvis, my brain wasn't injured at the same time, but I am being treated like a helpless child.

In fact, it's not a bad lesson for me as a parent of three toddlers. Now I know why they have tantrums when people talk to me about them as if they're not even there, taking decisions on their behalf without asking their opinion. I feel like having a tantrum myself.

Of course, I don't stamp my feet (not least because it would hurt like hell). Instead, I come over all British, accept my fate and leave the shop politely, hoping for better treatment elsewhere.

It doesn't happen. Over the next few days, the photo shop experience is repeated with remarkable regularity. Turn up in a shop with my wheelchair and any members of my family and all business apparently has to be conducted through them. Turn up without them, so that staff have no choice but to deal with me, and I am invariably patronised.

Oddly, back on the street, there is a group of people who do seem to notice the fact that I'm in a wheelchair – the small but significant number of people who want to prove they've noticed me by being as inconsiderate as they possibly can.

So, for example, I'm struggling to propel myself up a gentle incline and the pavement has been partially blocked by a sack of rubbish. Does the woman coming the other way acknowledge that there's room for only one of us to get through and that the sweaty bloke trying to push himself uphill probably doesn't want to have to stop and lose all his momentum? Does she heck – instead, she puts her head down, speeds up and forces me to wait.

What about the bloke in the post office, who watches me negotiate my way through a narrow aisle? He could move aside to save me having to go all the way round to the counter, but that might involve taking a couple of steps forward. Instead, he turns his back on me and carries on talking to his mate, oblivious to the complicated reversing manoeuvres I'm now trying – and failing – to execute.

Interestingly, this attitude appears to be learned rather than inherited. By contrast, children seem to treat wheelchair users as they would anyone else, barely registering the fact that you're travelling under wheel-power rather than on your legs.

My own three-year-old Harry no doubt behaves that way because he has been brought up impeccably (if only), but he's not the only one. Other small children seem to hardly notice the chair, just as they also seem oblivious to race or obvious physical disability. We turn up at a pre-school fun day and Harry's friends invite me on to the bouncy castle, oblivious to my protests that I'm going to find it a little tricky.

Some adventures in the wheelchair prove more traumatic than others. If you're in a wheelchair because of a traffic accident, it's not unreasonable to feel a little nervous about traffic. It's a pity then that the streets of central London leave wheelchair users with little choice but to take on the cars on their own territory.

In our haste to cross a road on the way to a children's theatre production, a long-promised treat for Harry – more of the joys of theatre in a wheelchair shortly – my wife has pitched the wheelchair off the curb. Our problem now is that neither she nor I are strong enough to get the wheelchair back up the curb on the other side of the street.

This, presumably, is what the dropped curbs you get at corners and sideroads are actually for. Only we can't find one – none of the roads we walk down seems to have a dropped curb, on the corner or anywhere else. As a result, we're stuck walking down the road, shouting at Harry to stay on the pavement, and hoping that the oncoming traffic will steer round us rather than mow us down.

Will we ever escape? The curbs on either side of the road might as well be 12-foot walls for all the chance we have of getting up them and the traffic just keeps on coming. When we do find a dropped curb, it has been so badly laid that the chair still won't get up it. At last, we reach the theatre itself and – after 10mins stuck in the road – finally find a bit of pavement that the wheelchair will get up.

Not that the battle is over. We hadn't, of course, been dim enough to simply assume the theatre would accommodate my wheelchair. We'd sensibly phoned up to ask whether it was still worth me coming. "No problem," the box office told my wife. "We'll give you any help you need".

Well, we certainly are going to need some help. As it turns out, the stalls in this particular theatre can only be accessed via 18 steps downwards, and there's no lift. We could relocate to the circle, I suppose, but this is 15 steps upwards from the foyer. Something of a Hobson's choice.

To cut a long story short, we make it, thanks to some serious disobedience of the doctor's orders about not putting weight through my legs and some judicious use of crutches. But it is not a happy experience. As for the loos, down another flight of stairs, well let's just say the only option is to cross those bruised limbs.

Still, at least the walk back to the car is easier, since we aren't going to fall into the curb trap twice in one day. The route back is a little more circuitous, with our direction of travel determined as much by the state of the pavements as our final destination, but we do make it.

Not that we wanted to drive. When we planned this trip to the theatre, the tube journey was intended to be a bonus item for Harry, who loves travelling this way. Instead, we had no choice but to drive into central London, racking up extortionate parking charges and the congestion fee.

The reason we had no choice, of course, is that London Underground takes a pretty dim view of wheelchair users. A quick perusal of the map reveals that zone one has, at best, half a dozen stations with step-free access to the trains. Out in the suburbs, the picture is even worse.

Now I know the Tube is struggling with Victorian infrastructure and that big chunks of the network are miles underground, making disabled access tricky. But not all of it is like that – installing a lift in our above-ground local station would be very simple, if only someone had bothered to get round to it.

I'm told that buses are much better at accommodating wheelchair users, but I haven't yet plucked up the nerve to try them. Practically speaking, the bus isn't much use for a long journey and it is also not that long since I was refused access to one with a baby's buggy because someone else already had a buggy on board. So much for public transport for all.

Even the local hospital seems to excel in thoughtlessness towards those with mobility problems. At my first check-up, we very naughtily decide to take advantage of my dad, who has a disabled sticker prominently displayed on his windscreen. But when we park in the disabled bay outside outpatients, we discover a problem. For some unknown reason, the hospital has decided to put bollards all along the pavement next to the space, making it impossible to get the wheelchair close up to the car.

Why would you do that – is there some bloke laughing himself silly in a CCTV booth somewhere, as injured and disabled hospital-goers try to clamber out of a car and past a three-foot concrete pillar to get into their wheelchairs? Can I expect to appear on YouTube sometime soon, starring as the injured bloke who nearly broke yet more bones as he attempted to vault a bollard using only a crutch and one hand?

It's the little things that really get to you. The door that isn't held open for me at the car park exit and the nurse who is obviously so bored with wheelchair users that she speeds off round a corner while trying to show me to an appointment, leaving me lost on the corridor. It's the shortage of wide aisles at my local supermarket's tills and the tiny little strips of metal in shop doorways that I find so difficult to negotiate.

All these things add up to more than just inconvenience for wheelchair users. For me, anyway, they erode my confidence, leave me increasingly self-conscious about my wheelchair status and in the end combine to make me feel like I won't be welcome in public until I'm back on my feet again.

And, remember, I'm the lucky one. Touch wood, in a few weeks time, these injuries should heal with no long-term effects and the wheelchair will go back to the hire company for good. But I promise here and now that, once that happens, I won't forget what a belittling experience my temporary confinement has been.

We don't even seem to have got the basics right. Our capital city can't accommodate wheelchair users on most of its transport system, or provide them with city centre pavements they can use safely. The attitude of many of us is that wheelchair users are a nuisance and that disabled access is a right to which we can pay only lip-service.

In less than three years' time, London will host the Olympics and another event which it claims is equally important: the Paralympics. Let's just hope the competitors in the latter event don't venture beyond the Olympic village too often: they might just find out how little time people in this country – and their administrators – really have to think about a level playing field for those with mobility difficulties.

Let me end, then, with a second apology. I hope I haven't been as inconsiderate in the past as many of those I've encountered during my weeks on wheels. But I know I haven't really thought about how difficult we make life for wheelchair users in this country. And I'm ashamed to be part of a society that hasn't made a monstrous fuss about this scandal.

'For wheelchair-users, it's all about mindset'

Mike Smith, consultant, aged 42

"I was born with a neurological condition which means I have always used a wheelchair; I went to a conventional primary school and then a specialist school between the ages of 13 to 18, but I'm against segregated education.

Life for a disabled person in England has improved considerably, especially since the introduction of the Disability Discrimination Acts of 1995 and 2005, but I would still say we are only 60 per cent there – there is still plenty of the Tube we can't use, and plenty of stairs to buildings without alternative access.

But I think a good way to look at life is not to define yourself as disabled by your impairment – you are disabled more by the infrastructure, other people and their attitudes.

I am sure David will learn a lot from being temporarily in a wheelchair – he will be experiencing a range of perspectives. But the most basic difference between his experience of life using a wheelchair and mine is that he probably isn't particularly adept yet.

And I am sure my experiences are different to someone who didn't have my economic options – I had a university education, have a successful career, live in comfortable accommodation, have travelled the world – so I have led a really fantastic life.

You can do anything if you have the right mindset. It's about doing things slighty differently and not feeling like you're being judged. And I think you'll find very few people that feel sorry for me."

Interview by Rob Sharp

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