As it’s the first anniversary of the London Paralympics, I’ve been taking a bit of time out from the tandem to ponder whether the Games have affected me personally. I’m a part-time wheelchair user, (a tandem can only get you so far, unfortunately) and it’s when I consider my wheelchair that I realise I have been affected.
I’ve been a reluctant convert to the use of a wheelchair. Although I’d eventually got my head round the idea of using one for when I couldn’t just walk a small distance, I would cringe inwardly as I was wheeled around in my clunky chair.
I became enormously self-conscious at the thought of getting out of my chair and walking the last part of my journey, say into a cafe or, sometimes, down a flight of steps as it was just such a darned hassle to find an alternative route. I imagined horrified looks from passersby, believing me to be a fraud. I wanted a card to wave at such people, saying, ‘I’ve got MS, I can’t walk very far’.
Then I watched the Paralympics. I was totally hooked and soaked up everything there was to know about the athletes and their machines. David Weir, Hannah Cockcroft and Sarah Storey became familiar names, and I was awed by the brutality of Murderball and the agility of the wheelchair basketball players. I became a Paralympic geek.
I also noticed that sometimes a swimmer would walk to their starting position but would use a wheelchair after having given their all in the water, although the camera remained firmly on their exhausted face during the post-race interview.
I became an avid watcher of the Last Leg too: the programme that took a light hearted view of each day’s events. It was very funny! People with disabilities were laughing at funny things that happened in relation to their disabilities; and about anything else that made them – and anyone else – laugh. (I’m delighted that they’ve now got a regular series; a light hearted look at the previous week’s news by three blokes who happen to have only four legs between them.)
And then I found that I was getting severe wheelchair envy. I wanted to whizz about like these athletes! I realised that I was no longer seeing disabled people playing sport but athletes using wheelchairs as a means to an end. A wheelchair was just a piece of kit, like a car; it got you about. In fact, it was getting some of them about at great speed! If I wasn’t looking at their chairs (except with envy!) then maybe people wouldn’t be looking at my chair rather than me either.
I have made one particular change though, to the wheelchair itself. After a final noble trip to Ghent (where the cobbles, although pretty, are totally impractical if you’re in a wheelchair) finally did for my chair (and very nearly me too!), it was quietly retired and I have acquired a sleek, black self-propelling one. I can now imagine myself to be a member of the wheelchair basketball team – so long as no one throws me a ball!
It doesn’t matter if anyone thinks they’ve seen a miracle if I get out of my chair to walk a little – they probably aren’t watching and I should skip down stairs when I can anyway! (Okay, ‘skip’ is a bit of a stretch but I liked the image!) I always have a seat when I want one, and I have also (almost!) embraced being wheeled at terrifying speed by one of the teenagers. A white-knuckle ride all of its own!