A confession: my wheelchair is a clunker. It is old, it’s made from stainless steel and it’s heavy.
If there were a cash for clunkers scheme for wheelchairs, I’d be picked out of the line for the photo opportunity with Julia Gillard.
It’s so old I can’t actually remember when it arrived and, like a historian piecing together human history from the Civil War, I have to consult dates scribbled on the back of pictures in my photo album to construct a rough genealogy.
It’s also no longer the wheelchair it was as I have slowly rebuilt it using bits of borrowed technology.
The seat uses a special fabric designed for use in the warm climes of the Northern Territory (which I have had resewn so its stronger); the axles were designed by an industrial metal engineer out of high strength billeted steel so they are unbreakable (except for one time when the chair fell out of the cargo hold of a plane) ; and to guard against rust I have recently had the frame taken out, rewelded and reinforced with rods of tempered steel.
It’s heavy and it looks like something from the 1980’s – and it is – but it’s durable, has survived endless battering by airlines and is very stable, sturdy and reliable.
Like George Lucas’s original vision for the Millennium Falcon in Star Wars it’s no long a single entity as much as collection of bits of different vehicles glued together, which looks like a garbage hauler – or something that’s fallen out of one – but somehow works really well.
So why is it that every person I meet somehow believes that they are an instant disability transport expert and are obliged to impart their pearls of wisdom every time I venture out the door.
Suggestions from random people over the years have included that I buy a scooter (and get that on top of the car how?); a motorbike driven from a side car (Batman & Robin eat your heart out); and those silly looking long low seated bicycles with the flags on them (ummm, no I don’t think so and – a small point – if I could cycle with my legs then why would this be an issue at all?)
Worst of all is the occasional advice from fellow wheelers and who on occasion feel the need to dazzle me with their new you-bute-super-lite-weight synthetic/plastic models, with shiny modular handle bars, plastic pushrims, tiny front wheels and aluminium frame (that’s what they make beer cans out of right?). These modern fancy wheelers feel obliged to turn tricks, chortle heartily and show me just how crap my wheelchair is.
Mmm … it’s great that you’re an early adopter but we’ll see who’s laughing when some clod drops your wheelchair 10 foot off an airport tarmac in a distant hole – try welding plastic.
Now don’t get me wrong, all these helpers are well meaning and trying to be nice in their way. And hey at least they are not coming up and calling me a welfare cheat, trying to steal my wheelchair, stick pins in the tires or push me off a curb (all things that have happened).
But do these nice folks seriously believe that – in this one small area at least – I don’t have a whiff of acquired expertise or that I haven’t devoted some time and thought to the subject?
Do they imagine that I ran into the wheelchair shop one day, say on the way to dropping back a DVD, and did an impulse buy – “Oh, that’s pretty – I’ll have one of those”
My favourite ever piece of gratuitous transport advice surely came about a year back when I was out pushing around a bike path past a group of friendly construction workers doing some strange inexplicable thing to one of those green Telstra boxes with graffiti sprayed on.
The oldest worker – who was clearly the leader of a team of around five supervisors involved in watching one apprentice fiddle with wires – stopped what he was doing and came over.
He carefully looked me up and down, chewed on a piece of grass and then pointed to the playing fields opposite: “Mate, I reckon what you really want is one of those”, he said, pointing.
Now Aussie blokes in green flouro engineering outfits generally know their gear so I was genuinely curious & open to advice this time. Bring it on.
I followed his gaze and his broad arm and saw that lo he was pointing to … a fantastically large ride on lawnmower merrily chewing through swathes of overgrown grass from the recent Canberra deluge (and anything else in its way, including what seemed to be small trees).
We’re not talking an ordinary Victa lawnmower here. We’re talking a huge monster machine that wouldn’t look out of place in the Bjork surrealist video Army of Me.
Speechless, all I could think of to say was a quiet ‘Wow’.
Now I may one day choose to scoot around Canberra in my business suit on a souped up ride on lawnmower.
In fact it could be quite useful in some situations: like difficult meetings, grant processes or performance reviews with employers.
“You don’t like what we’re doing? You’re not going to fund us? You gave me a rating of what???? Well, try some of this”. [Cut to screams and sound of intense mowing]
But if I choose to morph into an aggressive differently-abled version of Ellen Ripley in the final scene from Aliens (you know the one with the forklift and the Alien Queen) – this will most likely be a careful, considered decision that I make on my terms after weighing the pro’s and con’s.
Or seeing one I like in my colours in a shop.
Craig Wallace is a marketing manager and project coordinator with Nican a national community organisation and has been a community leader with various organisations for more than a decade. He is the President of People with Disability Australia, a leading cross disability rights organisation in Australia and is a member of the ACT BLITS business group.