Road toll for people who become wheelchair users and new self-image possible

1978 – in Metallic Tadpole newspaper – Richard writing as Convenor, Club for Physically Handicapped

Risks of the road toll – getting a different kind of wheels

Getting your own set of wheels is the dream of many teens. Should you get a Moke, a Sandman or a Triumph Sports? Have you heard of other sets of wheels being popularised by more and more teens with names like Lewis, Vessa and Chenelle? These brands are exotic, but also personal and permanent. Unfortunately, these wheelchairs don’t have mag wheels.

The increasing road toll is something you are all aware of, especially the fatalities, often involving young people. But few people are aware of those others who are reported as ‘stable’ or ‘in satisfactory condition’. Very often these words hide the fact that someone has become a paraplegic or quadriplegic. Crashes aren’t the only disabling cause; there is an alarming increase in the numbers of teenagers and people in their early 20’s who are having strokes.

New self-image after an accident

As the chance of being in a wheelchair is not remote from you and your friends, it might be interesting for you to know something of what it’s like to recover from a life-changing trauma. All of us have an image of ourselves. As a teenager you may still be working yours out and it may be changing fairly often. After a serious accident or illness, you have to start from scratch rebuilding a completely new self-image.

In the first place, it’s not helpful, I’ve found, to keep living in the past, thinking and talking about what you were. Even though this is painful, you have to recognise your limitations and maximise your assets, building a lifestyle around what you can achieve. You have to learn to accept having the most personal tasks be performed for you by others and get used to not having privacy.

If some serious accident happens to you or a friend, it isn’t the end of the world that will shut you away forever. You can still have the same feelings, ambitions, hopes and fears as your friends. All humans have a lot of the same drives – to seek warmth, comfort, sex and recognition. There are more and more disabled people working out how to be more active and independent with their own lives all the time. Be encouraged when you see these models of how to live with a disability.

New options for living with disability

Lots of younger handicapped people are experimenting in different living styles, living in group housing, hostels, units and flats with the help of support workers. Schools and universities in SA are much more aware of the needs of disabled students and are putting resources into support services on campus to encourage disabled students to get qualifications so they can compete for jobs with others. There is more talk of sexual equality for all people, so being handicapped doesn’t necessarily mean an end to your sex or love life.

On the other side of these opportunities, you bump into barriers of getting around as a disabled person – some physical, some mental. Looking around the city you will notice a great number of steep curbs which may not be a problem to you, but to somebody in a wheelchair or on crutches, these built barriers may deny them access. You can’t work in a building if you can’t get into it. Only two of Adelaide’s city picture-theatres are accessible to people in wheelchairs. Entrance doors to buildings are often very heavy or sometimes too narrow. Finding a toilet is a chore for anyone in town, but it is even worse if you’re in a wheelchair.

Besides physical barriers, many of the challenges you meet are the attitudes of people who aren’t used to seeing a physically handicapped person out and about. You get used to stared and pointed at. I for one, would prefer conversation. Unfortunately, because our society still does hide its disabled members away in institutions, many people have very negative concepts regarding disability. Official language is also negative with words such as ‘patient’, ‘in-valid’, and ‘handicapped’ (from the old days of begging with cap in hand).

What to do when you meet a disabled person

  • Some disabled people have a speech defect or are a little slow in getting their message through, so be patient. Don’t just pretend if you didn’t get it. Ask them to repeat if you don’t understand.
  • Talk directly to a person sitting in the wheelchair, not through their helper, if someone is pushing them.
  • It’s really nice to have somebody squat down to eye level too, so you don’t have to strain you neck to make eye contact.
  • If you see somebody who is disabled trying to get up a gutter or if it’s a blind person crossing a road, just ask them, “May I help?” and wait for a reply. If you listen, they will know how best you can help so that neither you nor they will get hurt.
  • Don’t keep saying, “No worries, no worries…” and grab them without instructions.

Positive attitude to life

No one would say that living life in a wheelchair is fun, but it’s certainly not the end of the world, and given the right attitude, many disabled people have made great contributions to our society.