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Stuck in a Wheelchair

Excuse me! Sorry do you mind just moving a little? Dad, mind that chair! Thanks!

The world looks different from down here. Sitting in a wheelchair gives a childs-eye view of legs and feet, shopping bags and small dogs. Saturday afternoon shopping crowds seem impenetrable and inaccessible.

Welcome to a new world.

One month ago I was in too much of a hurry, and, crossing a road at the wrong time, discovered that legs and stretch limousines do not agree. One broken leg and several operations later, venturing outside is no longer the simple task it used to be.

York city centre is always busy during the sales, and this weekend was no different. Pushing a path through the crowds usually involves abrupt turns, stops, and using bags of purchases as battering rams. A wheelchair would seem to be an even better battering ram, but it turned out not to be the case.

With my father at the helm, we negotiated our way through the crowds. I felt like waving my crutches in front of us. Dad said he had thought that people would move aside like the Red Sea, but apparently a wheelchair does not make you Moses.

We made our way to a bookshop, armed with Christmas vouchers, and immediately encountered piles of books stacked on the floor and narrow aisles barely wide enough for the chair. Stop! I said, as we passed by a shelf. Okay, we can move on again, adding a book to the pile on my lap. A heap of hardbacks nearly went flying. Careful! I said.

I am being careful, replied Dad, trying to steer the wheelchair between two shelves rather close together.

At the till, I reached up to pass the shop assistant my books, and then the vouchers. The desk was only just lower than my head, and we could not get close to it because of more piles of books on the floor. The assistant smiled sympathetically and leant to give me my change nice of her, considering both my parents were closer.

Next, a clothes shop. The sales racks towered above me, and were too close together to get round easily. I could not stop and flick through clothes as usual, instead having to instruct Dad to stop and start. No chance of trying anything on, either we guessed sizes, and went to pay. Cards flew out of my wallet when I opened it, and someone else had to pick them up. I felt useless.

Marks and Spencers was packed, and the lift proved to be behind the checkouts. But we made it eventually, collecting another smile from a man pushing a trolley full of milk. Upstairs in lingerie, Mum and I discussed the various merits of bras. Dad said, Why do women always have to touch the clothes they buy? I twisted round to look incredulously at him.

The city centre cinema was busy with people going to see the current blockbusters and we had trouble finding somewhere to sit and have a drink. At least their lift was accessible, if tiny, but there was a queue for the ladies (as usual), and the main disabled toilet proved to have one of those locks which need to be opened by a member of staff. I waited for the queue to go down, and then hopped on crutches until the perfectly fit and healthy woman in the disabled cubicle had finished.

Give her a glare, suggested Mum.

Upstairs again, the staff proved to be extremely helpful, opening doors and going ahead to show us to the space provided in the cinema for wheelchairs. But at the end of the film we had to wait until the lights came up before we could actually move anywhere.

Last stop of the day, a restaurant right next to the cinema, had three steep steps immediately inside the door, and the crutches came in useful to get down them and to the table. I felt very glad I could at least move around without the wheelchair.

It had got cold outside by the time we had finished our meal. Dad took us down one of Yorks older streets, and I was bounced and rattled along the uneven flagstones, hanging on to the arm of the wheelchair grimly. I was glad when we made it back to the car.

It had been an exhausting afternoon. I felt that people, when they noticed me, smiled more and took more care to make sure they included me in whatever was going on. On the other hand, many people simply failed to notice the ungainly person at waist height, and we had not gone into some shops due to steps inside or outside.

I had the luxury of being able to move out of the chair if I needed to, and the knowledge that in a few short weeks I will be up and walking again. I feel very sorry for those who do not have that chance.

© Joanne Harris 2003