What is it I miss most about my legs? The ability to embarrass myself during five-aside soccer with the lads, or even doubly so on the dancefloor? The occasion to climb a mountain, or jump in a lake? Certainly, I wouldn't say no if I were magically granted these powers again. But strangely, they are not the things I dwell on.
What I miss most is, quite simply, my erstwhile height.
Prior to July 30, 1995, I was a tall (6 foot plus), confident, and quite imposing twentysomething. When I entered a room, it seemed – certainly to me – that I was making something of a statement. I could meet somebody from well across a crowded room, make visual contact, and let my blue-eyed twinkle do its work! These days, my eyes are broadly fixed at the level of the average woman's cleavage, adding an entirely new, if occasionally inappropriate, dimension to that favourite pastime: flirting.
Still, there it is. Like most people post spinal injury, I very rarely dwell on what is, frankly, impossible. I don't expect, in my lifetime, to take the field alongside Bernard Brogan. I don't lie awake at night dreaming of climbing the steps to Machu Picchu or duetting with Dave Brubeck at the Montreux Jazz Festival.
What frustrates the most is the inability to do things I should be able to do, if just a little bit more thought had gone in to the environment in which I live. If I'm invited to a party, but it's upstairs in a function room above a pub, with no lift access ... THAT is frustrating. Frustrating that a) there may be no legal requirement for a lift; or b) those who booked the party never thought to check, or just assumed the law required such access.
In this respect, the struggle continues. And in fairness, Dublin, my hometown, has made great strides in the 18 years since I've been on wheels. Public transport has certainly opened up, although the wheelchair taxi situation remains precarious. And the perennial problem of finding an accessible Dublin jacks is, although wildly inconsistent, better than most European cities I've visited.
Given the universally accepted importance of a sense of humour when you live on wheels, it's still lamentable that there is only one regular comedy venue in the capital with wheelchair access, Murphy's Laughter Lounge. You gotta laugh! Ireland remains behind our European neighbours when it comes to that most informal of accommodations: queue-jumping. Having just returned from Florence and Rome, where you are automatically bumped – sometimes embarrassingly so – to the front of the queue for the likes of the Sistine Chapel, I find myself back home, itching to brush aside those people that stand between me and the top till in my local Supervalu. Equality is one thing, but I face enough obstacles during my daily routine. I'll take a little positive discrimination from time to time.
Of course, it's not all negative. And much of the joy of socialising as a wheelchair user is down to attitude and perspective.I've never done an audit, but I know that over the last 18 years, I've saved quite a packet on footwear. I'm always guaranteed a comfortable seat in a crowded theatre. And if I'm feeling a little isolated, I just sit back and console myself with the French expression for wheelchair, and convince myself it's true: fauteuil roulant. Literal translation? "Rolling armchair".
For people reading this who may be new to the "rolling armchair" experience – and sadly, spinal injury is a regular occurrence in the active, twentysomething population – I would go back to those two words, attitude and perspective. I remember vividly my first social foray outside the National Rehabilitation Hospital, and how freakish it felt. But over time, you learn a valuable lesson. The attitude you give off, you get back. If you seem to people like a victim, that's exactly how they will treat you. If you feel angry and annoyed, you will inevitably be greeted by a defensive wall of annoyance in return.
But if you roll up to the door, head held high (or as high as possible), glide through a room with positivity and confidence, and demand respect and understanding, that's generally what you'll get in return.