Sunday 18 March 2018

Being wheelchair-bound has given me a new perspective


IT CERTAINLY changes your perspective when you spend a few weeks in a wheelchair or on crutches. Courtesy of a minor fracture, sustained while running to catch a train from Strasbourg, found myself in that exact situation. Let me tell you from a seat of a wheelchair, the world is a different place.

It's not all negative. Whizzing around the Parliament in my electric wheelchair, total strangers smile benignly in my direction and mere acquaintances stop to enquire as to the cause of my condition and my prospects of recovery. People are genuinely kind and try to accommodate me where at all possible.

When travelling to and from Brussels, you sometimes have to rely on the kindness of strangers. The kind lady from Boyle who saw me sitting forlornly at Connolly station, and took my briefcase so that I could board the Sligo train safely on crutches.

Another lady who met me on the return journey to Dublin and shepherded me into a taxi to the airport and the taxi man who would not leave me until the wheelchair people arrived.

But I'm one of the lucky ones. This is a temporary situation and four short weeks should see me right. However, in those weeks I have begun to look at the world a little differently. One of the things that strikes me most forcibly is my loss of independence. For me, it's a minor inconvenience and it's temporary, but for others it is permanent.

This was brought home to me in no uncertain terms when I attended and spoke at a disability meeting at the Parliament two days ago.

The meeting was attended by people with disabilities from all EU Member States, including Ireland, and needless to say the word "austerity" was everywhere.

Speakers from the Czech Republic spoke of disability allowances being cut by 50% and let me tell you, they are not high to begin with.

Italians spoke of cuts to services and allowances and how these cuts were robbing people of their independence, their mobility and their dignity.

A Greek representative painted a dismal, indeed a frightening picture, of the situation where services were entirely withdrawn, where help was no longer available, and where some support systems had collapsed or were about to.

I spoke with Irish representatives who were also experiencing significant cutbacks particularly in the area of personal assistants.

I knew, in a very minor way, the value of a personal assistant, somebody to accompany you, enabling you to get on with your life. However, I also knew that a personal assistant for the person I spoke to, meant somebody to hep you dress, to shower, to wash your clothes, ensure you have food to eat and even help find your keys if they are lost.

A personal assistant allows you to live with a bit of dignity. Yes, you are dependent, but it is managed and it is respectful. When I looked at people who would never leave their wheelchair and me hoping to be dancing in the New Year, I was humbled and I was grateful.

I hope I won't forget and that I will be one of those strangers on whose kindness somebody may have to rely.