My friend Helene, now 95, has been a role model for me as a person whose legs don’t work.
She became a courier for the French Resistance when her sister was deported to Auschwitz.
Helene sailed through the war with a mixture of fabulous luck and sheer effrontery! Facing a troop of SS from the back of a horse and cart with a suitcase containing a radio, and flirting with them until they let her pass, took more guts than most people could summon.
A blue-eyed stare
As a disabled person – she survived the war unscathed and ruined her knees skiing – she employed the same technique. She knew what she wanted and she knew she had a right to it – whether it was access to the Louvre or someone’s seat on the Metro. A cold blue-eyed stare and a shake of the stick and people leapt to their feet.
In France, you get a lot of respect as a war veteran, and as a disabled person you get more perks than in other countries.
My “carer” and I have got in free to many French museums, parks, zoos and galleries with only my stick as evidence of my entitlement to privileges. And no pleading for “concessions” as you have to in a lot of British institutions – reduced prices to show we care.
No you just sail up, like Helene – doing a good impersonation of that statue of Liberty lady that the French invented before America imitated it – and doors open.
I’d like to thank Helene and others like her who campaigned for respect and some kind of compensation for disability by getting access to culture and democratic rights.
In Britain we tend to feel apologetic about not being able to do what most people can do.
“Sorry”, I found myself saying to someone behind me on the cinema stairs last week, as I toiled up in front of them.
We hide our disabilities – think of all the old people you know who believe it makes them “look old” if they use a stick.
We buy fancy patterned sticks – as if you’re only using it to match your dress. Or trekking poles so people think you’re really a world class athlete just slowing down for a bit before zooming off up a mountain.
We behave as if we’re ashamed of what makes us different.
This stops some of us fighting back when we’re called scroungers for needing state benefits and told we should be working.
An ageing population and increasing decrepitude is blamed for crowded hospitals and long waiting lists.
Well, sorry for existing and paying taxes for 40 years – just show me where to crawl along and die, please.
But my French friend Helene has never thought like that! She demands access to real life and rights for the decrepit.
She’s still fighting for liberty.
So let’s join the disabled resistance. Let’s limp proudly to the barricades and fight for recognition and our rights.
If you want to help campaign for better facilities in Thanet for disabled people contact Access Thanet on www.accessthanet.wordpress.com