Christine Tongue: Coming out as disabled

Christine and her young helper

“I can’t use that – it makes me feel old!”

Me: “Uncle you’re 89 and you can’t walk.”

Social services had given him a wheeled walking frame with a seat so he could go outside, support his wobbly legs, put his shopping in it and sit down when he felt tired.

I suppressed my frustration and resisted saying: “How young do you plan on getting?” And left it with him.

He reflected, talked to his other elderly friends, looked at it for two weeks and tried it out – at first with someone else pushing it and him clutching an old stick and walls as he passed. But now he uses it and is grateful!

My friend Marvin was stuck at home, dependent on sticks and lifts from kind friends with cars.

He falls over a lot, as I used to before I got wheels to keep my inadequate legs from overdoing it.

“Try out my mobility scooter!” I urged. “Oh, no I couldn’t!” he said. But he mulled it over and eventually screwed up his courage to get on my scooter in a safe indoor space. And, like me, was hooked on the potential freedom it would give him.

Where does this reluctance come from?

Partly it’s fear of accepting that you’re decrepit enough to need help and it’s a downward slope to complete dependence.

I didn’t suffer from it myself – I used a stick, then two sticks, and now two sticks and a mobility scooter and a wheelchair. But I’ve been intermittently disabled from having polio since the age of seven and major orthopaedic surgery that stopped my bones fracturing but left me with a lot of disability.

Christine (right) and friend

I’ve had decades of getting used to needing help, improving, declining and now accepting I need some kind of assistance permanently. My challenge, as with many disabled people, is leading as normal a life as possible.

Just taking a bus as a wheel user is tricky.

A woman came to me in the street last week and asked me if I’d been on a bus with the scooter as she had an elderly neighbour who was scared to.

Well, I’m still scared to do it on my own. Most buses have a ramp and bus drivers have been extremely helpful so far, but it does hold the bus up while you negotiate your wheels into and out of the allocated space. If there’s a lot of people their toes are in danger as I try to turn in a tiny area. A companion can make sure you get a clear passage.

So I said: “Go with him and give it a try at a really quiet time.” I hope she did because I meet a lot of people who have relatives stuck at home even if they have wheels because they’re scared to use them.

But what also, more worryingly, scares people is the attitude of the fit and well.

I’ve heard: “Some of them are too fat and lazy to use their legs or go to work – not you, love, of course as you’re tiny and old.” Wow I felt good after that! What do you answer?

I could talk about my young friend with cerebral palsy, who still has to prove every year that he can’t walk or his benefits are in danger. He doesn’t want to be reminded constantly his disability is there for life or to feel he’s under scrutiny for being some kind of scrounger.

I constantly come upon disabled people who don’t know about what they’re entitled to in the way of benefits and equipment – and don’t know who to ask! Which is why they ask me in the street!

There might be some people who pretend to be more disabled than they are but I’ve never met them. But I have met the people too scared to leave their homes, try out wheels and sticks, or claim the benefits they’re entitled to.

Let’s hope a more caring new government will take action to help them.

Are you listening Keir Starmer?

(GPs can refer people for help from social services or occupational therapy.)

Christine is a founder member of disability campaign group Access Thanet

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