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Handicaps of the disabled


RICKY JORDAN

Handicaps of the disabled

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MANOEUVRING A WHEELCHAIR is not as easy as it looks, and I got a baptism of fire – the sun was hot, too – as I tried to experience what it would be like on a “walk” with the Multiple Sclerosis Society last week.
Sitting in the chair at the invitation, or dare, of the Society’s secretary Boneta Phillips, I tried to wheel myself left and went right, tried stopping but kept going forward, tried reversing but felt like I was rowing a boat going nowhere, until I finally realised I would not even be able to wheel myself out of the KFC Hastings carpark, far less reach Bert’s Bar.
So I asked Bryan, one of the caregivers, to push me onto the sidewalk to avoid me diving headlong into bustling traffic.
What sidewalk? The concrete structure, which I would normally skip onto and over with nary a thought, suddenly loomed like a man-made mountain before me.
But Bryan got me over, and soon I was wheeling along and thinking, for a split second, “this is easy” as I found myself on eye level with approaching vehicles.
Those behind the television cameras of another media house covering the “walk” found my efforts amusing, while some motorists and a few pedestrians cast sympathetic looks my way.
Most of the group, numbering about 20, were wheeling along the street; and as I wondered why couldn’t they all enjoy the safety of the sidewalks, a higher one gradually came into my line of sight.
“What the . . .?” I thought, as Bryan quickly sprang into action, tilted my chair back and rolled me up the sidewalk – or should I say the high-level piece of outdoor flooring?
As we were going up, I instinctively held the back of my head to cushion any likely fall.
By now, you may understand the growing respect I was quickly feeling for people with disabilities, as they clearly have to face their personal challenges as well as those placed in their way by the able-bodied.
I would never even have thought of such encumbrances otherwise, but last Wednesday morning every pothole looked like a mini-lake, every rock became an enemy, and my anger at the builders of these sidewalks was rising.
But I was not the only one having challenges that morning. The MS Society’s members, most in wheelchairs except for young Haley Hewitt, 23, who suffers with optic neuritis – an early symptom of MS – were at the mercy of oncoming vehicles which swerved off them and almost into opposing traffic.
A patrolling police vehicle, however, appeared just in time, and its driver took us across the street, slowing the traffic behind us as we approached Coconut Walk.
“By the time you get home, your biceps should have grown,” one familiar onlooker shouted to me.
It was indeed an experience even though I didn’t complete the “walk” in my wheelchair.
“I actually had some guests who came in from the United States, and we also went from the Boardwalk up to Bert’s . . . and they were screaming, literally screaming because it was dark along here and they were so scared,” she recalled.
“If we’re spending a lot of money trying to attract tourists, and tourists feel at risk and complain about this area, which is one of the high-profile commercial sections, it doesn’t make sense,” she added, pointing out how dangerous the sidewalks could also be for people pushing strollers, others with temporary disabilities, joggers, and those with heavy loads.
Indeed, I was beginning to realise, everyone could be affected, including the caregivers who could eventually end up with back problems and, God forbid, become disabled.
“We’re not supposed to be punished because we’re disabled. We’re already punished by our disability and all the other things that affect us . . . you can talk about access to transport, jobs and so on, but what’s the point if you can’t get access out of your home to get to the bus stop?,” was how Phillips put it.
Without her husband Tony, Phillips’ struggle would be even more acute. And since being diagnosed with MS in 1993, she has championed the cause of the disabled here and beyond these shores.
“We have about 68 registered members in the MS  Society. Not everyone with MS wants to be a member; particularly when you see such degrees of disability, you think ‘I don’t want to be reminded of my own vulnerability’, and that’s understandable. We have people as young as 17, so it can happen to anyone,
it’s just one of those things,” she said casually as I listened in amazement.
Member Annette Watson, however, is living proof that proper access and sidewalks impact on even the able-bodied.
“I fell and broke my hip on a faulty piece of pavement on Roebuck Street nearly eight years ago. I suffered from MS as well so having that added injury didn’t help. I had to have a hip replacement, and had to have piece of my bone cut to make the legs the same length since they were uneven,” she recalled.
“I think the walk is typical . . . the pavements are atrocious. Anyone in a wheelchair trying to get through, you can’t. Something needs to be done about this,” Watson added.
The Society’s president LaSonta Corbin said while drivers here were “very considerate” to the disabled, Barbados was still some way from being fully accessible.
Others, like Jaime Gittens, a young mother who is cared for by her own mother, Gloria Joseph, urged motorists and others to help where they could.
The university graduate and former inventory control manager is now unemployed as a result of her condition.
“When I was looking for employment otherwise, it was hard. I would not mention that I’m in a wheelchair, I’d say I have MS in the letter, but then when they see me come into the office in the wheelchair or with the walker, you can see a level of disappointment,” said Gittens, 32.
As for me, it was an eye-opener that has caused me to see the differently abled from a new, empathetic point of view.
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