Becoming tetraplegic isn’t a lifestyle choice I would necessarily recommend. It’s not exactly a bed of roses. On the other hand, it would be a mistake to think that having a disability is always a problem. Every cloud has a silver lining and disability is no exception. Indeed, us crips do enjoy certain advantages over all you able-bodied people.
For a start, having a mobility impairment is incredibly helpful at weddings, parties and any other function where society may expect you to dance – but you don’t want to do so. A wheelchair provides the perfect excuse not to get onto the dance floor and make a fool of yourself. (Indeed, I feel my presence at these events fulfils an important social need, as anyone who similarly wishes to avoid public humiliation can insist they are deep in conversation with me whenever someone encourages them to get up and dance.)
Then there are situations when being a wheelchair user like myself can save you money. Generally speaking, disability is an expensive business. You may need to buy specialist equipment, make alterations to your property and spend more on travel arrangements. But looking on the bright side, certain theatres do offer generous discounts.
At the Royal Opera House, tickets can cost up to £180, yet I can obtain a wheelchair space with an excellent view of the stage for as little as £15. It’s most satisfying to look around at the other ‘patrons’ nearby, knowing I’ve only paid a fraction of what they have for the same quality of seat!
The National Theatre is another venue where it’s financially beneficial to be disabled. Tickets for a wheelchair user and one companion at the National are always £10-12. What’s more, I discovered a few weeks ago that the National has a policy of automatically refunding wheelchair-users if they find they cannot make a performance after all. Unfortunately, I had to work late on the same evening I was meant to be seeing the play Philistines. When I rang the box office to find out if they could sell my tickets to someone else, I was told that would be impossible as the play wasn’t sold out – but as I was a wheelchair user they would reimburse me anyway.
Thanks to my disability, I often gain an insight into the kinder side of people’s natures. I travel regularly to work by train and on most journeys at least one fellow passenger will ask me if I want a hand. Frequently it’s two or three. I’m always touched when a commuter offers help, especially on a Monday morning when they are probably stressed about work or in a hurry to get to the office on time.
I remember on one occasion, as the train pulled into the station, a scrawny youth leant over towards me. He looked like the kind of young man who collects ASBOs in the same way others collect stamps. I was therefore slightly taken aback when he enquired, “Do you have someone looking after you? Do you want me to get you off the train?”. That will teach me to judge people by their appearance! At a time when we are bombarded by news stories about crime, anti-social behaviour and the apparent breakdown of communities, my disability enables me to witness plentiful examples of people’s thoughtfulness and concern for others.
Using a wheelchair sometimes gives you access to places which are normally out of bounds to the public. Stately homes are notoriously wheelchair-unfriendly buildings, with numerous steps up to their front doors, but increasing numbers of them do have an alternative entrance suitable for disabled visitors. At Ragley Hall in Warwickshire, for example, disabled tourists enter via the private wing and use the same door as the family who own the estate.
I’m a naturally curious person (which is probably why I became a journalist) and I relish these chances to glimpse “behind the scenes”. On one occasion, I even managed to give a couple of American tourists a scare during a school trip to Hampton Court Palace.
In those days, Hampton Court cleverly hid the lift for disabled visitors behind artificial walls covered with beautiful, elaborate tapestries. (For all I know, this could still be the case – I haven’t been back to Hampton Court since).
Two middle-aged American women just happened to be studying a tapestry when suddenly it started moving to one side. As the steward and I emerged from the lift, we were confronted by two very startled faces. “Golly,” exclaimed one of the unnerved women. “We thought there was a ghost!”
Sometimes, I admit, a wheelchair brings you special treatment. At Buckingham Palace, wheelchair-using tourists enter through a gate at the front of the building and then have the pleasure of going through the famous arch. In contrast, tourists on legs have to use a much-less-exciting side door. Another time, when I was looking around St George’s Chapel, Windsor, one of the stewards beckoned me over and proceeded to show me the Bible that the Queen uses during services. It’s normally kept locked away in a drawer near where she sits, hidden from public view.
Undoubtedly, the most memorable example of positive discrimination I’ve received was my access to the lying-in-state of the Queen Mother’s body five years ago. As the conventional route into Westminster Hall involved steps, crips were allowed in the back way. While everyone else had to queue for up to 10 hours, I was able to nip in and out in under 10 minutes. It’s possibly the only time in my life when my wheelchair has proved to be a major time-saving device.
It seems to me that a disability significantly increases your chances of meeting famous people, especially members of the royal family. (The republicans among you may not regard this as a positive thing, but whatever your views on the monarchy, it is interesting to meet these people). So far, I’ve met the Queen, Princess Diana and the Duchess of York, directly as a result of being disabled. (I should point out that I met Fergie after her divorce so I suppose she wasn’t technically a “royal” at that time).
My disability has also brought me into contact with Stephen Hawking, Tanni Grey-Thompson and Jimmy Savile. I’ll leave it up to you to decide which of those encounters I relished the most.
Finally, it cannot be denied that my disability has given me opportunities that I would never have experienced otherwise. More than once in my life I’ve been asked to play the role of “token crip”. Back in 1998, Cambridge University held an exhibition to mark the 50th anniversary of women being awarded degrees.
Fifty female Cambridge graduates were chosen and photographic portraits of them displayed in the Cambridge Arts Theatre. The organisers must have decided that one of the women should be visibly disabled and, for some reason, I was nominated.
Consequently – alongside the portraits of distinguished women like Dame Margaret Anstee (the first woman to head a UN peace-keeping mission), actress Eleanor Bron, scientist Jocelyn Bell Burnell, writer Margaret Drabble and psychologist Dr Penelope Leach – there appeared a picture of me. To have my name mentioned among so many accomplished and eminent women was both surreal and comical. Never before have I felt such an imposter. At the gala evening I even had people coming up to me asking for my autograph. This is funny in itself but what makes it even funnier is the fact that I can’t hold a pen. I had tremendous difficulty keeping a straight face as I explained to them that an autograph posed rather a tricky challenge…