Wheelchairs I

The perils of the electric wheelchair have left Victoria Brignell stranded on more than one occasion

During my university years I took great delight in confusing the shoppers of Cambridge. In those days I often used a battery-powered wheelchair which I controlled using a foot switch. When I went into the city centre, I could see a puzzled expression pass over the faces of other pedestrians as they noticed the joystick on the wheelchair's arm and then realised that my hands weren't touching it. I could sense the question going through their minds - 'How on earth is she driving that chair? Telepathy?' People just don't expect you to drive a wheelchair with your left foot.

In the course of my life I've owned three electric wheelchairs. Finding wheelchair manufacturers that would be happy to make a bespoke foot switch was always a challenge. The first chair, which I acquired in the mid-1980s, a couple of years after becoming disabled, was a very basic, rudimentary NHS battery-powered wheelchair.

It was just about sufficient to transport me around school but it was frustratingly slow. One day I arrived at school to find the headmaster had erected 30mph speed signs along the corridors as a joke. This chair was also never designed to be used outdoors so in the playground I had to be careful not to go through any puddles otherwise it came to an abrupt halt.

My next electric wheelchair was bought for me by my parents and was called a 'Turbo'. It was like swapping an ageing Reliant Robin for a brand new Renault. Not only did it look smarter than the NHS chair, it had the added advantage that you could raise and lower the seat at the press of a button. This was a useful function at secondary school where I needed to cope with low desks in classrooms and high workbenches in science labs. The Turbo's battery was contained in a 'bonnet' which jutted out behind the seat and sometimes people would sit on the back. Even the headmistress once asked for a ride. If only I'd had a camera with me at the time. It would have made a memorable photo for the school magazine.

My most recent electric wheelchair was a Swedish model called a Permobil. This was the Range Rover of battery-powered chairs and it cost almost as much. In Sweden it's always been available for free on their health service but when I was recommended it back in the early 1990s, the only way of obtaining one in the UK was for my family to buy it privately. The price tag was way beyond our reach so we applied for various grants. My school also kindly volunteered to hold a fundraising event, which turned out to be a sponsored karaoke competition - with me conscripted onto the judging panel. This was deeply ironical, bearing in mind I know more about quantum physics than I do about pop music, and that's not much. (I'm one of those people who admits to buying Hawking's A Brief History of Time but giving up halfway through).

The Permobil may have been expensive but it was worth every penny. This was the electric wheelchair that saw me through my sixth form and university years. It was stylish, sophisticated and reliable, the seat went up and down, and it could handle most urban terrains. It even coped well with the copious amounts of gravel found at my Cambridge college. Owing to the Permobil's size, friends affectionately nicknamed it "the Sherman tank".

Using a battery-powered chair doesn't always go according to plan. Sometimes I have experienced the odd mishap. After sitting my A-level exams, I continued to go into school until the end of term for reasons connected with my care. (I took plenty of books with me to keep me occupied as I didn't have any lessons to attend). Early one afternoon, as the weather was fine, I decided to wander down to the conservation area at the end of the school field. The lunch break had just finished and I fancied savouring the tranquillity of the conservation area when there were no other pupils around. My carer was eating her sandwiches in the staff room so she wasn't with me either.

Unfortunately, just as I reached the furthest part of the school grounds, my foot slipped and came off the control switch. I didn't have enough movement in my leg to lift it back into the correct position and there was no one else there to help. The conservation area wasn't near any classrooms so I knew the chances of anyone coming down that way were pretty small indeed. And I hadn't told anyone where I was going. So there I was - on my own and stuck.

I wasn't anxious because I had arranged to rendezvous with my carer after her lunch break. It was only a matter of time before I was discovered. But I was rather concerned about how my carer would react when I didn't turn up at the appointed time. Would she come searching for me before worrying other members of staff? Would she think to look down by the conservation area (not the most obvious place for me to be)? Or would she immediately panic, assume I'd been abducted, and call the police?

As it happened, the fates were smiling on me. After what seemed like ages but was probably only a few minutes, another much younger girl came into sight. What she was doing in that area at that time of day I've no idea - but frankly, I didn't care. Hoping I didn't sound too much like an authoritarian, power-hungry sixth former barking orders to a meek smaller pupil, I called out to grab her attention and proceeded to give her instructions on what to do. So the situation was resolved before anyone realised I was "missing".

That wasn't the only time I've been stranded. A couple of years later my battery-powered chair broke down in Cambridge when I was on my way to meet friends. Luckily it failed only a couple of streets from where I lived so it didn't take long for my carer to run back to my hall of residence to collect the manual wheelchair and grab a second carer to help transfer me into it. On the negative side, it had to happen in Trumpington Street, one of the busiest streets in the city. While I waited for my carers to return, I could see passers-by wondering what I was doing stopped in the middle of the pavement. (Perhaps they imagined I was carrying out a traffic survey or some kind of placard-free silent protest). Then, as my carers lifted me from one wheelchair to the other, I could feel the inquisitive eyes of several curious foreign tourists looking at us. I felt like pointing out they would find far more interesting exhibits in the Fitzwilliam Museum 50 yards down the road.

At least neither of those incidents caused me any physical damage. During my school career I discovered that an electric wheelchair can turn into a potentially lethal self harming tool when you least expect it. Even the normally simple act of entering a classroom may prove to be a painful experience, if you indulge in a piece of reckless driving.

On the occasion in question, I successfully opened the classroom door (by gently pushing it with my foot rest) and advanced towards the desk. But instead of moving steadily and carefully into position - which would have been the sensible thing to do - for some reason I chose to accelerate. Consequently, I managed to drive at speed straight into a table which was too low for my legs to fit under. Ouch.

You won't be surprised to hear that so far that's been my one and only attempt at knee capping myself.

Victoria Brignell works as a radio producer with the BBC. After reading classics at Downing College, Cambridge, she undertook journalism training at Cardiff University. She lives in West London and is 30 years old and is a tetraplegic wheelchair-user.