On access, good intentions, and unhelpful ‘help’

Out! If you’re wondering why James is lifting the ramp behind me – yes, people always offer to help. And we always say no. 

We’ve gone out together very rarely since the pandemic started. Back in December we went to see Mainie sing in our local church. It was absolutely lovely. Zero access problems. But a pandemic on top of all the usual access stuff is a LOT to negotiate. 

Frustratingly, the real danger of going out is always well-meaning offers of help. You never know who’ll insist. 

The night when we took these photos, we had low-key offers of help and then were left to it. Which was perfect. But we never know when someone will lunge at us mid-manoeuvre, or grab my wheelchair. We’re always braced. 

My worst ever experience was in a convent (yes that sounds like a comic anecdote, but honestly two decades later I’m still not ready to laugh about it). 

Then there’s the bouncer who I shrieked ‘brittle bone disease’ at – which was a lie, but worked. I was 9 months pregnant and a moment away from a grab that’d have sent me flying. The older woman in a cafe whose face I never saw, as I felt myself lurching dramatically backwards – especially vulnerable with my baby in my lap. 

None of these people will have any idea how close they came to injuring me, or how traumatic I found it. 

Or that James still fantasises about picking up the cafe lady, moving her to the other side of the room, while telling her husband he’s trying to help…

There’s shame attached to these experiences. There shouldn’t be, but there is. A stranger is asserting, publicly, that you don’t have the basic rights to your body everyone else has. 

I think at its most basic, it’s a combination of the wheelchair-user-as-inanimate-cargo mindset and the Princess Diana thing. A charity mindset, which presumes we’ll be grateful for any help, and any touch. 

Anyway, I’ve been reading a lot of memoirs by disabled authors recently and in the scheme of things, I’ve got off lightly. This seems to be a universal problem.

Lucy Catchpole

A photo of Lucy Catchpole

(First posted on Instagram on Thursday 9th December 2021) 

[Image descriptions:

  1. I’m sitting in a church doorway, wearing a brown crochet beret and a floral facemask. You can just see James behind me grappling with a large wooden ramp. I’m a white woman with long brown hair.
  2. to 10. Other photos of the same night – the four of us are in our local church, it’s Victorian with high ceilings and a very instagrammable red door. Viola, 2 years old, is wearing a red floral mask, her brown beret matches mine and she has a kind of floral freedom fighter look going on. Mainie, 7 years old, is wearing a 1960s red wool coat with a fur collar. We’re all white with brown hair.]

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