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A night out with a wheelchair user

I have a mate who lives in Leeds. It’s a joyous four and a half hour coach ride from London to see him.

Josh is very social, he likes to frequent the pubs and clubs scene and after a few Fosters you can find him trying his moves on the dance floor. A few more drinks after that, you can probably find him face-planted on his living room couch because he couldn’t make it to his own bed.

Did I mention, he has minimal movement in his legs and uses a wheelchair to get around?

I have been on plenty of nights out with my wheelchair-bound friends in Sydney and I wasn’t expecting much to be different in Leeds.

160323-leeds01-1800There’ll be a bouncer who is worried there’s one too many steps for ‘poor’ Josh to handle. Then the club manager, who profusely apologises that the lift to get to the second floor is out of order – but then again it hasn’t worked for the last six months anyway. And then there’s the helpful taxi (or Uber) driver at the end of the night that’s confused at how to disassemble Josh’s wheelchair so it can be transported, while simultaneously freaked out by his ability to transfer into the vehicle without any help.

These nights out are particularly amusing for the friendly observer (which we like to refer to as Josh’s “carer”) who gets to witness some bizarre reactions of genuinely nice strangers to someone in a wheelchair. These social settings generally identifies who has had little prior interaction with disabled people – and there were a few in fine form that got caught out on a cold February night in Leeds.

There’ll be a bouncer who is worried there’s one too many steps for ‘poor’ Josh to handle. Then the club manager, who profusely apologises that the lift to get to the second floor is out of order – but then again it hasn’t worked for the last six months anyway.

It would be easy to get upset or frustrated at being treated differently, however I think it’s far better to laugh at these moments, and accept that there was no malicious intent but rather a matter of “being disabled” by someone who knows no better. Or has lost all self-reservation because they are highly intoxicated.

I went to Leeds the night before the Rugby League World Club series match between Superleague’s Leeds Rhinos and the NRL’s North Queensland Cowboys. Not knowing much of the area, Josh played local guide and well, I was his designated ‘carer’. I had caught a late coach from London, so after a quick stop at McDonalds it was meant to be straight to northern England’s fine establishments.

Of course the action/reactions started at the golden arches.

In the UK, most if not all, disabled toilets are locked, with a master key given to people like Josh who has rightful use of them. I think it is a good idea because it helps to guarantee their access by locking out the pesky walkers that sneak in without consent. With their minimal use there’s at times some absent-mindedness around their access, like staff stacking all the free chairs into four piles of about six high, in the space in front of the toilet door. It was of course well-timed to Josh’s bladder.

By the time we made a move down the street and with less than a 200 metres gained, a girl in her early 20s, who had been on the festive juice, felt the need to enquire about Josh’s well-being. Standing with arm outstretched to the confused little man in a wheelchair, she questioned, “are you ok? Are YOU ok?” with the most concerned look on her face. I (as his carer) was fairly sure, Josh had not come down with any disease or signs of illness from our feast of burgers. So after the awkward blank look from this reasonably healthy teenager in a wheelchair, which was perhaps the most appropriate response, we carried on.

After weaving our way through a maze of back corridors and riding the service lift to the lower level of Tiger Tiger nightclub (one of Leeds’ best, I’m told), we’d been on the fringe of the dance floor for no more than five minutes, when another girl made a dash towards what must have been Josh’s sparkling eyes (or ill-looking face). Oblivious to other people around us, she maneuvered herself on my mate’s lap to give him a big hug and a kiss on the cheek. While friendly patrons looking on would have had the impression they had known each other for years, Josh’s gestures suggested otherwise. What happened is best described as “cripple-loved” – that is, the act of receiving loving attention merely because one is in a wheelchair. The uncomfortableness was becoming obvious for everyone to see as Josh pushed away telling her that he has a girlfriend.

There was no help given by Josh’s carer to alleviate the situation, merely excessive laughter.


Leeds UK, 21.02.2016-22.02.2016.

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