When I was young anyone with a crook leg or a bung back was kept well hidden away as someone to be ashamed of. It was as if they’d brought their disability on themselves and it jolly well served them right if society preferred not to look at them. But we in the twenty-first century are a kinder and better educated. We cheer the Para-olympians, on and talk about them as being ever so brave. We aim to bring in a more reasonable financial situation for anyone permanently disabled, and many of our public buildings have lifts and toilets with large opening doors and taps that can be easily turned on just by using an elbow.
So we are almost there. But not quite. It is the simple things that are most bothersome. For example, imagine being seated in a wheelchair, and trying to reach a cafe counter just that bit too high and then trying to juggle a hot drink without spilling it. In many shops, differing floor levels present huge problems. To give credit where it’s due, staff usually make an extra effort to help anyone wheelchair bound. Nevertheless, it is sometimes assumed that the person in that wheelchair, or the one pushing a walker, is deaf, or worse still, simple minded, and people are inclined to shout.
I have learnt to ask, as I book a theatre, cinema or restaurant, as where their toilets are situated. Many of our finest eating takes place in narrow Victorian buildings. Here the toilets are invariably on the second floor. The result is that someone confined to a wheelchair wouldn’t dare drink or eat before going out. Or worse still, they are in many ways, housebound.
When it comes to public transport, our state government is making a determined effort to replace those old and difficult to climb tram-stops with new easy to manage ramps. But we still use our older trams on certain lines, those that have a huge step which can’t take a wheelchair or someone using a walking frame.
I live in one of the safest countries in the world, a country that has suffered few of the world’s great atrocities, but where the roads are battlefields, where too many people have also been caught in cataclysmic accidents, and where hospitals and rehabs are full to overflowing. I wonder what will happen to pedestrians in the next few decades when the population doubles? Perhaps my city of Melbourne will become like Los Angeles where ‘street walkers’ are really what their name implies and no one dares step outside their vehicle or gym. But then I take heart and realises that even in the blackest times that there is always some kind of redemption. Above all I have learnt to never give up hope.
So my message for the New Year is BE KIND TO OUR DISABLED.