So yesterday we all, as a flat, went off to a Go Kids Go wheelchair course. I’ve heard about these guys from Kate and Sean before, they’re a wheelchair skills teaching charity for kids and young people with mobility challenges.
The thing that’s truly awesome about Go Kids Go is that, if they wish, everyone works in a wheelchair. Kids, siblings, carers, parents, grandparents. You want a chair? They’ll give you a chair for the day.
My main drive for the day was similar in my drive to learn sign language. I feel it’s important that anybody involved in the care of kids is able to contribute to that slow, osmotic learning that happens with every child on every day. With a kid who can walk and talk, you’d correct their pronunciation, or hold their hand as they tottered along a low wall.
If I can’t expand the kid’s signing? Or talk him through how to navigate everyday life in the chair? Then I’m not a carer.
I’m a watch-dog.
So off we went and met another half dozen or so families, all of whom had kids with varying degrees of mobility and ability. Big empty gym hall, huge array of wheelchairs, both adult and kid sized and a clear message that if you want to be on a chair, then you go ahead and grab that chair and play.
We raced up and down the hall, we played British Bulldog (with all the aggression and brutality of the bipedalist variety I remember from school). We danced and wheelied, we practiced falling out of chairs and getting back into them. The thing that struck me most about this exercise was the enormous emphasis the trainer placed on independence. Sure, you’ve fallen over backwards in your chair, but here are the skills to make sure the handles of your chair hit the floor before the back of your skull does. And sure, you’re now lying on your back in the chair, belted in and immobile.
But you know what, I bet you can unclip yourself and get out of the chair in whatever way works for you.
For some kids that was bracing their arms against the floor and shuffling. For others who evidently had great abdominal strength but little lower limb control, they crunched their bellies and flipped their floppy legs out of the chair and over somewhere where they wouldn’t get in the way. For some it was a matter of blithely standing up. For others it came down to deciding when to ask someone else for help.
But throughout, it was down to the kid on the chair to decide how it was going to work.
I’d had reservations, I must be honest.
I was worried I’d feel silly. I was worried my desire to learn skills would eclipse the kids who were actually there to participate. I was worried I’d be self conscious.
I was an idiot.
The simple act of putting everybody on a chair created an atmosphere of total equality. As people arrived through the day and joined in, it readily became impossible to tell who was using a chair for the first time or who was a regular.
Actually, that’s not entirely true, as there were several kids who operated their chairs like stunt drivers. They were plainly not on a chair for the first time.
But predominantly the immediate labels of “able bodied” or “disabled” became meaningless. By lunchtime I was reminded of Iggy Pop.
Except clearly, you can substitute “on a chair” for “being a woman”.
By the end of the day I was more uncomfortable standing up than sitting down and it became the most natural thing in the world to wheel over to a kid, tap them on the shoulder and shout “Tig! You’re it!” before wheeling away as fast as my pathetically under-developed upper body could carry me.
We wrapped the day up with a short game of basketball and I had a beautiful illustration of something that, I fear, many of us have done in the past.
Because whenever we see someone on a manual chair, particularly a kid, we’re so quick to say “Oh…they must have terribly strong arms…” and while it’s meant well, it’s often said with a pitying subtext of “This is the thing we can congratulate them on, poor loves, it must be terrible…”
The whole game ran for ten minutes, I played for five and by the end of things, my shoulders, chest, forearms and wrists were alight. The regular wheelchair users? Even the ones who were tiny? They were ready to go another half hour.
“Terribly strong” doesn’t come close to it.