Stares and stairs are nightmares for those of us in wheelchairs
Grace Harper hopes to travel the world with friends but worries about accessibility issues
Grace Harper: ‘I love being independent, I think every teenager does.’
I hate it when people stare. I’m just trying to go about my day when I see people looking. Some people are clever about it and look when I’m not looking, but I can feel their eyes burning into me. And then there’s the people who don’t bother to hide the fact that they are staring.
I use a wheelchair to get around. And I don’t apologise for it. It is a part of me but it doesn’t define me.
There are some days when I am more aware of my wheelchair and the restrictions that come with it; I call these wheelchair days. These are the days when inaccessible places make it difficult for me to take part in things. On these days I can feel really excluded, frustrated and a little sad. Some days, I’m not aware of my chair at all and I feel like I can do anything. These are my favourite days.
Kung Fu Panda
I don’t think able-bodied people really understand what a day for a wheelchair user is like. Most people take the basic things for granted, for example stairs. People who are able-bodied don’t think twice when setting off up or down the stairs but for me and other wheelchair users it makes the biggest difference in the world. It can mean missing out on a film I want to see with my friends or not being able to get into a restaurant with my family.
Like Kung Fu Panda said, “Ah, my worst enemy, stairs!”
Sometimes people ask me, “What’s it like being in a wheelchair?”, or “Is it annoying being in a wheelchair?”, and my reply is “It’s just sitting in a chair using your arms to get around instead of your legs.” Because I’ve been in a wheelchair my whole life I’ve got used to telling people this. I don’t find questions rude or annoying, I am actually very happy to explain.
I used to have fun with this in primary school. The junior infants would often ask me what happened to me and I would make up dramatic stories like I was bitten by a shark, that always got a funny reaction.
The real thing that gets me angry is when people talk down to me like I am a child, sure I’m sitting down but that doesn’t mean you have to speak to me like I am a baby. I might not be able to walk but I can tell when people talk to me the way they would talk to a five-year-old.
I love being independent, I think every teenager does. Going to town to hang out with friends means getting the bus. When I do get the Dublin Bus there’s a space for my wheelchair. Sometimes people with buggies use that space, but when someone in a wheelchair gets on the bus they have to fold up their buggy and if the buggy doesn’t fold then they have to get off the bus. I find this really embarrassing and I feel bad for the parents with the babies in their prams.
Once, a woman had all her shopping in her buggy and she had to put all her shopping somewhere else. When she sat down she kept giving me glares, I felt so bad. My friends and I think there has to be a system that’s not so awkward for me. There should be space for a buggy and a wheelchair or two wheelchairs. I often think how would a parent who uses a wheelchair and has a buggy manage on the bus.
Lots of places are pretty accessible but it’s hard to take when they’re not. Ever since I was little I have loved drama. I remember in primary school my friends and I would perform plays at break times, then when I went to secondary I took part in the drama club every Tuesday and I loved it. Last summer, I heard about the Dublin Youth Theatre and I got really excited. My mum rang up to put my name down for an audition, she mentioned that I was a wheelchair user. They were really nice about it but they said that its building was inaccessible.
They have been trying to find an accessible building in Dublin for ages but apparently they are very hard to come by. That’s the kind of thing that could stop you putting yourself out there. Sometimes it’s easier to stay at home, which I really don’t want to do.
My mum and dad travelled the world together when they were younger, and from the stories they tell me I really want to do this too. I have watched my older brother and sister go on the French exchange in transition year, I saw them book their inter-railing holidays for after their Leaving Cert. I really want to see the world with my friends, travelling with friends is a life-changing experience, but I am unsure that this is something I will be able to do.
I intend to live my life to the fullest, I know this will be a challenge but if people who make decisions about our world would take the time to stop and think about disability, I would have the same chance as my friends of turning my dreams to reality.