Able-bodied people in wheelchairs to appear on the Late Late Show. Is it a gimmick?
'It's just more non-disabled people telling us what we already know: this world is not built for disabled people'
Louise Bruton: ‘24 hours in a wheelchair is not a realistic way to learn about disability or what it’s like to be a wheelchair user’
When you have lived a lifetime with a disability, you acquire, as Liam Neeson says in Taken, a particular set of skills. As a wheelchair user, I know the lumps and bumps of every pathway in Dublin’s city centre. I know which pathways end abruptly, without any lip down to the road, and I know where the cobblestones - an enemy to anyone with wheels or high heels - appear. This knowledge comes from living my entire life with a physical disability and it’s not something that you can understand in 24 hours.
Tonight on The Late Late Show, TV presenter Kathryn Thomas and former Irish international footballer Kevin Kilbane will be telling us what it’s like to be in a wheelchair for 24 hours. I can only assume that they discovered that wheelchair bathrooms are a rarity and that that second latte at lunchtime was a mistake if the nearest wheelchair bathroom is two streets over via two cobbled streets, one narrow footpath blocked up with bin bags and sandwich boards and one old woman stopping you to say that you are in her prayers.
24 hours in a wheelchair is not a realistic way to learn about disability or what it’s like to be a wheelchair user
I can only assume that they learned in a busy pub, to get from the front door to a low table, they have to crank their voices up to a mild roar, repeatedly saying ‘excuse me, can I get by?’ only to be ignored until you tap them three times on their lower back. I assume that it took them 10 minutes to move 10 feet because if you move at waist level, no one can see you. And if you want to be heard, you need to shout. You need to shout more than once.
The use of non-disabled people to demonstrate the issues that disabled people face every day is not a new concept. It’s something that’s carted out in the media a few times a year. When Anton Savage was in the bosom of Today FM last year, he spent a day in a wheelchair for his then radio show. “No offer of help. 50 yards of cobbles,” he tweeted.
Roaring is the only way to be heard
Now, if you were to see Anton Savage, well known and well recognised Anton Savage, wheeling down a cobbled street in a terribly expensive suit, you’d certainly wonder what he was up to. I’m not sure you’d rush over to help him either. This could be for a candid camera show after all. His experience is not a true reflection of what it’s like to be a wheelchair.
I know that people will pat you on your head as they ask your friend, who they’ve mistaken as your carer
24 hours in a wheelchair is not a realistic way to learn about disability or what it’s like to be a wheelchair user. I wrote a similar piece a number of years ago for this paper, A disability for a day, a piece that I’ve come to regret writing. I was young, naive and not sure of what my own disability meant to me. I was coming to terms with my disabled identity and I didn’t have the cop on to realise that I did not need to put an non-disabled person in my shoes – or wheels, as it were – when I have a voice of my own. A voice that’s used to roaring because that’s the only way I can be heard.
My disability since birth has seen me navigate these streets as a crutches user and a wheelchair user. I know what tiles become danger zone when it’s wet and which lifts are out of order more often than they’re in use. I know that wheelchair users are more likely to get stranded on the last train into Heuston Station at night than you are to win €2 on a scratch card. I know that people will pat you on your head as they ask your friend, who they’ve mistaken as your carer, if you’d like milk with your tea. All of these things can happen in 24 hours or over the course of a year but the impact that they have affects your confidence and your thoughts. That’s the real experience and you won’t get that if at the end of 24 hours, you can stand up and walk away.
Joining Thomas and Kilbane on The Late Late line up is Stephen Cluskey, a wheelchair user himself but his experiences should be heard without a celebrity endorsement. Almost every minority group in the world has been subjected to A Day In My Shoes piece, even though we have millions of voices raising very different and very real subjects across the world every single day. Unfortunately, in our case, these issues aren’t taken very seriously until a non-disabled person comes along and tells us what we already know, that this world is not built for disabled people.
These pieces are a gimmick and if they help change the minds of a few people, then that is great, but they remove us from the discussion. By doing this, we are passing the baton and the opportunity to go deep into the experiences of a wheelchair user is missed. We can only ever reach surface level of the real issues when it’s packaged this way and it’s time that we went a little deeper.