Thursday, July 21, 2005

Made me stop and think...

I was at home with my parents this weekend. It was my Godmother’s 70th birtday and I was the surprise guest. I am sure she would have preferred someone like Michael Buble, but I was available and considerably cheaper! Our house in Devon is at the top of a long steep hill. I think the gradient is something like 1 in 3, cars and lorries often misjudge the incline and in icy weather they slide all over the place. However, it was a beautiful summer’s day and I was sitting with my parents enjoying a coffee after lunch on the balcony over looking the garden. My mother noticed the guy in the electric wheelchair coming up the hill, “He looks like he is struggling up there”
We all turned to see the red motorised hill come to a stop about 20 yards for from the top of the hill. For a moment the driver of the chair seemed to lean forward to look at a panel at his feet and then he sat back up and began waving his arms around. The cars shot passed him down the hill. It looked like he was in trouble. My father and I decided to walk across to see if there was anything we could do. As we got nearer I could see the guy was about 25 and looked to be suffering from cerebral palsy. I shouted across the road that we would be with him in a second and he grinned and waved his arms.
Dad and I crossed the road and I knelt down beside the guy and asked him if he needed any help. At his feet was a keyboard with various symbols on the keys. He began to push the keys with his toes and spelled out a message on the tiny screen at the top of the keyboard, “Please can you push me up the hill.”
The chair didn’t have any obvious handles behind so Dad and I took a corner each and started to push the chair to the top of the hill. Those things are pretty heavy, and I think we were glad there were two of us. We reached the top of the slope and the ground flattened out. I went to the front of the chair again and told the guy my name and asked him what his was. He spelled out, “Adam Smithfield”
“So Adam, where do you live? Is there someone we can contact?”
Adam typed away again and gave me the number and a contact name at a residential home about two miles away. He told me to ask Stan to bring the charger or his chair. I called the number and asked to speak to Stan. The receptionist sounded a bit suspicious and so I explained that I was with Adam and that his chair had run out of power. Stan came on the line and said that he would send a car to collect Adam. I said that we would push Adam to the Garden Centre car park which was about 100 yards along the road. I relayed this to Adam and he became quite agitated. I asked him what the matter was and he said that he wanted to make his own way home. I explained that the address he had given us was another two miles away and that if his power completely failed we would be stuck and he wouldn’t be able to communicate or go any further. He seemed adamant and typed, “No, no, no”
“OK, fine. I’ll call Stan and tell him not to send the cab, but I still think it is too far to walk.”
Adam drove his chair in a small circle and then typed out, “OK. I’ll wait for the car.”
I told my Dad to go back home and said that I would sit with Adam and wait for the car. I sat on the floor next to Adam’s chair and asked him how he had ended up on the hill. He told me he liked to drive around by himself and that he had been out for about 4 hours. He thought his car could make the hill climb but he had misjudged it’s power. I told him if he was going to climb inclines like that he needed to get a turbo charged chair. He laughed. We talked some more and it became apparent that here was an incredibly bright and independent person trapped inside a body that refused to function as he wanted it to. The taxi arrived after about 15 minutes and the driver started talking to me about where we were going, as he fitted the ramps I turned to Adam who was typing on his pad. I looked to see what he had written,
“Tell him to open the door wider”
“He says you are going to have to open the door wider, oh and drive out onto the road so the incline isn’t so steep.”
The driver shrugged and pushed the door a bit wider and said if we both push I think it we can mange to get him in. I asked Adam if he was OK with us trying and he said OK and then the words “Thank you”
After a bit of manoeuvring we managed to get Adam into the back of the taxi and I walked around to the open window. Adam swung his arm in my direction and I reached into the taxi and took his hand. He squeezed my hand and smiled.
“Nice to meet you Adam. No more hill climbing unless you’ve got your charger with you!”
He laughed and the taxi pulled away.

I walked back to the house with tears stinging my eyes. I can’t begin to imagine how frustrating it must be to want to communicate and be trapped inside a body that makes it almost impossible. To be treated by others as retarded when really you are brighter than they are, to be so dependent on others when you crave some independence. I felt very humbled.


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