Suddenly, I am disabled. Only temporarily, I’m relieved to say. Disabled, in that I can walk on only one foot. The other, with two screws now nestling in it, inserted by a careful surgeon at Kings College Hospital in South London, is in a cast. And when I walk I walk with crutches. The idea is to immobilize the toe that’s had the screws put in it until the joint across which the screws are placed fuses. And I can vouch for the fact that the screws really are there, even though I can’t feel them – I was shown the x-rays which were taken immediately after the operation. They are not inserted side by side, they lie in an ‘X’ formation, like something on a heraldic crest – ‘Screws crossed’.
So for the moment I’m disabled. And the first thing that occurs to you when you’re suddenly disabled is that the world isn’t arranged for people like you. It’s arranged for the able-bodied. You will have to cope the best you can. And the other thing that strikes you very quickly is that there are few spare or redundant parts to your body. It needs everything of which it’s constructed. Remove one foot and a large part of your life from that point on is devoted to trying, with mixed success, to make up the deficiency.
So you have crutches to take the weight which the unusable foot would normally take. Which means that the remaining good foot has to do quite a lot more work than it’s used to. And it means that a large part of your body weight as you swing it through the H-shape of the crutches as you go forward is taken by your arms and shoulders which normally, when walking, have very little to do except perhaps hold a mobile phone, carry a bag or a small child. Which all means that when you’ve been up the road – assuming you can make it that far – to get a newspaper (and round here in Crystal Palace, whichever way you go you have a very steep hill to climb) you come back feeling like you’ve been hit with a bus.
And crutches – at least until you get the measure of them – are not the easiest things to cope with. They have a mind of their own with which, if you lack a little in the hand and eye co-ordination department, they will embarrass and upset you. It is not difficult when you take your first step with them to make the mistake of taking the weight off the good foot and putting it on the unusable one. But just as you’re about to put that latter foot down, you realize what you’re about to do and in a half-panic, retract that foot upwards which leaves you with nothing taking your weight until you bring the good foot back into play. By which time you’re on the way to toppling over and you end up clashing your crutches into each other like fencing swords until you manage to get both them and your feet solidly back down on the ground.
And the cast on the foot – it must not get wet. So that means you can’t shower. And whether you can take a bath or not depends on how lithe and lissom you are. Having practiced yoga for more years than I care to remember, my limbs are all pretty supple, so sitting in the bath with one foot hanging over the edge and wrapped in a plastic bag from Sainsbury’s (to stop stray bathwater splashing on it) though inelegant, is no great problem. Nor is heaving myself out afterwards on my elbows. However, having bathed this way and then stood for ten minutes to shave with one foot on the floor and the other unusable one resting on the closed lid of the toilet, you need to take a breather before you even get started on the day.
Although this sort of thing can be quite entertaining in the telling, it is actually extremely tiring. For the whole day has to be modified. And carrying out the simplest of tasks is wearying. It would be revealing to count the number of tiny journeys of just a few feet one person makes in brewing a cup of tea – taking the kettle to the sink; putting it back on the unit and switching it on; going to a cupboard to get out the cup and saucer; going to the fridge to retrieve the milk etc. There are a surprising number, every one of which requires you to heave yourself around on crutches in a confined space. But then remember also that when you’re on crutches, you’re already using both hands. So you can’t carry anything while you’re on them. One solution I’ve found is to somehow prop yourself up between a door or a kitchen unit and one of the crutches and move stuff from one place to another as best you can by just stretching your arms right out and very carefully pivoting your body round so that you can use your hands without actually moving your feet. But it doesn’t half take some energy. And that’s making a cup of tea!
One of my close friends is registered blind and has been so almost since birth. I met him some eleven years ago and he was really the first blind person I’d ever had anything much to do with. It was with a shock that I realized how much of his life was devoted to making up for the fact that he couldn’t see. It sounds very obvious. But in fact it wasn’t. I’d hand him a pencil for example. First off, I’d have to tell him I was handing him a pencil. At which point, his hand would wave around in my general direction in the hope of coming into contact with the pencil. I had to learn to either take his hand and move it to touch the pencil – or, when handing it to him, first touch his hand with it so that he then knew precisely where it was. On any document which requires his signature, I – or someone – has to take the hand holding the pen and position it above the exact point on the paper where the signature is required before he can actually sign.
He has a guide dog. When he’s out and about, the dog is his eyes. He works in Central London, uses the buses, the trains and the underground. And it’s all down to the dog. If the dog were suddenly to run away and leave him, my friend would be left in the middle of the street or underground station dependent entirely on the goodwill of others to get him home. But for the dog to be able to guide him around these places, the dog himself has first to be taken around them – by an official of ‘Guide Dogs for the Blind’ – enough times for the dog himself to be able to recall their geography with as near as dammit impeccable recall. The safety of a blind man depends upon it. Even, on occasions, his life.
That sort of vulnerability is not something the majority of us will ever have to live with. Our lives are our own. We are – within reason – in complete control of where we go and what we do. We want a pencil, we reach for it; our train is late, we check the information board; we fancy a cup of tea, we walk easily around the kitchen doing what needs to be done; if someone bumps into us on a busy street, a quick glance will tell us immediately the nature of the collision and if there’s any sort of threat involved. On our own without the assistance of others, we are generally able to do what we want, how we want, and when we want. And we take it all for granted.
My foot will very soon now have recovered and I will – hopefully – be able once again to walk normally. But this short period of ‘disability’ has brought home to me in a particularly graphic way just a few of the difficulties which those with physical disabilities have to face on a day-to-day basis, permanently and un-complainingly. And it’s also brought home something else. The physical body is a delicately balanced machine, and it requires only one of its working parts to go belly-up and any one of us, at present able-bodied, is suddenly disabled.