• Nigel Bartram

Disabling the disabled, albeit with the best of intentions and certainly not to give us a good laugh

by Nigel Bartram

As my MS progresses, getting around poses ever greater challenges. Like many MSers, I need varying types of assistance, especially when venturing outside the safety of the nest. When I do sally forth, I count my blessings that that my need for a phalanx of fixes and fittings has come at a time when society recognises that people like me should be provided with a bit more than the odd helping hand. How life was for the disabled 50 years ago, let alone 500, or a 1,000, I shudder to think. However, much as I’ve come to know, appreciate and use what we are blessed with, on occasion the best laid plans and intentions end up being anything but a help, sometimes with comic consequences …….

Before I embark on this odyssey of challenges, I should put what follows in context: although I can only walk a few metres with the aid of two sticks, I can stand up unaided, if I’ve got something (or somebody) to grab hold of and I’m not, at time of writing, a POW (Prisoner of Wheelchair). I’m still reasonably active and independent, albeit increasingly more in mind and spirit than in body.

Anyway, my first encounter with how something designed to be of assistance can be anything but, was when I stayed in a disabled person’s bedroom for the first time. It was at my alma mater, where I had organised a big weekend reunion, to celebrate the survival of Caroline, my wife, after she’d spent weeks teetering between this world and the next, and then having cheated death by the narrowest of squeaks, spent months in intensive care and intensive rehabilitation.

In keen anticipation of what gems of assistance must lie within, I whisked into the bedroom on my mobility scooter. All seemed perfectly normal. I dismounted to take a peek into the bathroom, where I clapped eyes on a douche italienne. What bliss! No need to clamber up the north face of an Eiger of a shower tray, or stare at the jaws of certain defeat, in the form of an unreachable shower in a bath. So, thumbs decidedly up, Caroline moved my toiletries in.

After a wonderful barbeque, shared with over 50 family and friends and a very sound night’s sleep, my state of serenity was shattered when I went into the bathroom for my morning ablutions. I rapidly concluded that the architect who designed it must harbour a grudge against us ‘less than 100% able bodied’. First problem - not a solitary shelf upon which to perch my toilet bag. The only vaguely serviceable surface was on top of the loo. I wonder if that’s why it’s called a toilet bag I harrumphed to myself? Still, better than nothing. Well, only just, as it turned out.

The architect grudge thing meant there was no cover on the loo seat. Even for an able bodied person it would have been a tense game of Russian roulette to take out, with the requisite degree of surgical precision, the many items one needs from a sponge bag. Any misjudgement would have sent the article concerned hurtling down into the abyss of the toilet bowl, which was now leering up at me. While this may all sound like a gross to exaggeration to the fit and able, to the likes of me, who are about as steady on our pins as somebody who has downed 15 pints and 1/2 a bottle of vodka, I can assure you it’s one hell of a white-knuckle ride.

The challenge was ratcheted up a notch by the fact that I’m that breed of atavistic male who enjoys a wet shave. To my horror, I glanced over and saw a washbasin with dimensions more akin to something made for a doll’s house (admittedly one of some scale and splendour,) rather than a humanoid bathroom. Worse still for me, but understandably, I saw the

‘basinette’ was designed for a POW - with the mirror set at the corresponding height. There was no chair to be found. My heart sank. I’d to need get down on my knees to shave (and I guess pray at the same time). Stupefyingly, that wasn’t the worst of it. There was no plug. So, no way of having a basinette full of water!

What an earth do architects, health and safety (or mental un-health and unsafety as it was turning out to be for me,) and their ilk think we are going to do in a bathroom, that we can’t be trusted with a plug, so we can luxuriate in all of three centimetres of water, let alone give us a shelf? Fear we’ll self-harm in three centimetres of water? Afraid that we will somehow flood the place and cause loss of life? What exactly? The mind boggles.

Head spinning, I embarked on first challenge. Time and again I manage to transfer my shaving things from my toilet bag, over the gaping chasm of the open toilet bowl and to the washbasin. I arranged my paraphernalia, as best I could, on the tiny slivers of space the venal architect must have accidentally left on the basinette.

Then I set about the ultimate challenge, kneeling down. I accomplished this with all the steadiness of a new born giraffe, then moved on to trying to get the soap onto my cheeks and neck, not in my eyes, mouth, ears, or any other off-target orifice. Then to the high-wire act - putting razor to flesh. Needless to say, with a new, flesh hungry blade - adding a further, hazardous frisson. First strike on target and no collateral damage. So, game on! I ploughed on (ha, ha), all the time hoping I didn’t severe an artery with my wildly flailing razor arm.

Against all odds, I not only survived, but managed a bloodless shave. Feeling triumphant, but half exhausted,
I turned my attention to the shower. It all seemed pretty straightforward, not to say inviting. But where was the shower mat? Oh, a paper one. A bit cheap I thought, but OK, after all, this is a university college room not the Ritz.

OK my foot, as it quite literally soon transpired. Wet paper sticks of course. Emerging from my shower, I stepped onto said mat to towel myself down. That done, with the usual grunt of effort I lifted up a leg, in the first step to exit the bathroom, only to find the foot was now adorned by a paper flipper.

Any able-bodied person would have either shaken it free, or have bent over to remove the unwanted appendage. If I’d attempted any such manoeuvre, as sure as eggs is eggs, I’d have ended up flat on my back and in hospital. All I could do was gingerly flip-flop forward, careful to avoid slipping on the wet floor. The paper bathmat was flailing in the air, like the outsize shoe of a prancing circus clown. I made it back to the bedroom, to Caroline looking incredulous as I emerged, naked as the day I was born, save for a towel around my midriff, complete with my paper flipper!

By now, it’d gone way beyond feelings of frustration and irritation, onto the slapstick and the absurdly funny. At last I reached the sanctuary of my bed and sat down to peel off the unwanted flipper. What should have been straight forward, even for me, was severely hindered by fits of giggles.

Conclusion from these antics? Be wary of what may lie behind a blue disabled badged door, therein could lurk an unintended, disabling trap.

Nigel Bartram (Primary Progressive MS)

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