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Redefining disability

This week, I saw a 94-year-old who arrived in a wheelchair, pushed by her son. She had fallen and injured her wrist. Before discharge, I asked her about home support, and she told me that she was quite independent and didn’t need any help.

She only kept the wheelchair for outings, and told me with a twinkle that it was a very good way to get revenge on her son for all the years she’d pushed him around in a pram. If he didn’t push fast enough, she’d make lots of noise just like he had once done.

She could still walk quickly when she needed, and would overtake the other residents of her care home in the rush to get to the dining table. She’d just been watching television coverage of the Paralympics, and thought there should be a version for older people. She may just have invented the ‘Geri-lympics’.

If the London 2012 Olympics demonstrated human courage and determination, with individuals overcoming great obstacles to achieve enormous goals, then the Paralympic athletes outperformed the majority when they demonstrated their incredible courage and determination to succeed.

The power to triumph over adversity is most definitely not measured by a limb count. Many of us fall into the mistaken assumption that those unfortunate enough to need wheelchair mobility are passive and dependent.

Murder ball (wheelchair rugby) and seated basketball rapidly dispel that myth: the protagonists’ fearless aggression remains, and their personalities shine through.

I once attended a motorcycle racing event and despaired at the number of ex-bikers in the paddock in wheelchairs, drooling over bikes, still desperate for their adrenalin fix.

I wondered then if they hadn’t learnt their lesson from their high-speed accidents. Now I realise that losing the power in your legs doesn’t change the fundamentals of who you are. The problems of disability are often the result of able-bodied people’s prejudices, and the limitations created for the disabled are largely created by our approach to their environment. Those who lose a limb or their voice will invariably find that they are treated differently by friends and neighbours, and that is their real disability.

The Paralympics were a welcome opportunity to retune our attitudes. To maintain the momentum, perhaps those just starting medical school should spend a day in a wheelchair, and watching Paralympic sport could be mandatory training for all undergraduates.

That is, of course, until the 100-metre relay for over-80s with walking aids becomes a recognised sport.

Meanwhile, I’m off to develop a complex classification system to enable me to compare the performances of my junior staff, so that they can compete on an equal footing in the ‘treating an ungrateful drunk safely’ heats.

Posted in:  Charles Lamb Emergency medicine

Tags:  Elderly care disabled people's health accident and emergency

Comments

  • S Parker

    12 September 2012

    I agree with the broad gist of this article, however the suggestion that medical students spend time in a wheelchair is somewhat flawed.

    Near the beginning of the clinical phase of my medical school training we were given a day of "disability awareness" in which we had to put on blindfolds, try being in a wheelchair, wear glasses with prisms in, etc, and were told that it was so that we could experience what being disabled was like. Having empathy with disabled people is important, but putting a blindfold on for 20 minutes does NOT give one an insight into what being blind is like - when we got fed up we could simply take the blindfold off, which of course someone who is visually impaired cannot do.

    Before attending medical school I volunteered with after-school and respite care groups for children with learning difficulties, and also sailed on the tall ship Tenacious, where crew members of different physical abilities work alongside one another.

    What the Paralympics has shown us is real disabled people achieving amazing things. If we want to train doctors who have an understanding of disability politics and an awareness of the ways in which societal structures disable people with impairments, then I think that spending quality time with disabled people will provide deeper and more empathetic learning than having to spend a day in a wheelchair.

  • uanablkm

    3 February 2014

    1

  • uanablkm

    3 February 2014

    1

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