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The Support Report. By Jared Booth.


1: “An Experience with a Wheelchair-Bound Student.”

My first and as yet only experience with a wheelchair-bound student was when I supported an elderly lady called Susan, whose last name I don’t know and don’t think I ever did know. The student I was supposed to be supporting that day hadn’t turned up, so after waiting in the classroom for fifteen minutes, as I was contractually obliged to do, I explained the situation to the tutor, and left. I had just signed out, and was within a metre of escaping from the building, when my Team Leader suddenly spotted me, called me over, and asked if – since I was free – could I possibly help out with Susan, who was “a lady in a wheelchair” in need of mobility support, and who I probably knew anyway as she was in the same class as the student who hadn’t turned up, the student who –

“Yes, I know her,” I told my Team Leader. I added helpfully: “It’s the lady in the wheelchair.”

“That’s right,” said my Team Leader. “Would you mind? You’d really be doing us a favour.”

“I wouldn’t mind at all,” said I.

“Lovely,” said my Team Leader.

Since I had no previous experience in dealing with wheelchair-bound students, my Team Leader then gave me a brief run-through of the duties such a task would involve. I didn’t pay much attention to this, thinking it was all a bit excessive for what was, basically, pushing a wheelchair, but my ears pricked up when I heard her mention “toilet duties.” However, there was no cause for concern; my Team Leader only mentioned “toilet duties” in order to reassure me that I “wouldn’t have to get involved with any of that,” because apparently Susan (the lady in the wheelchair) was “very functional in that area.”

“Lovely,” I said.

“And you’re sure you don’t mind?” asked my Team Leader.

“Positive,” I said.


So we walked off to meet Susan. Although I’d told my Team Leader that I already knew her, I’d never actually spoken to her, and about the only things I knew about her at the time was that she was in a wheelchair, had a tendency to nod off mid-sentence with her pen still poised in her hand, and that about two months ago she had ordered a set of “rart posh” coasters from the Home Shopping Network, the arrival of which, much to her annoyance, she was still awaiting.

We found her stranded outside the college library, sitting in her wheelchair like some kind of nesting bird. She was a short-looking, chubby woman in her mid-sixties, with a round flushed face, pale lips, and thick oblong glasses with purple rims. Her knees and her lap were covered by a green tartan blanket that didn’t quite stretch down far enough to cover her legs, the left of which was wrapped in musty white bandages, stuck together with slightly tattered brown tape, which made it (the left leg) look a lot fatter than its partner. I later learnt, from Susan herself, that this was the damage from the “three or four” strokes she had suffered not long ago, which had rendered her left leg, as well as her left arm, more-or-less immobile.

(As part of the same conversation she also told me that her husband suffered from “the Arthuritis,” and that she herself also suffered from “the angina.” Since I had never been quite sure what this was, I asked Susan for a brief synopsis of it, but she seemed either unable or unwilling to give it, saying only that it – the angina – “weren’t very nice.”)

Susan watched with a noticeably unimpressed expression as me and my Team Leader approached her; though this wasn’t really surprising when you considered that she’d been stranded outside the college library for almost twenty minutes now, unable to get to her lesson, and without a Support Worker in sight. The only good thing about the situation, as Susan informed me later, was that “it weren’t rairning.”

“Well, Susan,” said my Team Leader, “we’ve finally got some good news for you.”

“Ooh eye,” said Susan, sceptically. “Goo on then.”

“Well,” said my Team Leader, “we’ve finally found you a Support Worker. This” – turning to me – “is Jared. Jared, this is Susan.”

“Hello there Susan!” I said.

She looked at me with a sort of despairing look. I tried to smile back, pleasantly and reassuringly, but Susan hardly reacted; she just took a last drag on her cigarette and then flicked it away, a bit awkwardly, with her good right hand. As I watched her do this I remember thinking that she looked kind of glum, and not being sure if this was because she was glum or because she was in a wheelchair, and looked a bit like a duck, squatting in it.

“Jared’s only going to be supporting you for one lesson,” my Team Leader added quickly, probably trying to cheer Susan up after she look she’d given me. “Is that all right?”

Susan sighed. “Eye,” she said, looking at me. “It’ll atta be, waynit?”

“Lovely,” said my Team Leader. She turned to me and smiled. “Righty-ho then,” she said. “I’ll leave it to you, shall I?”

“Lovely,” I said.

I watched her trot up the stairs, waiting until she’d disappeared into the library before turning back to Susan. Then I rubbed my hands together, in preparation.

“Right then, Susan,” I said. “Before we start I’d better just tell you that I’ve never actually pushed a wheelchair before, so I’m a bit of a newcomer to all this. So you’ll have to go easy on me, all right? And if we crash, just shout at me.”

I thought this might at least get a smile out of Susan; but her expression stayed the same, and she just told me not to worry about it. “I orways get the useless ones anywair, I do,” she said.

“Well,” I said, “that’s nice to hear.” Then, while Susan fidgeted in her seat and rearranged her blanket, I walked round to the back of the wheelchair and took a firm grip of the handles. “Ready, Susan?” I called.

“Eye,” said Susan, patting her blanket down. “Ready.”

“Okay,” I said. “Aaaand.... we’re off!”

Except we weren’t. Neither me, Susan, nor the wheelchair moved. I pushed, but it was like pushing a wall; I pushed harder, and it was still a wall; so I pushed harder still, even motoring my feet a little – and it was still a wall. I had brief panicky thoughts of a woman of Susan’s compact but formiddable girth – plus the heavy steel apparatus of the wheelchair – being too much for a man of my slightly diminutive stature to push; and, a little of breath, I called out to Susan that the wheelchair wouldn’t move.

“Eh?” asked Susan.

“It won’t move,” I told her, still trying to push it. “The wheelchair.”

“Is the brairk off?”

“The what?”

“The brairk,” said Susan.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Where’s the brake?”

“Darn theere,” said Susan.


“Darn theere.”

I looked around, randomly – as far as I could tell Susan hadn’t pointed out any place in particular – and saw nothing. “Where?” I asked again.

“Darn theere,” Susan explained. She sounded as though she was getting a little annoyed.

“Well, I can’t see it, Susan,” I told her – though I kept on looking. “Couldja point it out to me, d’you think?”

“It’s on the bottom, luv,” said Susan; “on me left. I can’t point it art cos me left hand wayn’t move, y’see.”

“Oh,” I said. “It’s okay. I think I’ve got it, anyway.”

Clamped down on the wheel was a little pedal that looked too small to stall anything, but which was the only thing that even slightly resembled a brake. I slipped it off with my foot, gripped the handles, and started to push again. The wall disappeared, and we were away.

Pushing a wheelchair that contains a passenger is a lot harder, and a lot less comical, than you might think. It is also much more serious than I had previously imagined – another one of childhood’s little disillusionments. I learnt early on in my experience that any accident would be the cause not of slapstick hilarity, as I’d always thought, but of pain, panic, and distress – not only in the passenger but in the pusher as well, who also has the guilt to contend with. I imagine now that it’s a similar feeling an amateur car-driver might get when, no matter what he does, he keeps on bumping into old ladies – not enough to cause serious damage, but just enough to make them wince.

I also discovered that you can’t just push a wheelchair willy-nilly and expect it to go where you’re aiming it – you have to actually plan your journey beforehand. You have to pick the easiest route to your destination, point the wheelchair that way, and then, without getting too excited, push it the same way. If you’re lucky it’ll keep on going in that direction; but the chances are that it won’t. At this point there’s no use just steaming ahead, so to speak, trying to correct the problem while you’re on the move; at best this will lead you in an ever-widening circle, and at worst it will lead you into disaster. Either way, it will end up with the passenger – or, to put a face to the name, Susan – colliding with a table-end, or a bookcase, or a wall, and cursing. What you have to do instead is stop, carefully reposition the wheelchair, and then set off – slowly, and maturely. Professionals may have a different method, but as an untrained amateur I found that this was the best way to do it.

Like I said – hard work. Me and Susan made a total of five journeys in and out of the library that day, and only had a serious collision on three occassions; which Susan herself, whilst rubbing her knee, told me was “not bad” for a beginner.

(She would go on to say, later that day, after I’d negotiated a couple of tight turns without ruffling many feathers, that she knew people who’d done this “for donkey years” who couldn’t do it as well as me. I told her this was the highlight of my day, which it probably was.)

Our first journey into and through the library (our destination, an English class, was right at the back of the building) went pretty well, I thought, considering the difficulties involved – difficulties which were (mostly) not of my doing. At the front of the library, for the “easy” access of wheelchair-bound students – as well as any fully-mobile students who might fancy taking the scenic route – was a gradually-ascending ramp that curled in out of itself like a little obstacle course. It was, at the most, two inches wider than Susan’s wheelchair, and, needless-to-say, caused a few maneouvrability problems right at the outset of my journey – as well as a few nasty scratches to Susan’s wheels which, thankfully, she didn’t notice.

Once I’d managed to conquer the ramp I had a spot of bother getting the wheelchair through the front door, as I didn’t have enough arms to both open the door and push the wheelchair through at the same time. I thought I’d solved the problem when I came up with the idea of simply pushing the wheelchair, missile-like, straight at the door, and using its own force to get us through; but after three or four attempts at this I realised that it was Susan’s left leg, and not the door, that was taking the brunt of the force. Then I realised that the door opened outwards, not inwards; so it wouldn’t have worked anyway.

Finally another student, a moody-looking Asian fellow with a faint moustache, emerged from the library and helped us by holding the door open; for which act Susan informed him he was a “born airngel.” Once we were finally inside the library things went a lot smoother, mainly because it was a more-or-less straight carpeted path up to the classroom.

The only slight problem we had was when Susan’s left arm slid off the side of the wheelchair and hung dangerously close to the spinning wheel; but because Susan had no sensastion in this arm she didn’t notice it, and because I was concentrating on the surprisingly-serious pushing duties, I didn’t notice it either. It was only when we were safely positioned inside the little open lift that took us up to the classroom that Susan realised that something was amiss. She asked if I could give her a hand.

“A hand?” I asked. “Doing what?”

“Nor,” said Susan, “I mean my hand. Pass it here, wudja?”

I was baffled.

“I haven’t got it,” I told her.

“I know you ant,” said Susan. “It’s darn theere.”

Not quite knowing what was happening, I looked where Susan had nodded, and, sure enough, there it was – her arm.

“Pass it here wudja luv?” Susan asked. “I don’t wannit getting trapped in the wheels again, y’see.”

So, using both hands, I picked up Susan’s arm and passed it, like a baton, to her. She grabbed it with her right arm, and put it down in her lap.

“Cheers, pet,” she said.

I looked at the arm, then at Susan. “No problem,” I said.

That was the only problem we had.

The lesson wasn’t very exciting. Susan and the other students were trying to learn how to distinguish texts that were meant for instructional purposes from texts that were meant for persuasive purposes – I don’t know why. They had been doing this for three weeks now. To make things a bit more interesting, handouts were passed round of instructions on how to set up a shelving system. Picking up this handout with her good right hand, Susan puckered her lips, gave it a cursory read through, and tossed it back onto the table. Then she shuffled her body round in her wheelchair so that she was as near as possible facing me and, gesturing at the set of instructions, informed me that back when she was “a lass” she wouldn’t have been able to put “owt lark that” together, because she wouldn’t have been able to read the instructions.

“I wouldn’t’ve had a clue,” she said.

Trying to be helpful, I pointed out that now she was at college she would be able to read the instructions. She agreed with this, but then pointed down at her wheelchair.

“But now I couldn’t even put the bloody thing up,” she said. She chuckled a bit fiercely at this.

Once the class had established that the shelving-system handout was meant for instructional purposes, another handout was passed round of some advertisements, as examples of texts used for persuasive purposes. Once the class had established why, exactly, they were persuasive, they were given the task of writing and designing their own examples of persuasive writing.

“It can be a flyer or a leaflet or anything!” said the tutor, a hunched-up, jittery kind of woman who seemed prone to over-excitement. “As long as it’s persuasive!”

After some thought, Susan decided to write an advert on behalf of an unnamed elderly lady, who needed “a bit of companionship” and would be willing to pay “twenty pounds a week for two days a week – but not Sundays” for this companionship. Sue herself was very taken with her advertisement, and on more than one occassion expressed the opinion that, if she was “on the look-art” for a job, this particular one would be “rart up” her alley. Of the unnamed lady in the wheelchair, mentioned in the advert, it was Susan’s opinion that she sounded “lark a loverly lady” who would be “a joy to work for.” At this she chuckled again, then went on working.

Since Susan used a computer to type up – one-handed – her advertisement, my only other duties as a Support Worker on this occassion – other than help in the mobility department, of course – were pointing out how to “get ridder” some unwanted text, or how to “get” some text and “meck it bigger,” or how to “meck it print” once it was completed.

That’s about all I can say about the lesson, really.

At the halfway point of the lesson, when we had a break, I wheeled Susan out of the library. Since I was now familiar with this route we had few problems on our way out. Susan’s left arm again flopped out of her lap, dangerously close to the wheel, but this time I was on the look-out for it, and as soon as this happened I stopped the wheelchair and returned the arm to its proper place. When we came to the little obstacle course outside the library I think I may have misjudged just how much speed the descent would generate; Sue looked a little tight-lipped throughout, and a little too relieved when we arrived at the bottom.

“Right,” I said, once we were there. “Where do you want to go, Susan?”

“Well, I usually stay here and smoke a fag,” Susan told me.

“Okay,” I said. “That’s what we’ll do, then. Do you want a drink or anything?”

Susan thought about it, and said she’d love a drink.

“What do you want?”

“Summa that Lurkerzade Orange,” said Susan.

“Okay. I’ll go get it.”

“Wait!” Susan shouted, as I started walking away. “I’ll give yer some money!”

I told her it was okay, that she could give it to me when I got back, and walked off into the Refectory. Here a quick scan around the shops and vending machines showed me that no Lucozade was available. I was thinking about surprising Susan with a beverage of my own choosing when I spotted two students from her class sitting at a table, talking and munching on bars of chocolate.

“Hello!” said I, approaching the table.

The two students were both female. One of them was a single mother with a distraught-looking face, slightly bulging eyes, thick pale lips, and a drawling voice. The other was a little Lego-like woman, with a moody-looking face, dyslexia, and short brittle hair that looked as though it had been inflated with some kind of foot-pump.

“I don’t suppose you know what kinds of drinks Susan likes, do you?” I asked them.

“Norrr, I dorn’t,” said the single mother, looking at her companion, who shook her head and her pumped-up hair. “She ursually gets Lurkerzade, dunt she?”

Her companion nodded her head, and her pumped-up hair. They seemed pretty knowledgeable on the subject, so I asked them whether they thought any other kind of orange drink would be okay, like Fanta, or –

“Norrr, I dorn’t,” said the single mother. “Yer should just gor ask her.”

I looked at her companion, who nodded her head, and her pumped-up hair.

“Okay,” I said.

So I went back outside and said, with a disappointed face: “Sorry, there’s no Lucozade Orange. No Lucozade at all in fact.” Then I added, as if throwing out a lifeline: “There’s other orange drinks, though.”

“What,” said Susan, grasping for the line, “like Fanta?”

“Like Fanta,” I agreed, “yes. That’s what I was gonna get you. Do you want a bottle of Fanta?”

Susan thought about it, puckering her lips at the air, and then, grabbing the lifeline firmly in both hands, said decisively: “Eye. Goo on then. Get us summa that Fanta Orange.”


I headed back for the Refectory.

“Wait!” shouted Susan. “I’ll give you the money!”

“No,” I said, “it’s all right, you –”

“I’ll give you the money, I said,” said Susan, sharply.

“Okay,” I said, returning, a little taken aback. Susan had been very sharp. “They’re fifty pence.”

“Fifty pee?” asked Susan, suspiciously.

I nodded.

“Here’s a quid,” said Susan, handing me it. “Get y’sen one as well.”

“It’s all right,” I said, “I’ll –”

“Get y’sen one, I said,” said Susan, sharply again.

“All right.”

So I went back and got Susan a Fanta Orange, and myself a cup of coffee, and walked back to where she sat perched in her wheelchair, smoking a cigarette. I passed her the Fanta and showed her my coffee.

“You’ve bought me a coffee,” I told her.

She seemed pleased, and went on to tell me that every Support Worker she’d ever had (which didn’t seem to be many) she’d always bought them a drink when it was breaktime, because she didn’t expect to get anything for nothing in this world, and if they were doing a good turn for her then it was only fair that she did a good turn for them, so she always gave them fifty pee or so to get themselves a drink if they wanted one, or have a ciggie if they wanted one.

“That’s nice,” I said.

I opened the Fanta bottle for her, and she started to rummage around in her baggy brown handbag for a straw, of which she told me she had some “right nice thickens” somewhere, if only she could find them. Five minutes later she still hadn’t found them, and when a fellow Support Worker who happened to be passing and got drawn into the conversation went off to the Refectory to get some, Susan began to rummage around again, and there they were!

“That’s strange,” said Susan, “innit?”

“It is,” I said, “innit?”

After that we had a bit of a chat, Sue and me, about all kinds of things. Sue told me about her daughter, who was in Afghanistan with the Army, and about her son, who had been in the Army but had now left, because he didn’t like it. Sue seemed to have some strange opinions about her son, and didn’t appear to like him very much. “He dunt do owt,” she told me. She got very vague when I asked why he’d left the Army, but offered her opinion that it wouldn’t surprise her if it was because he wanted to join “Al Kooda.” Sue then told a joke about the recent July London bombings, the gist of which I no longer remember (I’ve never been good at remembering jokes), but the punchline of which I do remember involved the smell of burning Arabs. It wasn’t very funny, anyway, which Sue herself admitted a few seconds after she’d delivered the punchline. Then, after some thought, she said that she shouldn’t really have told it anyway, because “it weren’t nice,” and she seemed a bit ashamed that she had.

Before we went back to the classroom she also informed me that I would have to watch for her “nodding off,” and that if she ever did “nod off,” that I was just to “give her a nudge,” and she’d be “rart as rairn.” She told me she was prone to nodding off due to “all them pills” she’d been taking – by which she meant her medication, presumably.

Our fifteen minutes were up by then, and I wheeled her back to the classroom.

When the lesson had finished I wheeled Sue out through the car-park towards the road, where she was to wait for the Access Bus. She didn’t know what time it was due to arrive, saying that they were “bloody unreliable bastards,” and so I offered to wait with her, which she eagerly agreed to. I didn’t have to wait long, though, because the bus turned up a few minutes later, and a man climbed out and said he would take it from there. So I said good-bye to Sue, told her I’d see her next week, and left.

I did see her the next week, but I wasn’t supporting her, as my student decided to turn up that day. Instead she had a new Support Worker with her, a dour-looking balding man with thick glasses who when I said hello to him just stood there silent, smiling blandly at me. He seemed a little strange, and I wondered how Sue would get on with him. He was wheeling her past me when she suddenly shouted for him to stop, because she wanted to talk to me. I asked her how she was and she said she was all right but that her angina was “playing up” again. She also told me she was getting a brandnew electric wheelchair soon.

“That’ll be nice,” I said. “There’ll be no stopping you then, ey, Sue?”

“Ooh eye,” she said. “That’s if I can work the ruddy thing.”

That was a month ago now, and she hasn’t been into college since. I can’t say I miss her – I hardly even know her, after all, and only pushed her wheelchair for one day – but I do wonder what she’s up to, and why she hasn’t been back in college. Probably she’s just getting used to working her electric wheelchair; or else she’s decided she doesn’t really need to know the difference between a persuasive text and an instructional one. Either way, I hope she’s all right, and that the angina isn’t giving her too many problems.


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