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
dont know and dont think I ever did know. The student I was
supposed to be supporting that day hadnt 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 hadnt turned up, the student who
Yes, I know her, I told my Team Leader. I added
helpfully: Its the lady in the wheelchair.
Thats right, said my Team Leader. Would
you mind? Youd really be doing us a favour.
I wouldnt 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 didnt 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
wouldnt have to get involved with any of that, because
apparently Susan (the lady in the wheelchair) was very functional in that
Lovely, I said.
And youre sure you dont mind? asked my
Positive, I said.
So we walked off to meet Susan. Although Id told my Team
Leader that I already knew her, Id 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 didnt 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
(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
werent very nice.)
Susan watched with a noticeably unimpressed expression as me and
my Team Leader approached her; though this wasnt really surprising when
you considered that shed 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 werent rairning.
Well, Susan, said my Team Leader, weve
finally got some good news for you.
Ooh eye, said Susan, sceptically. Goo on
Well, said my Team Leader, weve 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.
Jareds only going to be supporting you for one
lesson, my Team Leader added quickly, probably trying to cheer Susan up
after she look shed given me. Is that all right?
Susan sighed. Eye, she said, looking at me.
Itll atta be, waynit?
Lovely, said my Team Leader. She turned to me and
smiled. Righty-ho then, she said. Ill leave it to you,
Lovely, I said.
I watched her trot up the stairs, waiting until shed
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
Id better just tell you that Ive never actually pushed a wheelchair
before, so Im a bit of a newcomer to all this. So youll 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, thats 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.
Okay, I said. Aaaand.... were off!
Except we werent. 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
Susans 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 wouldnt move.
Eh? asked Susan.
It wont move, I told her, still trying to push
it. The wheelchair.
Is the brairk off?
The brairk, said Susan.
I dont know, I said. Wheres the
Darn theere, said Susan.
I looked around, randomly as far as I could tell Susan
hadnt 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 cant see it, Susan, I told her
though I kept on looking. Couldja point it out to me, dyou
Its on the bottom, luv, said Susan; on
me left. I cant point it art cos me left hand waynt move,
Oh, I said. Its okay. I think Ive
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 childhoods little
disillusionments. I learnt early on in my experience that any accident would be
the cause not of slapstick hilarity, as Id 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 its 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 cant just push a wheelchair
willy-nilly and expect it to go where youre 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 youre lucky itll keep on going in
that direction; but the chances are that it wont. At this point
theres no use just steaming ahead, so to speak, trying to correct the
problem while youre 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 Id
negotiated a couple of tight turns without ruffling many feathers, that she
knew people whod done this for donkey years who couldnt
do it as well as me. I told her this was the highlight of my day, which it
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 Susans 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 Susans wheels which, thankfully, she
Once Id managed to conquer the ramp I had a spot of bother
getting the wheelchair through the front door, as I didnt have enough
arms to both open the door and push the wheelchair through at the same time. I
thought Id 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 Susans 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
wouldnt 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 Susans 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 didnt notice
it, and because I was concentrating on the surprisingly-serious pushing duties,
I didnt 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,
I was baffled.
I havent got it, I told her.
I know you ant, said Susan. Its darn
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
dont wannit getting trapped in the wheels again, ysee.
So, using both hands, I picked up Susans arm and passed
it, like a baton, to her. She grabbed it with her right arm, and put it down in
Cheers, pet, she said.
I looked at the arm, then at Susan. No problem, I
That was the only problem we had.
The lesson wasnt 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 dont 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
wouldnt have been able to put owt lark that together, because
she wouldnt have been able to read the instructions.
I wouldntve 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 couldnt 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 its 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 Susans 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.
Thats 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. Susans 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
Okay, I said. Thats what well do,
then. Do you want a drink or anything?
Susan thought about it, and said shed love a drink.
What do you want?
Summa that Lurkerzade Orange, said Susan.
Okay. Ill go get it.
Wait! Susan shouted, as I started walking away.
Ill 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 dont suppose you know what kinds of drinks Susan
likes, do you? I asked them.
Norrr, I dornt, 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 dornt, said the single mother.
Yer should just gor ask her.
I looked at her companion, who nodded her head, and her
Okay, I said.
So I went back outside and said, with a disappointed face:
Sorry, theres no Lucozade Orange. No Lucozade at all in fact.
Then I added, as if throwing out a lifeline: Theres other orange
What, said Susan, grasping for the line, like
Like Fanta, I agreed, yes. Thats 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. Ill give you the
No, I said, its all right, you
Ill give you the money, I said, said Susan,
Okay, I said, returning, a little taken aback. Susan
had been very sharp. Theyre fifty pence.
Fifty pee? asked Susan, suspiciously.
Heres a quid, said Susan, handing me it.
Get ysen one as well.
Its all right, I said, Ill
Get ysen one, I said, said Susan, sharply
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.
Youve bought me a coffee, I told her.
She seemed pleased, and went on to tell me that every Support
Worker shed ever had (which didnt seem to be many) shed
always bought them a drink when it was breaktime, because she didnt
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.
Thats 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 hadnt 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
Thats 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
didnt like it. Sue seemed to have some strange opinions about her son,
and didnt appear to like him very much. He dunt do owt, she
told me. She got very vague when I asked why hed left the Army, but
offered her opinion that it wouldnt 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 (Ive never been
good at remembering jokes), but the punchline of which I do remember involved
the smell of burning Arabs. It wasnt very funny, anyway, which Sue
herself admitted a few seconds after shed delivered the punchline. Then,
after some thought, she said that she shouldnt really have told it
anyway, because it werent 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
shed be rart as rairn. She told me she was prone to nodding
off due to all them pills shed been taking by which
she meant her medication, presumably.
Our fifteen minutes were up by then, and I wheeled her back to
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
didnt 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 didnt 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 Id see her next
week, and left.
I did see her the next week, but I wasnt 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.
Thatll be nice, I said. Therell be
no stopping you then, ey, Sue?
Ooh eye, she said. Thats if I can work
the ruddy thing.
That was a month ago now, and she hasnt been into college
since. I cant say I miss her I hardly even know her, after all,
and only pushed her wheelchair for one day but I do wonder what
shes up to, and why she hasnt been back in college. Probably
shes just getting used to working her electric wheelchair; or else
shes decided she doesnt really need to know the difference between
a persuasive text and an instructional one. Either way, I hope shes all
right, and that the angina isnt giving her too many problems.