Achieving independence in a wheelchair
This episode of Our Voices presents the story of Ric, a man who has been in a wheelchair for most of his life. Ric has proven himself to be particularly resourceful. With his personal mantra of “there’s no such word as can’t”, he has found a way to do things that many would assume would be beyond his ability.
Overcoming disability challenges
An example of Ric’s overcoming of disability challenges occurred when his young daughter was in danger. He had just parked the car and she had opened the door and sprinted directly towards the main road.
“It was rough ground, there’s no way I would be able to catch her. And I shouted at her ‘Stop!’ and she didn’t appear to listen. It was the first real time when I was hit by this feeling of panic.”
A rapid improvisation
Improvising quickly, Ric took off one of his shoes and threw it at her. “And it hit her on the back of the head and made her stop. Which sounds like a horrific thing to do. But there was a road nearby and I had to react quickly. So that made her stop and look around and I said,
‘Can you bring me my shoe back, please?’” The toddler returned her father’s shoe and was out of harm’s way.
Being a father in a wheelchair
Being a stay-at-home dad to his three daughters, Ric had plenty of practise performing his duties as a father in a wheelchair. The most difficult of these proved to be changing his daughters’ nappies. After developing an ingenious scheme, Ric found a way to pull this off. “I got a drawer, and I put it on an old TV stand, so that I could sit in an armchair where I’ve got a side on either side of me, so I was balanced and secure.
And this trolley with this drawer on the top of it, because it had little tiny sides being a drawer, you could fit the changing mat into it, and you could put them on it. And then underneath the trolley was a box you could pull out which had absolutely everything that you would need to change them.”
Taking his children to school while caring for a baby was another puzzle that needed to be solved. Wheeling himself in his chair while also pushing a pram would have been extremely tiring, so Ric hatched a foolproof plan.
“I dreamt up a system of getting one of those backpacks that you put a kid in, and I fastened it onto the front of the chair, and just dropped them into that, so that I could still wheel the chair, and you know, be responsible for taking the other kids to school.”
Ric has not only employed novel ways of completing parental duties, he has also broken down barriers by helping to popularise wheelchair racing. He has done this by campaigning for wheelchair users to be able to join the London Marathon.
When the London Marathon began, he and friend applied to take part but they were told by one of the event’s co-founders that they would not be welcome to participate. “That just rubbed me up the wrong way. So that’s what got me started doing it. I’m a bit bolshy at times, you know, don’t tell me I can’t do anything.”
Contracting a devastating virus
Ric moves on to talk about the illness which led to him being a wheelchair user. At the age of two-and-a-half, his father took him to a nearby swimming pool. Yet, tragically, there had been a polio outbreak in the southeast of the country and Ric would end up contracting the infection.
Ric was rushed to hospital and the initial expectation was that he would not survive. Yet, he did and, the next morning, Ric’s mum was able to transfer him to a better-resourced hospital where he would receive a higher level of care. Reflecting on his experiences at the time, Ric says
“I tell people now that I’ve already survived a pandemic, because that’s basically what it was, polio, back then.”
The ability to walk?
Although Ric became a polio survivor, the consequences of having contracted the virus were life-changing. He became a quadriplegic as the virus affected all four of his limbs. He also ended up remaining in hospital for 5 years.
The orthodoxy at the time was that, for a patient to successfully recover, they must be able to walk but, for Ric, walking proved to require enormous amounts of effort for very little reward.
“I used to be able to stagger maybe 100 yards and be totally exhausted… Whereas put me in a wheelchair and I can whizz over 100 yards and do stuff. You can become functional.”
But Ric was not able to experience life in a wheelchair until he was 7 years old. Until then, he had to get by using a buggy or by crawling. Yet he remains particularly philosophical about his childhood experiences. “I have no bad memories about it. It was just… that was life.”
Keeping a friend in-tow
As Ric grew older, he got into a boarding school which specialised in teaching children with disabilities. At the school, Ric struck up a friendship with a boy who had muscular dystrophy. On one occasion, Ric found himself performing a potentially dangerous feat in order to help out his friend.
“He was quite severely disabled in a power chair, and the battery had run flat, and we were miles away from the school. But I just towed him back. And the easiest method to tow a heavy power chair was down the white line of this country lane. So when we got back to the school, we were met by the police, because they’d had this report of someone who was just going down the middle of the road and cars having to go off to the side.”
A father’s grief
One person who was particularly proud of his son’s bravery was his father. But his father hasn’t always found it easy to accept what happened to his son. During an argument on one occasion Ric blurted out that it was his father who had given him polio by taking him to the swimming pool all those years ago.
In response, Ric’s father had to leave the room. “He was choked, to be honest. And I just had to say that I’m really sorry, Dad. I didn’t mean that. I’m sorry. And he just held his hand up, and he just wanted to walk off down the garden. Because we had got a big step at the back of the house where I couldn’t follow… I think it was grief. I think it had just come back to haunt him”.
Yet Ric’s attitude to life has remained robustly positive. “Having a disability is just an impairment. It’s not the end of your life or anything. It’s just something that needs to be addressed. And far more of what makes you disabled is the social environment around you, rather than what you can’t do.”
Adapting to difficult situations has been a feature of Ric’s life. But surely he’s right in suggesting that it’s time that society did more to make the lives of people who have disabilities less of a struggle.