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Doing wheelies

By Terry Joseph
May 31, 2003

Unwarranted ignominy perhaps, but it rankled every time a Wellesley Hospital orderly responded to my struggling to disembark from the ambulance by shouting through the clinic-doorway to his colleagues: "Hey, you guys, we have a wheelie!"

And before I could establish control over a right leg in thick plaster-cast from groin to toe, or align the pair of crutches with available door-space, the warlock in white would ratchet his voice to stridency, trumpeting a reprise of my earlier embarrassment: "We have a wheelie out here!"

Although it must have been the approved method of swiftly summoning a wheelchair to the hospital's street-door, I hated being so described. Of course, many years later, BMX bicycles created athletes whose daredevil stunts brought integrity to the term but, at the time, being referred to as "a wheelie" did nothing for my self-esteem.

Mark you, to the outpatients, I was "the lucky guy from 462", the one that would walk again after a full year with a leg in traction. After all, the fourth floor was also home to the lady with severe spinal and pelvic-cradle damage who, after much the same period of confinement, now freshly powdered and at her most cheerful, still looked like abandoned Jell-O. As a way of providing both waiting-room amusement and deflection from my condition of dependency, I dedicated all spare-time to practising wheelchair tricks, eventually mastering the "handbrake" turn and honing it into a crowd-pleaser.

"Do a wheelie," the lady recuperating from a ski-accident would say, and there he goes, racing down the walkway, then jamming the left-side brake, spinning an arc that would leave the wheelchair daredevil poised for an encore performance.

Measured against all that has transpired since 1972, it was a laughably short period of incapacity, and although I felt a universal conspiracy had arranged the embarrassment, I privately knew my response was exclusively manufactured by vanity.

The condition was temporary-fleeting, even-but experience enough to more deeply imprint the plight the T&T Chapter of Disabled People International, a group of whose members has now chalked up a third consecutive week camping outside State-owned National Flour Mills (NFM).

Led by chairman George Daniel, the group is protesting perceived discrimination against disabled persons, citing the company's rejection of job applications by TTCDPI members Devon Garraway and Anthony Diaz.

Assuming the applicants unassailably qualified for the jobs they seek, from my limited knowledge of NFM work areas, it would take considerable capital investment and artful architecture to render the environment wheelchair-friendly. In addition, it seems a most unlikely place for disabled persons to insist on employment, given the movement of heavy vehicular traffic ever present at ground level and consequent potential for accidents.

But if the standoff be reduced to the cost of special accommodation for handicapped persons, who can scoff at TTCDPI insistence, given the enthusiasm with which Government has embraced the Tobago House of Assembly (THA) swashbuckling crusade to spend hundreds of millions on compulsory acquisition of Club Pigeon Point, the frequency of going to Miami pawn-shops to buy back impounded BWIA aircraft, or quiet replacement of utility poles uprooted by Toco residents upset over a recent incident.

To the untrained observer, it must indeed seem like money is coming out of the very wells bored by the Water and Sewerage Authority (WASA), or that project management at the Education Ministry desperately needs a high-priced shot in the arm, or that "moving" The Red House is both urgent and affordable, and the frightfully expensive Commission of Enquiry into the airport a matter of continuing critical importance.

Actually, there are those who say Government should have no difficulty hiring physically disabled people, having set a precedent by engaging apparently mentally-challenged personnel in jobs at all levels of the executive structure and appointing eye-popping salaries to those posts.

Still, others contend that The State practises its own brand of "selective appreciation", proffering examples like the National Security Minister visiting only Chinese and Syrian kidnap victims (to date) and the gravy-train ghost-gang syndrome on welfare-type projects being reserved for the party faithful.

Notwithstanding all evidence of less than sensitive recruitment practices, Mr Daniel should be careful his members are not seeking jobs based on their plight, but rather on account of abilities appropriate to proper execution of the portfolio; lest the line outside NFM simply gets longer without strengthening his cause.

People who stutter should not set their hearts on jobs as tobacco auctioneers, nor should they give up career aspirations without a fight, as proven by Isaac Newton, Bruce Willis, Marilyn Monroe and perhaps the speech impediment sufferer who, quite ironically, became one of the 20th Century's best-known voices-James Earl Jones.

In his biography (Voices and Silence), Jones confesses that, as a child, he seldom spoke for fear of giving away his secret. Think of that, guys, next time you hear the signature "This is CNN", or become overwhelmed by the voice of Darth Vader.

And nowhere in the book does it suggest he could do a "wheelie".

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