The other week, I made it outside in my motorised wheelchair for the first time since returning from my parents’ house where I spent Christmas and New Year. It was a beautiful sunny day, though bitterly cold, and as I trundled round the block I passed three young boys, maybe eight or nine years old, playing in a front yard not far from my home.
Spying my wheelchair from afar as I rattled my way down the pot-holed street, the boys raced to the wall at the front of the property and leaned over to get a better view. As is common with boys their age, it wasn’t me they were staring at (not phased at all by the sight of someone with a disability) but rather my wheelchair, in the same way they might eagerly admire a Porsche or Ferrari if one pulled up outside of their house.
Although one lad cheekily pretended (from several meters away) that I’d run over his foot in a bid to get a laugh from his mates, they made no real attempt to engage with me, watching silently as I went past. As I approached the end of the street however, I heard bicycle wheels behind me, and one of the boys drew up alongside me on the road, matching my speed and course exactly.
I momentarily wondered whether I was going to have a problem with him; it wouldn’t be the first time someone’s taken issue with my wheelchair, though that’s unusual with children. I assumed he was just messing about but thought it best to avoid eye contact and act like nothing untoward was happening in the hope of discouraging any form of confrontation.
What I heard next, however, very swiftly assured me that I needn’t have worried.
“Vroom!” he murmured quietly.
“Vroom, vroom, vroom, vrooooooooom.”
With each successive ‘vroom’ his voice grew in confidence as he twisted his hand like a throttle on the handlebar, pretending to rev a motorbike’s engine. He glanced across with an anxious expression, no doubt trying to gauge my reaction. Seeing my ill-disguised smile at his antics, relief broke across his face and he gave me a beaming smile.
“Will you race me?” he demanded. “I bet I can beat you!”
“I bet you can too.” I told him, “This is almost as fast as my chair can go.”
“How come?” he asked.
“There’s a speed limit for electric wheelchairs that drive on a pavement,” I answered, “Like there is for cars on a road.”
“Why’s that then?” he queried.
“Because a big chair like this would really hurt someone if I bumped into them while they wer walking,” I explained to him, “especially if I were going fast when I hit them.”
“How fast does it go then?” he continued after a brief, thoughtful pause, so checking the street ahead was clear of pedestrians, I cranked the speed up to its (rather unimpressive) maximum speed of four miles-an-hour. Just as anticipated, it took a matter of seconds for him to sail right past me, deftly skidding to a halt a hundred meters ahead of me and turning back to wait for me to reach him.
By this time his friends had also caught up with us, and as they approached, the nearest boy gestured to my chair before addressing the boy on the bike.
“I want one of those. Will you buy one for my birthday?”
“I don’t know how what they cost,” came the reply, “but I bet they’re expensive.”
“About six grand,” I told him, “though you can get other kinds cheaper.”
“Six pounds?” he marvelled, “I’ve got more than that in my money box.”
“Six thousand.” I corrected, supressing another smile at his crestfallen expression.
“It looks fun,” the smallest boy blurted. “I bet it’s fun isn’t it?”
“It’s more fun than not being able to go anywhere,” I told him, “and it would be very fun to play in if I didn’t need to use it all the time, but being able to run or ride a bike is so much better.”
“Yes being able to run is definitely the most fun,” said a disembodied voice, emerging from a ginnel several moments ahead of an elderly lady who leaned heavily on a walking stick.
“Having young, strong legs to run with is much more fun than walking sticks or wheelchairs,” she informed the boys sagely and nodded amiably to me as she hobbled on her way.
As I crossed to the alleyway she’d vacated (which happened to be my quickest route home) the youngest boy said something that I didn’t quite catch prompting me to pause and ask him to repeat it.
‘I said,” he sighed, rolling his eyes in mock frustration, “I’m reeeeally good at running. Do you want to see?”
Before I could reply he was off like a shot, sprinting around my chair in several wide circles. Screeching to a triumphant halt, he clasped his hands above his head as though raising an invisible trophy, in case we in any doubt of his athletic magnificence.
Had an adult pulled the same stunt, I might well have been offended, but there was nothing remotely malicious about his display of youthful agility. It simply hadn’t occurred to a nine year old there might be anything tactless about running boastful circles around a lady in a wheelchair. I couldn’t help but laugh at his expectant expression as he eagerly awaited my approval.
“Very impressive!” I responded, and clapped enthusiastically.
“We can run too!” his friends chipped in, not wanting me to overlook their own sporting abilities.
“I’m sure you can,” I told them as I turned away smiling, “just be sure to make the most of it.”
And without a goodbye, three fast-receding figures proceeded to do just that.