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Best of 2013: Sticking it to disability


'Stick happens', by Chris Johnston. Tim Ferguson rides his wheelchair and wields his walking stick like a weapon as he chases a frightened muggerSpeaking from experience, I can tell you that a physical disability can be a pain or a chore, but the devices available to help disabled people get around can have surprising benefits.

I'm a person with multiple sclerosis (MS). Neurologists have no idea what causes MS, but they're paid well because they know what they don't know better than anyone else.

MS involves the deterioration and scarring of myelin, the coating of nerves in the brain. Without this coating, exposure causes nerves to misfire, sleep, stay permanently awake, go nuts or go AWOL. Or all of the above. Though the intensity, timing and progression of the symptoms vary for everyone with the condition, MS often causes a range of mobility challenges. And, over time, there is a chance those challenges will worsen. Or not. The uncertainty is one of the things neurologists are certain of.

My MS relapses and remits, comes and goes, stands me up then trips me over. I resisted declaring my condition to the world for many years. It was nobody's business and I was living a busy life. Pride or stupidity, or both, caused me to endure fatigue and falls. Finally, I got bored with falling over and realised I needed to 'out' myself as someone with a disability.

The first symbol of my 'outing' was a walking stick. I cringed as I bought one but I soon realised that a walking stick is good for more than balance and strength. With a walking stick, you can go any place and be offered a seat when you get there. Your stick can help break the ice in the awkward chair-stealing situation. When you walk with a stick, the world looks you in the eye but remains wary. Will you tip over unexpectedly ... or use it as a weapon?

One night I was stopped on the street by an angry drunk man. 'You're too young to need a walking stick,' he shouted. 'Are you an idiot?'

I replied, 'You're picking a fight in a dark laneway with a tall man who wields a large stick. Who's the idiot?'

He backed away. Sticks have their benefits.

The next vehicle in my MS progression was a walker, a four-wheeled affair affectionately known as a Zimmer frame. This clunky contraption is like a Volvo — boxy but safe. People with walkers get instant respect from others, probably due to the apparent level of difficulty in every manoeuvre.

The next level of disability aid is a wheelchair. I fought against getting one until a bad spell gave me no choice. I should have bought it 20 years ago.

If you have a disability getting help isn't surrender, it is common sense. And an important note: a wheelchair does not diminish IQ points and you don't have to shout.

Our society is better equipped to accommodate wheelchairs than it was in the 1990s. Ramps and elevators are more common (though not universal) and disabled parking spaces are handy.

There are downsides however: pedestrians and shoppers don't stop for wheelchairs. It doesn't occur to them that if a collision ensues, they'll come off second best due to their higher centre of gravity and lack of stabilising wheels.

Another drawback of being in a wheelchair is instant invisibility. Even close friends will walk straight past their wheelie-pals. If you're ever keen to avoid notice, a wheelchair is the place to hide.

The one key thing I know for sure, and I didn't need a neurologist to help me discover this, is that mobility devices are symbols of the haphazard harshness of life. If you're resisting surrender to a mobility device, play it safe and give it a go. And if you're able-bodied, spare a thought and keep an eye open for people moving with wands, walkers and wheels. Live life to the full because those contraptions await you.

Stick happens. Act accordingly.


Tim Ferguson headshotTim Ferguson is an Australian comedian and television presenter, and author of Carry a Big Stick. This article was first published on 29 October 2013.

Original artwork by Chris Johnston.

Topic tags: Tim Ferguson, multiple sclerosis, disability



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Existing comments

I have a four year old granddaughter who has cerebral palsy. Chloe's unable to walk so a wheelchair is essential on outings. At home, she can use a walker but it is laborious for her and her parents need to help her constantly. Chloe has a twin sister, Lily, who can walk and do everything four year olds usually do. Thanks for sharing your story, Tim. We should all live life to the full.

Pam | 14 January 2014  

I have always had huge respect for people who battle with extra hurdles - I remember the Doug Anthony AllStars ever so fondly and it seems impossible to think of dashing Tim with a disability. Good on you Tim for sharing some personal thoughts. I once went shopping with a blind friend and on that day I learned heaps. I came home exhausted - she was older but found the experience just exalting and funny, showed no sign of tiredness when we reached her home after several hours. I hope that I can show the same courage if I am ever struck with a serious disability. Respect!

Eveline Goy | 14 January 2014  

Fine words there Tim. I'm glad that you've 'come out' and are speaking out about the whole thing. MS isn't the most sexy disease in the world, but when you look at the wonderful people living with it, and living well, most of the time, it's a wonderful thing. The human spirit can rise above the daily slop, and able-bodied will come to the aid of the infirm, or the other way around, if needed. I love Mick, my Walking Stick, and the lovely Jane, my Cane. They stay in my car, ready for work whenever I may need them. My medication's going well at the moment, so they're a bit under utilised, but always ready, just in case. Sharing stories with others, a wide variety of others, disabled or not, can lead to understanding, or at least we can share a joke about some of the crap things that can happen in life. When you least expect it, Gravity can give you a reminder that what stands up can also fall down, and the floor is always there waiting for you. (and a sense of humour helps heaps too! http://mickjaneandme.wordpress.com/

Carolyn Cordon | 13 March 2014  

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