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.

Original artwork by Chris Johnston.

Topic tags: Tim Ferguson, multiple sclerosis, disability



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Existing comments

Very true

Bryn griffiths | 29 October 2013  

Kindness is the language that allows the blind to see and the deaf to hear. Keep up your good works Tim- i am proud of you for being you

william | 30 October 2013  

The social model of health argues that what is disabling is people's attitudes. This is a good illustration of that. It's also a brave and inspiring piece from of Australia's comedic legends.

Theresa Wyborn | 30 October 2013  

Enjoyed the article thank you..I have a stick for increasing foot pain,but don't use it yet,,your article gives me courage to do so..In the past I have wheeled by disabled friend and notice the invisibility you mention...but there are so many wheeled vehicles on the footpaths..chairs,prams,walkers,skateboards just to mention a few. My friend also used a walking stick with his 'good' are and held onto me with the was a privilege for me to accompany him and your article encourages me to be brave..Dionysius

Denis Allen | 30 October 2013  

And, of course, was it Bunyip Bluegum, or his uncle, who wisely stated that every gentleman should carry a walking stick. Well said. Tim. PS. My disability. or rather lessened ability, is with hearing. I am working on a story equivalent to yours. PPS. Hearing aids would seem to be of little advantage when confronted by a mugger in a dark alley at night.

John R. Sabine | 30 October 2013  

You're an inspiration Tim! Keep stickin' it to 'em!

Val | 30 October 2013  

Great article. I am in the category of 'considering it' myself but pride and other peoples opinions get in the way. Thanks for being so pragmatic, I appreciate the no nonsense attitude.

Naomi Flanagan | 30 October 2013  

What a fantastic comment! All too true!

Marie O'Connor sgs | 30 October 2013  

Tim - you made me laugh years ago, and you're still making me laugh now. THANK YOU. I've been on a stick recently following a nasty relapse, and your book "Carry A Big Stick" carried me laughing through the latter part of that relapse. It inspired me to glamify said stick with hundreds of rhinestones. I thought - if I need it, I'll make it look like I mean it. Whatever "it" is :) I love how you pull no punches, you don't minimise the impact of MS or indeed mobility issues generally - but you manage to be witty and funny too. That's such a gift, and one I hope resonates with people who say "Oh I know the MS readathon. What is MS anyway?" Bravo!

Michelle Aleksandrovics | 30 October 2013  

Dear Tim and Co., Thank you for your article and book. My hubbie has read two books in his life (and he is 58!) and one of them was yours. He has an illness similar to MS, but is hereditary. Life has been a series of minor and major disasters! The most recent being a back injury after trying to lift a dog into a dog wash. Lessons to be learnt? Leave the dog alone! Me thinks we will be getting the pooch washed by someone else able bodied. Cheers.

Jenny Esots | 30 October 2013  

Thank you so much for writing this, Tim. (Also, for being one of my heroes when I was twelve.) I suffer from ME/CFS and fibromyalgia, and I've only given in to the walking stick in the past year or so. Like you, I wish I'd done it far sooner. It's curious, this battle those of us with invisible illnesses have to become visible, when those with more obvious disabilities so often feel they have to hide them. Should my condition continue to deteriorate, I can only hope I surrender to the siren call of the wheelchair with half as much grace as you.

Sarah Stanton | 30 October 2013  

The surgeon told me my knee is more than 50% bone on bone and I am eligible for a new knee when I am ready to accept it. He told me as he tells all his patents at the same stage to consider a walking stick for stability when the knee decides it doesn't want to carry the weight. Most don't use a walking stick because it makes them feel old. I use a walking stick as the need arises. I find it particularly useful in crowded shopping centers and department stores, I am suddenly visible, people don't cut across my path or walk into me.

Townsville Fred | 30 October 2013  

Dear Tim, Thank you! I wish I had your courage and just a tad of your wonderful sense of humour. I have had a life-long battle with the ongoing effects of polio and know the searing of nerve pain and the fears that accompany the body that will not do what the mind knows it can. Pride and a desire to hide any disability or lack of what others understand as "normal" has also been a life-long inner struggle. I salute you as one who has always shown us that the soul is larger than the body and the spirit is stronger than all that death can offer. Thank you again, Eulalie

Eulalie O'Keefe | 31 October 2013  

very nice article. Thanks for sharing.

yaly | 01 November 2013  

What an inspiring and informative article. What I learnt from this, is that this can be no '5 year plan'; one can be using these devices for decades...very enlightening, thanks so much Tim.

Lizzie Moore | 01 November 2013  

Bless you Tim. Your courage is an inspiration and your humour delicious. I met you in the 90's in Sydney when you were the MC at a charity gig. You were an impressive man then; very down to earth and 'normal'. What struck me was your love for your wife and little girl. You spoke so beautifully about them. You knew then you had MS. I was very sad to hear of your illness Tim. You are an even more impressive man as the challenges of MS present themselves. Stay strong and know you are loved and greatly respected by many people.

Gerardine | 01 November 2013  

Have visited a school in Kathmandu where kids of an intellectual or physical disability have a similar zest for life ignoring silly things in the way. Thank you for inspiration and sense of intangibles in the face of real frustrations.

Margaret Moore | 01 November 2013  

Thanks Tim, I lost you after the show 'DON'T FORGET YOUR TOOTH BRUSH' then years later I saw you having a cup of coffee at Garema Place. That made me happy to see you again and to know you are still around. Thanks for educating me about MS.

Name | 01 November 2013  

Love this. Thanks for giving me a good laugh. Am recently disabled and this summarises all I am dealing with. Waiting for my electric wheelchair then, whoosh, watch out world!

Sue Cutler | 04 November 2013  

Good on you Tim, I've been a fan of yours since the Big Gig days. Love your guest spots on ABC radio. Best wishes to you and bugger the MS :) Must buy your book. Cheers Annie

Annie | 04 November 2013  

We have to get to a place where people are taught how to behave around people in wheelchairs (or other 'signifying' devices). Children are taught from a young age "don't stare" at someone who is different. Talking to someone in a wheelchair could be construed as 'being friendly' or 'don't bother the nice lady' (or man) . Hence the invisibility cloak of the wheelchair. I've been close to people with disabilities my whole life, and am not 'frightened' of the concept - but upon encountering someone i don't know, in a wheelchair, the conundrum is the same - look or don't look, speak to them, smile at them? Don't want to appear patronising, but don't want to ignore them either. Don't be hard on the masses, they know not what they do. As a side note, trying to get out of the way for someone in a wheelchair/walker/walking stick somehow turns me into the clumsiest person alive. Im sure they turn their pity to me as they pass by. Its only done out of helpfulness...

Chris | 06 November 2013  

Honest, refreshing, informative and well-written. Tim does disability without pathos. I love him.

Cate | 19 November 2013  

Love the humorous twist! We need more of this:-)

Amy | 20 November 2013  

so very true, Tim!

Alison | 20 September 2016  

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