Cripple in Cambridge

Blogger ABBI BROWN will graduate in a wheelchair. Her debut column explores the pitfalls of brittle bones meeting uneven cobbles.

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Like any finalist lurching towards exam term in a heady mixture of sentimentality and full-on despair, a degree is not the only thing I’ll be taking away from Cambridge. 

I’ve also picked up the usual financially unsustainable love of guinea fowl wrapped in parma ham, assortment of rowing trophies, and impassioned love-hate relationship with The Lion King soundtrack. But university has also added one string to my bow which is far less conventional. Think a fixie bike is an edgy way to travel? Think again. I’ll be leaving Cambridge in a wheelchair.

Yeah! I can yell real loud

This is, perhaps, less dramatic than it sounds. I have osteogenesis imperfecta (brittle bones). Over the past three years, whilst my brain has been figuring out how to blag its way through the English tripos, the bones in my legs have taken to crumbling like it’s a competitive sport.

I’ve spent so much time at the GP that a receptionist once rang to say she hadn’t seen me in nearly three weeks, and could I be tempted back with a little physiotherapy? I’m on first-name terms with my pharmacist. When I’m not actually in Addenbrooke’s, I’m chasing up referrals to get back there, which means spending days at a time calling up different departments. A&E staff know me by sight. My college nurse’s four-year-old daughter claims I’m her best friend. I no longer go home to visit my family, but solely to attend a different hospital. I spend a lot of time travelling to see specialists, and sitting in waiting rooms biting my nails with a mixture of anxiety and frustration. Following a big break, I usually spend at least a week stoned to high heaven on Tramadol. During my time at Cambridge, I’ve had one operation and broken sixteen bones.

Ergo: wheelchair.

Shopping in style

Cambridge is a funny place to be disabled. On the one hand, the city is small and flat, with a fantastic public transport system. On the other, it is crammed to the rafters (often quite literally) with treacherous staircases, cobbles and people who can lecture for hours on the social, economic or psychological consequences of disability, yet have no idea why my front door is electronically assisted. It is the only place I’ve ever been where my mental illnesses are treated with more experience and efficiency than my physical ones. I still don’t know whether this is a good or bad thing.

I have been so impressed by the scale of – and widespread support for – mental health awareness campaigns within Cambridge, but please don’t forget that physical disability can be just as difficult to live with. Not a single Cambridge May Ball committee seems to consider disabled access as part of their logistical planning. At events of comparable scale in the ‘outside world’, this would be unheard of.

By and large, the parts of Cambridge separate to the university (such as my beloved bus system) are dramatically more accessible than the university itself. I would dearly love to see this change. Yes, many of the university’s buildings are both beautiful and historic. But that shouldn’t mean the need for accessibility can be ignored. With the right planning and funding, sympathetic access options are often possible – witness, for example, the stone steps into the Scott Museum, which stack backwards to reveal a stair-lift before sliding seamlessly back into place.

James Bond: eat your heart out

It took some getting used to, but I love being in a wheelchair. I love the freedom of being able to move as fast and as far as I like. I drool over the specs for potential new wheelchairs like a car fanatic let loose in a Porsche showroom. Walking was never my strong point, but I am really, really good at sitting down. Now I can show off this skill all over the place.

A wheelchair also gives you an unbeatable debating advantage. Rem Dogg’s token response in Bad Education – ‘but, wheelchair’ – really is an answer to anything. (You’re almost certainly still reading this drivel out of some sense of moral obligation. Meta.) Still, I’d give up these dubious claims to the moral high ground in a second, in return for an easier journey to actual high ground.

Go on, just a few more lifts. Please.