Being able to imagine yourself in the other person’s wheelchair

In the last couple of months, trouble with first one knee and then the other necessitated a period of needing airport assistance when I fly. It’s a delicate situation where it is possible to feel quite vulnerable, even exposed and it has been a real discovery to meet the people whose job it is to deliver this kind of support.

Basically, you get put into a wheelchair, or on to a buggy and are zipped through passport control and security at top speed with minimum inconvenience—unless you feel being delivered like a package to your plane count as an inconvenience.

I only had to use this support a few times but I quickly saw the people who do it have a range of attitudes to their jobs. There’s the young person who is on the first rung of the ladder who just wants to get the job done and does not really want to spend their time imagining what it must be like to spend any time at all in a wheel chair—the prospect seems too remote from their own experience.

Then there is the more experienced worker who has been assigned to airport assistance temporarily and is enjoying the novelty. I spent the half an hour waiting for my gate to come up listening to and giving advice on the problems my ‘carer’ was having with another member of staff making unwanted advances to her. It was plain that I was expected to give back something for the privilege of being driven around the airport and for once, my assistance provider had a captive audience.

Make no mistake, once you sit in the wheelchair you are a captive audience for whatever comes to you. One of most unnerving encounters was with an airport assistance person who took immense pride in his work and tried his very best to give top quality support. As we transferred to the airport bus to take us from the ‘plane to the terminal, he tipped my wheelchair almost on its back to get me on to the bus and then spent the rest of our time together explaining how he liked to do without the lifts an pulleys that can be used to get people on and off planes and resort to the strength of his own arms. A sense of impending terror crept up on me as I envisaged being bodily lifted into the car my friend had waiting for me in the airport car park.

I have met people so solicitous of my feelings that I have felt concerned to reassure them that I am all right and do not expect to have to do this procedure more than a few times.

The whole experience has touched me very much in seeing how natural it is for us to wish to help others. Everyone who has helped me with as part of this service has been kind and polite and many have done more than was asked of them.

However, it has also shown me that wanting to be a help is not enough. You can tell instinctively if someone has cared for a friend or relative with mobility problems because you have to be able to put yourself in another person’s shoes—or in this case, wheelchair. You have to drop you own ideas of how you think the job needs to be done and imagine what you would need if you were in that position. It’s not easy but those who can do it stand out a mile from the rest.

Again, it is a pity that the people who do this work do not receive some basic training on mindfulness and empathy skills. They give so much already it would be great for them to have support to know how to do it even more effectively.

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