Saturday, October 8

The accident that nearly was

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LENDING a helping hand is a good thing. We all welcome a Good Samaritan or two in times of need. I am no exception. There were many instances when I got stuck in sticky situations alone and had to ask for help from passers-by. I am grateful no one has ever refused me yet.

There is a general assumption that disabled persons need help because of our functional deficits. That is only true to a certain extent. We try to be as independent as possible where we can. A lot of times we may appear to be struggling and awkward but we have learnt to adapt with our remaining faculties. Being able to perform tasks by ourselves is a joy by itself.

Should we need assistance, we would usually ask for it. I have done it many times. I can manage quite well when I am out and about except traversing steep ramps, crossing large gaps and opening heavy doors. And when I do ask for assistance, I would give simple instructions and prepare myself for any eventuality arising from being helped by someone who may not be familiar with handling a wheelchair.

And then when we least expected it, there are unsolicited and unneeded help. These could put us at risk of bodily harm. This is exactly what happened to me last week while I was at a shopping mall with my wife.

The elevator door opened. My wife stood at the door to prevent it from closing. I was slow in going in because the level between the floor and the elevator was uneven. I am very careful because a little bump on the wheelchair could trigger spasms of my legs. Consequently, my abdominal muscles will go into spasms and cause me to lose balance.

Someone from behind said, “Come, let me help you,” and proceeded to push my wheelchair.

“No, don’t push!” I shouted because I knew what would follow if that happened.

But he was already pushing. The sudden unexpected movement across the uneven surfaces triggered my spasms. The plastic bags that were resting on my lap scattered onto the floor. I lost my balance and slumped over with my chest pressing against my lap. I do not have muscle control to pull myself back up.

I desperately grabbed on anything within reach to prevent myself from tipping over. My abdominal muscles were strained in the process. This could cause hernia in people with a catheter for peritoneal dialysis. That is the reason I refrain myself from doing heavy activities.

Equally worse was if I had fallen off the wheelchair. I do not have the capability to roll and soften a fall. I would flop onto the floor like a sack of potatoes. The hard impact could fracture bones because I have osteoporosis.

In between helping me regain my balance, my wife reprimanded the man. He denied pushing me and quickly walked away. He must have thought he was being admonished for pushing me bodily. There was no offer of apology and no offer to help me sit upright again. My feet got entangled on the back of the footrest. It took my wife one minute of struggling to put them into position again.

That was not the only incident. The other time was when I was disembarking from a train. The surface was uneven. I was gingerly pushing my wheelchair to reduce the bumpiness. Someone from behind was in a hurry to get out and pushed my wheelchair. I nearly fell that time only to be rescued by the passengers outside waiting to board.

Evidently, trying to be helpful this way can be fatal to us. But there is no reason to shy away from helping disabled people. Please continue doing it but there are four cardinal rules that must be observed. To underline its importance, this is the first topic in all my Disability-Related Service Training (DRST) workshops.

Rule One: Never assume. Some disabled persons need assistance, some do not.

Rule Two: Always ask if assistance is required. A simple “Can I help you” or “Do you need assistance?” will suffice.

Rule Three: Do not impose. If assistance is declined, leave it at that.

Rule Four: If assistance is accepted, ask how you can assist. Different disabled persons may have different needs although our conditions may appear similar.

These rules are simple but pertinent in preventing misunderstandings or accidents like what happened to me. Never hold, grab or push a wheelchair without asking the person sitting in it first. The wheelchair is an extension of our body. Just like we do not like strangers to touch us for no reason, we should not do the same to wheelchairs.

Most importantly, never push a wheelchair from behind without the person being aware of it. If we are slow at the entrance, there is usually a reason for it. Be patient. It is not our intention to be slow or block the way.

Good intentions are always welcomed but it must be done in a proper and safe manner. I cannot emphasise enough in maintaining a two-way communication while providing assistance. Remember the four cardinal rule. Observe, ask and listen. Better be safe than sorry. This will reduce any untoward accident to everyone involved.