The other day, an experience of absolute singularity filled me with fear and yet curiosity: visiting a disabled toilet. Anyone who cares for a physically disabled person knows this situation all too well and hopefully does not perceive my naive descriptions as unreasonable. Flawed as I am, I do like to try and be the hero of the hour. When someone turns to me for help, I pride myself on saying: 'Sure, what can I do?'
So I asked how I could help when my conversation partner, in her 40s, in the group of standing drinkers at an open-air bar, told the group that she had to go to the toilet. The fully electric wheelchair, controlled with a joystick on the right armrest, easily managed the hurdles up to the toilet door. Now I had used a disabled toilet in the past, on my own, sometimes drunkenly and unfairly because it was the nearest toilet available. But I had never assisted anyone in its proper use.
I pushed the 'Door Open' button and stood rather impressed at how wide the doorway was. Wheelchair accessibility! Or so I thought. Rather, the wheelchair was badly placed before the door. The button had to be pushed again after relocation, which took some time. Once we were in the toilet, the door slowly swung shut. I felt imprisoned. There's a first time for everything and it helps when you're guided by someone who knows what they're doing. So here too.
'So I move my wheelchair like this. Then we need to be ready to move me over there, right?'
The support handles were clearly too short, as if designed by committee. Then I saw I couldn't reach the toilet if the wheelchair wasn't close enough to it.
'Could you take my coat off and stick it over on that table?'
'I'll take a hold of the handles and you move my legs so they're touching the ground. And my hips, need to turn them around. Relax! It doesn't hurt. I've got no feeling in the legs. Just move my feet and we can get me up. Excellent, cheers. I can stand up if you support me here and here. Right, could you bring my trousers down? A wee bit more. It's okay. I know it's a bit strange after just meeting. Well, now I'm ready, cool.'
I was taken aback at how her body slumped and how her shoulders suddenly showed no symmetry. She asked if I could bring her left arm forward a bit. 'No, that's the right arm', she said with the patience of an angel. But I'd clearly almost dislocated her right arm, my attention fixed instead on the worry that the door might swing open and show my new friend to every punter in the bar.
So whilst she 'went' I stood in the toilet, my gaze fixed on the door, my finger on the 'Lock' button lest it suddenly open and expose us. It was testament to the tolerance and gentleness of this woman that we mastered this situation well and with residual dignity.
'It's a wee bit like having a kid in the toilet, don't you think?', she asked. I guess she was attempting to break the ice on the awkwardness but I internally disagreed. There was no comparison.
Taking a child to the toilet is totally different. Here, accompanying a grown-up, you are in a supposed private place with a person who, unlike the child, understands the nakedness of vulnerability. The whole affair brought forward in my mind questions about my own limits, physicality, fears, needs, intimacy, desires. My mental image of disabled people and toilets shifted in perspective. I realised the whole trouble of it, the sheer effort to do something I did each day without thought. I felt the injustice of discrimination a little deeper.
How can one use such a poorly installed door? Were there no complaints or are disabled people reluctant to complain in the face of society's expectation that they ought to be grateful for the toilet in the first place? 'Why doesn't anyone do anything?' shouts the societal rebel within me.
But this toilet and this experience were only a minute insight into a larger injustice than the length of support handles or width of a door. It was just one example of the need for change and tolerance, and recognition of the many indescribable daily challenges faced by physically disabled people around the world.
Returning to the bar, I found it surprisingly easy to fall back into conversation with the lady whose knickers I had pulled down only 15 minutes earlier. I guess she was used to the necessary exposure that accompanies such assistance. She talked about the staffroom at work not having enough biscuits. I nodded. But my mind – falling into hubris – was questioning the injustices of humanity. My feeling of being alone in a big city, my own feelings of vulnerability, were no less diminished. I sensed the ghost of a realisation: I am deeply dependent too.
Thinking back, it seems she helped me more than I helped her. Her reassurances and practicality helped me deal with a situation I found awkward and confusing. We helped each other. We are all – irrespective of disability – helpless without others.
David Stewart lives in Glasgow and has written for national and local newspapers. He likes poetry, travelling and film