A few days ago I made my obligatory pre-surgery visit to the hairdresser. As Trent and I were chatting away about many things, including my upcoming hardships, I realised that his elegant salon has full wheelchair access. I commented on that, thinking about my little knee scooter finding its way to his scissors in a few weeks when I’m due for my next cut and colour. And Trent replied, in curmudgeonly tones, that I might as well enjoy the ramp when the time came, because it had cost him $80,000 and he couldn’t have gotten his business licence without it. I was gob-smacked. Fancy, as a small business in a small town, being forced to spend that kind of money on wheelchair access. “How many wheelchair clients have you had?” I asked. “Like, NONE,” he replied, with an extra-crisp snip of the scissors, and went on to explain how such a sum of money came to be spent.
For a moment there the air was ever-so-slightly frosty. For the first time my hairdresser and I had been landed on opposite sides of an issue. I wasn’t exactly the enemy but I’d become associated with a deeply unfair incident—an onerous and nonsensical one, really. I mean, have a think about how many other cheaper ways you could find of solving a fairly simple problem, without lumbering a small business with such a large chunk of extra debt. Trent had strong opinions about the whole issue.
Now, Trent is as generous a person as I’ve ever met. He’d spent a day the previous weekend with the rescue team searching for the little missing boy in Kendell; his hairdresser-style stories are always peppered with evidence of his good heart. We have jam in the fridge compliments of his kitchen. A couple of years ago he came 30k out to Mitchells Island to do a home cut for a client beleaguered by chemo-hair. I’m sure he’d have done the same for me in preference to spending $80,000 on wheelchair access. When his arm’s not twisted, he’s a saint. But bureaucrats in the Taree Council brought out the worst in him with an illogical insistence that he provide service to society in this particular fashion.
I sat there thinking about an article from the post-polio community that I’d read recently. The author takes a strong fighter’s stance, exhorting us to make demands and settle for nothing less than we want and need. We have rights, she emphasised, and only by demanding our dues can people in wheelchairs and motorised scooters take advantage of the same jobs, facilities and day-to-day services as ambulatory people. As Trent snipped away, I thought about how in a few weeks I might begin to reap some of the benefits of that activism myself. I am likely to be making my way around Taree on my knee-scooter—into the shopping centres, the dentist’s, the optometrist’s and the library where my writer’s group meets.
However, I have a radical view which I don’t generally speak about in polite company: I don’t believe in rights. Hairs shudder at the base of my neck when someone uses the word. I don’t believe in “shoulds” (although I likely use the word as often as anyone else). I am dismayed, for example, by the treatment of women in Afghanistan, but I don’t see it as a question of rights. In my world view, it’s a question of pain, suffering, workability, generosity, empathy and respect—addressed through education and negotiation. Having rights will not buy those women anything.
I observe that many (most?) people, like Trent, left to their own devices will happily share some of what they have and do their best to help those who need it. But when forced, people lose their generosity. Without choice in where the fruits of our labours go, we resist and don’t experience the benefits of giving. When we’re the unwitting recipients, as I am now, we don’t learn to ask, to enrol, to be thoughtful and appreciative.
Non-ambulatory as I am for a while, I can’t help feeling like I’m a bit of a second-class citizen. Obviously I’m not—but I AM reliant on the goodwill of others. However, that doesn’t give me rights. I don’t have a right for Woollies to provide me with a lift to the shopping level, or Trent to provide a haircut or Rick to get me a cuppa. It’s a nuisance having to ask Rick for so many things these days, but even 35 years of marriage doesn’t give me any rights.
It’s a complex issue which I won’t try to do justice to in this small piece, but meantime—
Thank you to all the merchants and taxpayers who have forked out for the ramps, the lifts, the flattened sidewalks and little bridges over gutters that I’ll be using in a week or two. I AM happy and grateful that they exist. I just wish you had more choice in the matter..