Fear of falling, social invisibility and Zimmer frames. Valerie Lang, 75, discusses the realities of being older and disabled. She shares her story as part of Scope’s 100 days, 100 stories campaign.
I was diagnosed with cerebral palsy as a baby and started to walk unaided when I was six. My walking was inelegant but functional. Unlike many of my class mates, I was spared the horror of callipers. The children who wore them were so terrified of falling over in them that few, if any, learned to walk at school.
As a child, I was fearless. When I did fall, I was small enough to not do any serious damage. I would scramble to my feet and be up again in seconds.
I loved the freedom that walking gave me. I still do.
Help when I needed it
As a young adult, I studied and worked in London. If I fell over in the street, people would always stop and help me up. I’ve fallen in the middle of busy roads, landed in a heap at the top of a tube escalator, and been thrown from the back of route master buses. On each occasion, someone was always there to ask if I was OK.
Today, as an older disabled woman, I have become totally invisible. On the street, people ignore me, walk in front of me… some nearly walk into me, but fortunately they don’t because my mobility scooter would hurt them.
I’ve been on my hands and knees on the pavement clearing up after my dog and people will just walk past. They don’t stop to think why a grey haired old woman is kneeling on the footpath. That didn’t happen 30 years ago.
The bubble society
We live in a ‘bubble society’. So many people on the streets today are on their mobile phones, or in a rush to be somewhere else. It is as if we are all hermetically sealed into our own private little plastic bubble. We don’t have the time or space to think about the people around us.
I also wonder whether people are afraid of doing the wrong thing, and perhaps getting sued. Or it could just be that health and safety has won out and that people are no longer willing to take a risk.
Whatever the reason, it leaves me even more reluctant to walk anywhere unaided.
Fear of falling
As I’ve got older, I’ve learned that confidence matters far more than physical ability. I broke my ankle some years ago, just falling sideways from my own height. That accident shattered my confidence. If I do fall now, I can’t get up by myself. Today, when I leave the house, I’m all too aware of the potential dangers.
Unfortunately confidence cannot be summoned up at will. I have stood at the side of my car, looking at the six foot gap to my garden hand rail, and muttering to myself ‘don’t be an idiot,’ but I can’t take the first step. The fear would cause me to fall.
The art of walking
My mum always believed that if I only concentrated totally on how I was walking, I could learn to walk perfectly. I never did because I am unable to give full attention on placing my feet carefully for more than a few paces. I am much more interested in what I am about to do.
I use a trolley to help me balance and get around when I’m walking. I think that zimmer frames are the invention of the devil. To shackle old people to such clumsy objects is cruel. Turning 90 degrees requires one to pick the wretched thing up and move it round a bit, at least eight times. It is enough to put anyone off trying to walk. As with wheelchairs, anyone dispensing them should be made to use one first, for at least a week.
A step backwards?
I was lucky to be young in the 60s. In spite of the equalities legislation that has come in since, I was walking – albeit unsteadily – in a narrow gap in history when the few disabled people who were out and about, found society to be less judgemental than it may have been through history, and sadly seems to be now.