It’s a nice day, isn’t it?
Not many people know that there are two definitions for nice. The way I’ve used it above – a nice day, a nice dinner, a nice puppy-dog – is one way. But there’s also the definition that refers to a slight or subtle difference – a nice distinction.
Here’s a ‘nice’ topic of discussion – the day you lost your virginity. Everyone remembers it, right? Whether you were sixteen or forty, in the back of your boyfriend’s car or on your wedding night – you remember that day.
I remember the day I lost my ‘niceness’.
I don’t think I was ever a nice person, really. Oh, I was able to smile at people and observe the usual courtesies and social conventions. I considered myself a good friend and would do ‘nice’ things for people, because I liked them or admired them. A lot of people told a lot of other people that I was a ‘nice’ lady.
When I started using a wheelchair, I was almost certainly regarded as still being ‘nice’. But those days are gone forever. It’s a subtle thing, the way you’re regarded – subtle and secret, imbued in rumour and subjective truth. Nobody really knows if your hymen is intact or if you’ve ‘done it’ for the first time, and nobody really knows what others think about you.
I used to be described as ‘nice’. And now I’m described as ‘that asshole’. A slight and subtle difference, between then and now.
Fact: Just becoming a wheelchair user isn’t enough to make you lose your ‘niceness’. It takes time, and having your human rights assaulted over and over again. And very few people can come out of that at the other end with their ‘nice’ intact – it takes a great deal of moral fortitude to cross your legs and mutinously refuse to acknowledge your dignity being stripped away from you, one aggression after another.
I won’t tell you about losing my virginity. But on the day I lost my ‘niceness’, I went to the Art Gallery of NSW.
It was a nice art gallery. There are the usual subtle insults and microaggressions – the woman who tried to charge me for a second ticket for a carer, art displays are in glass cabinets that aren’t viewable from a wheelchair user’s perspective, pictures hung at eye level…not my eye level. But these are easily overlooked and it is an largely unappreciated delight to be able to coast through a flat and level surface, skipping the works you dislike and spending as much time as you like, seated comfortably, viewing the works you love. I had a plane to catch, but not for a few hours. It was a really nice day.
Then I caught the lift to the second floor.
The Goya exhibition wasn’t as thrilling as I thought I would be. I like his work, especially the scenes about the savagery of war – he penned these images after the brutal guerrilla action in the Peninsular War. But I was quite happy to leave and so I made my way to the lift. I pressed the button, and nothing happened.
The lift was broken.I was still smiling. This had never happened to me before. What an adventure! Somehow, I would get down that magnificent marble staircase, right? And there would be a backup plan, of course.
Almost gaily, I tripped over to the desk and told the clerk the lift was out of order. And felt the first pangs of concern as her facial expression changed from carefree to worried. Very worried.
‘Oh,’ she said. ‘The last time the lift was out of order, it took DAYS to fix.’
My plane was due to leave in exactly four hours.
I have a great sense of humour. I told the clerk I needed beefy, shirtless young men to carry me downstairs, and we laughed. I posted it on facebook, and others laughed with me. ‘It could only happen to you!’ one person exclaimed. (But really, it could have happened to anybody – a person with a pram, an elderly person, a wheelchair user or an amputee who wasn’t good at stairs.)
I smiled and laughed with the clerk and she told me she’d ordered the ‘stair-lifter’ from the ‘boys downstairs’. ‘I hope someone remembers how to use it!’ she exclaimed. I stopped laughing when the boys from downstairs came upstairs with the stair-lifter, which looked like a seventeeth century torture device.
I looked at this thing, and for the first time felt a real sense of anxiety. The guy said he hadn't used it before, and the other guy said he'd used it once, and he could remember how it worked, he thought. I looked at the marble stairs and thought about putting my life in the hands of these two guys in suits, whose job it is to usher people around art galleries.
I’m a Scout leader and I like adventurous activities. I’ve spent a hell of a lot of hours hanging off the edge of a cliff and paintballing and jumping out of planes. I’d even spent some time wheelchair abseiling with Dreamfit, which didn’t frighten me at all – those guys know what they are doing.
These guys didn’t.
The first guy scratched his head. ‘Your wheelchair is unusual,’ he said.
‘Well, the footplates don’t come off.’
No, most wheelchairs have static footplates these days. Unless they’re medical model wheelchairs or unless the user specifically wants them.
‘Well,’ he said sadly. ‘Your wheelchair won’t fit. I don’t know what we are going to do.’
It took ten minutes of discussion before they figured out they could get a wheelchair from downstairs and use that. It was an interesting discussion, and I felt my ‘niceness’ slipping away from me. Quite quickly, considering this was a first date. There were phrases bandied around like 'dontworrywewillcarryyourwheelchairdownstairs' and 'noyoufuckingwontyouwillletmetakeitapartbecauseitcost15Kandcarryitdownpiecebypiece'. But I hung onto my niceness with both hands, and tried to notice the positive things, the amusing things.
My wheelchair was pulled apart and shoved against the wall, and I thought about how many people would come and look at it with great introspection, thinking ‘hmm, I can see what the artist was trying to say here. A wheelchair, deconstructed. ’ You can find humour in almost anything.
The man from downstairs said, ‘Let’s get you tipped back.’ So they started tipping me aback til I was lying, head down, feet into the air.
Now you must remember that all this took about ten minutes, the positioning. And in this time, the lifts were out of order and so many people were walking past us to access the stairs.
Some made awkward comments. Some laughed. Some said nothing and pretended that there wasn't an 80 kilo Scout leader being positioned awkwardly with her arse pointing to the ceiling by two sweating men in suits.
I was sort of okay with it for a while. Because we trust people. You know? Like doctors, or firemen, or people who rescue us. But then I had a moment of clarity, when my head almost hit the floor because I was tipped backwards so far.
And suddenly the realisation came to me. ‘These guys don't know what the fuck they are doing,’ I thought. They told me that they didn’t, but I didn’t realise until now what that meant. This is dangerous and humiliating and wrong.
I used to coach kids in abseiling, remember. I knew more about this stuff than they did. That pissed me off, that I was now terrified and strapped incorrectly into a dodgy manual wheelchair on a steep marble gradient.
That was the moment I lost my ‘niceness’.
Stop, I said. No, I said. You’re not doing this right. You’re not doing this at all, actually. Take me back up the stairs.
And one of them looked at me and had a lightbulb moment and said 'oh, the chair is round the wrong way'.
There’s more, of course. It took a long time. They eventually loaded me onto the machine correctly, equally terrifying, and I got to be hauled down the stairs, very, very slowly, in a machine that sounded slightly louder than a Sherman Tank. I took a video – the best part of it is the noise and the small crowd who stand at the bottom of the stairs and the child who points until the parent drags her away.
Was that the moment that I stopped being nice?
It’s never that one incident. It was the cumulative indignities of that day, sure - but it was also the inaccessible cloakroom, the complicated and faulty lift system, the stares on the stairs, the way the taxi didn’t pull in at the kerb properly despite the driver seeing that I used a wheelchair, the Qantas guy who tells me he is being ‘smashed by wheelchairs today’ and that I will have to wait. The guy who puts his hand in my face in the universal ‘shut the fuck up for a moment’ signal because he was busy and didn’t have time to look at my permit – the taxi driver who tried to refuse my fare at the other end because ‘your wheelchair might scratch my paintwork’.
Like the stair-lift, it took a long time to get there, but we’re here. At that hymen-breaking moment, when I popped my niceness cherry – when I said out loud, ‘Enough.’ When I stopped smiling and being grateful, when I gave myself permission to refuse to be treated like a second class citizen.
The taxi driver looked me in the eye and said, ‘Your wheelchair might scratch my paintwork.’ And I looked right back at him and said, ’Buddy, this is a fight you want to pick with another fucking woman on another fucking day. Put my wheels in the back of your station wagon. And do it now.’
So now you know how I lost my 'niceness'. No more Mr Nice Guy. If you hear me being described as that ‘nice woman in the wheelchair’, you have my permission to laugh uproariously and correct them immediately. It’s unlikely that my niceness will grow back now.