Travelling to the Caribbean this week, heading back to our sailboat, Quest which we’d hauled out last year in Trinidad, I discovered the term ‘reduced mobility’. Without knowing it, I realised I’d been searching for this term for a long time. Our younger daughter, Delphine has cerebral palsy. She wears a splint on her right leg from her foot up to her knee. This means she gets tired easily. But she’s also stubborn. She doesn’t like to accept help, especially in public. Ten months ago, when we returned to the UK after spending two years on our sailing trip, she’d just turned ten-years old. This coming April, she’ll be turning eleven. Like any child, she’s developed. She reads better. She’s more aware of the environment around her. She wants to be the same as everyone else.
Delphine also struggles to carry her backpack. This meant that on Monday, in the busy airport terminal, we loped from shop to shop, lugging our bags and stopping to rest in a sort of pained relay race. Of course my small, firecracker of a mother must have had her psychic radar on. As we struggled, my phone pulsed in my pocket.
The voice came at me like a train. ‘You know, I was thinking; you should ask for wheelchair assistance.’
I stared into the phone. How did she know? ‘Hi Mum.’
Now my mother is something of an airport aficionado. From her living room, she gave me instructions to the assistance desk. I looked back at Delphine. She had a boxer’s look on her face. Next to her, her older sister Lulu was carrying her rucksack as well as her own. I let out a slow breath. Couldn’t hurt to check it out.
It wasn’t just a desk, we discovered. It was a whole seating area. Whereas the rest of the terminal was heaving, this part was mostly empty. I spotted charging points next to each line of seats. Charging points! Outside, I’d just seen a line of people waiting to access a single one.
The woman at the desk looked up at us. I wouldn’t say suspicious but definitely puzzled. She cleared her throat. ‘This is a reduced mobility area.’
I pointed to Delphine. ‘She’s disabled. I have a blue badge for her.’ I put my rucksack down and dug it out.
The woman examined the badge. ‘Well, of course you can come in.’
Lulu was straight in. She marched to an empty line of chairs and began unpacking her IPad and charging lead.
I looked back at Delphine. She stood still at the entrance. It was like she knew this action would represent a potential flood-gate. As if by entering this space, she’d be confirming she was officially disabled. And when I say this, I don’t mean that Delphine denies being disabled. She wields it with all the ownership it affords. When we crossed the Atlantic for example, she brought it out one sunny afternoon. We were a thousand miles from anywhere. Waves were towering around us like salty peaks.
‘I’m crossing the Atlantic Ocean and I’m disabled.’
I’d looked back at her. Our sailboat Quest was rocking from side to side like a watery tube train. ‘How does that feel?’
She shrugged before threading her way down to her cabin. ‘I’m going to go play Barbies.’
Her self-awareness then seemed like a war-cry. She was crossing the Atlantic despite being disabled. Now two years later, things feel a little different. To enter the reduced mobility area of the airport and take respite from the busy crowds smelt too much like defeat. And yet, heavy bag: Tick. Long flight ahead of us: Tick. Leg splint making your foot hot and sore: Tick.
Finally, Delphine sauntered in. She glared at everyone, which turned out to be a few elderly people in wheelchairs, before sitting down. Then she pointed at me with five shades of disdain. ‘Where’s my IPad?’
With all the naturally-inclined high level of servitude I possess, I rushed to her bag and pulled it out. ‘Here you go, darling.’
She sat down. Crossed her unaffected leg on her splint leg. ‘I need my charger.’
I pulled that out too and plugged it in for her. Then I stood up and looked around. All the shops I wanted to visit were right in front of me.
‘Will you girls be ok if I leave you to it?’
The girls nodded, their ears already covered by headphones.
I came back an hour later.
Lulu took her headphones off when she saw me. ‘A lady came to us. She wanted to know why we were here.’
I frowned. ‘What did you say?’
She shrugged. ‘Not much. I just pointed to Delph’s splint.’
I looked over at Delphine. ‘Are you ok?’
Delphine eyes stayed on her screen. ‘I need lunch.’
Help comes in different forms.