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Stairs or Lift?

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I never intended to write about the way some young people treat me as a person in a wheelchair. I always thought it would either be seen as moaning or trying to make people feel sorry for me and I never wanted either. What has made me write now is the attitudes of some of the students I’ve encountered at university towards a seemingly small issue to them but of huge importance to me: using the lift.

I am in my final year of law and at Queen Mary there is an ongoing problem with the lifts because they’re old and really should have been replaced years ago. Overuse causes them to break down and means disabled students like me too often can’t get to class. The university has a plan to replace them but in the meantime they have put up signs explaining the situation and asking students not to use the lift unless they are disabled.

Despite this I often have to explain the situation to groups of students waiting for lifts in the hope that they will take the stairs if they can and realise how unfair it would be if I couldn’t go to a class because of a broken lift. Seems reasonable right? Well if you said yes, my fellow students would disagree with you.

A few weeks ago I was coming out of the lift on the 2nd floor and found a group of students waiting to get in. I’ll admit I was dreading having to ‘play the heavy’ as I so often do, but who better to make this point than me? I expected them to be annoyed sure, but I didn’t expect one of them to say “oh let’s jump up and down in it and make it break down!” which is in fact what happened. I couldn’t quite believe it. All I could think to say was “how about if you don’t?” It’s possible they were joking, but if they were the joke ended when they all piled into the lift the second I came out.

Afterwards I thought “How could they be so selfish?” and “If our places were reversed I would never have said that in front of a person who so obviously depends on the lift working.” I wanted to put it down to them not understanding that a broken lift for me doesn’t just mean having to take the stairs, it means I miss out on a class. But I told them exactly that before they got in and they didn’t seem to care.

I had a similar experience today waiting for a lift and saying my usual bit ‘please don’t use it, it breaks down’ and all the rest of it. This time though, they told me they knew that but ‘were too lazy’ to take the stairs. At this point I really wish I was making this up but there are witnesses who can confirm this is really what they said. Law school has taught me well it seems!

They laughed and continued to wait for the lift with me. This time my response was not so affected by shock but instead by anger. I told them that was “pretty pathetic if you ask me.” You might be thinking all this would mean they did the decent thing and took the stairs. You’d be wrong. They piled into that lift with me and showed no signs of caring or embarrassment.

It is the lack of any sign of caring that made me want to write this. Being disabled prevents me from doing many things, but one thing it has enabled me to do is be empathic towards other people even if I have not faced their particular struggle. I see this as a gift and I wouldn’t change it for anything. Its drawback though is that it makes the attitudes of these students unbelievable to me. How can they know what impact their using the lift can have on someone right in front of them getting to class and still get in? How does what I say before they get in not make them realise that just by taking the stairs, they are helping out a fellow student?

As I said before, I do not want people to feel sorry for me. What I do want is for my fellow students to see that taking the lift when they don’t need to can prevent me from doing what we are all there to do: go to class and get a degree. I am asking that the next time they have the choice to take the stairs or use the lift that they think about the impact their choices have on other people and try to care about that.

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