I have recently discovered that my walking stick has magical abilities, for it offers the power of invisibility.
This is especially true when travelling on a tightly packed bus, where suddenly, I am no longer apparent by those already seated as the view outside the window becomes the focal point of interests. They may see a flicker of a metal frame, the hint of a weary woman, but then the grey buildings soon become great architectural designs that need their full attention and the busy roads become a place of deep contemplation as I vanish from view.
Sometimes a few kindly gents will see through it’s magical capabilities and offer me their seat instead, but like sightings of the much fated multicoloured Unicorn, these occurrences are few and far between.
Occasionally the spell of invisibility wears off and I am once again seen, but on an already crowded public transport, eye contact is made only briefly before then being averted, whilst heads are quickly bowed.
I remember vividly the time a woman got on the bus. I watched the veins in the back of her hand bulge from the pressure she was putting on her crutches in order to support her frame, something that happens to me way too often. Passengers watched as she scanned around for an empty seat, but whenever she caught someone’s eye, POP! She she would vanish. People promptly became enamoured with their phones, or felt a strong compulsion to talk to the stranger next to them, or to once again, gaze wistfully outside the window at their gloomy surroundings. I asked if she was okay and she told me of her disability and how much pain she was in. We swapped stories about our conditions and that’s when I noticed that not only were we invisible, but that all the passengers had developed magical powers of their own. The power of selective hearing.
But this doesn’t just happen to those of us with walking aids, it can happen to anyone with an illness that doesn’t present itself in an obvious manner. Take my friend L who looks like the ‘perfect picture of health’. Sitting at the front of the bus on seats which are labelled for the elderly or those with a disability, she was set upon by a man who told her that she needed to get up and offer someone else her seat as she ‘didn’t look ill.’ Of course he didn’t know of her brain tumour or the various operations that she underwent. He hadn’t a clue as to all the other health problems that left her deeply depressed and rendered her bed ridden, but by the end of the journey, he soon did and left the bus looking rather sheepish.
That assumption is something that most of us face on a daily basis. The fact that illness is something that needs to be evident in order for it to quantify as being real.
Last year, after much research and feedback from passengers, Transport For London unveiled that they would be introducing badges for people with an invisible illness or disability. The blue badges simply reads, ‘Please offer me a seat.” The problem is, our invisible conditions make us just that, invisible. If people can see a walking stick, or a struggling person and still turn away, are they really going to suddenly take notice of a blue badge? My walking stick marks me out as being different and in a world where physical illness is still seen as a stigma to some, do I want to compound that difference by wearing a blue badge?
A few weeks ago, I travelled across London for a medical appointment. The journey took over an hour, most of which was spent standing. By the time I got to the hospital, I could no longer walk and my spine felt as though it was on the verge of collapse. No one on that bus would give me any kind of eye contact. I could even sense the unease of those that I stood close to as they stared out the window rather than look my way. Old fashioned values no longer prevail. The rules no longer apply when it comes to offering up your seat to the elderly, pregnant women or the disabled, and in a way I completely understand that. people pay a lot of money to use our public transport system so why give up their seat? Well I can think of four reasons. Kindness, compassion, empathy and just plain old good manners.