We drive in to the spinal unit carpark of Stoke Mandeville Hospital and pull into a disabled bay. My wife releases the ramp at the back of our vehicle, undoes the straps that secure my wheelchair and guides me backwards down the ramp. From there I wheel across the pitted and worn tarmac towards the entrance of the Spinal Unit. Three guys in wheelchairs are sitting near the entrance. They are chatting and smoking. I wheel passed them. The glass entrance doors open automatically and I make my way into the reception area.
The walls are adorned with large paintings commissioned by artists, and a few small pictures painted by patients. Pauline is behind the reception desk, thumbing through a pile of papers. She’s been in the unit since it was opened in 1983. I stop and tell her that I have an advert to put on the notice board and asked if there’s a fee.
“What’s it about, Michael?” she asks, briefly scanning my A4 poster.
I explain that I’m working on an art project, which aims to ‘challenge people’s perceptions of disability’. I need some willing participants to model for me. The idea is to pose provocatively dressed able-bodied men and women alongside wheelchair users of the opposite sex, adoringly hugging and kissing them. I’d take several photographs and then produce a series of paintings. The idea behind the project is to show the world that disabled people have their own sexuality and that they are just as desirable as anybody else. “I want to destroy the perception that disabled people are impotent and undesirable,” I add.
Pauline seems troubled. “I’ll have to speak to the boss,” she tells me. “Just give me a few minutes.”
I’m early for my baclofen pump refill and so I hang around the reception area, looking at the pictures on the walls. I heard that one of the walls, which had been decorated by some artist, cost thousands of pounds. I’m puzzled. I see nothing worth hundreds let alone thousands of pounds. Fifteen minutes later Pauline calls me over. Smiling optimistically, I asked her if the advert had been accepted.
“I’m sorry, Michael,” she says with a pained look on her face. “Your advert was declined. It was deemed unsuitable, too controversial to put on a public noticeboard.”
I’m flabbergasted. “That’s exactly the kind of prejudice I’m trying to combat. There is nothing wrong with my poster. All I’m doing is advertising for willing participants. I expected support, not condemnation. What I’m proposing is for the benefit of disabled people. Surely the spinal chief can see that?”
“I know, Michael,” she says, “but there’s nothing I can do. It’s his decision.”
Once again I look around the reception area, notice the holes in the wall where once proud plaques and photographs hung. Jimmy Savile with Princess Di and Prince Charles at the opening ceremony of the spinal unit. Gone. A brass plaque bearing Jimmy Savile’s name. Gone. Above the café the neon sign: ‘Jimmy’s’. Gone. All that was left were a series of holes in the brickwork.
Ironically Savile had built the spinal unit with funds raised from charitable events. Now every single reference to his name had been erased. If the wards had been as deep cleaned as the reception area, MRSA and clostridium would not have proliferated. Was it possible that my little advert had been banned because of the poisonous ripples of Savile’s misdeeds? If so, the hospital is descending into an abyss of political correctness.
Filled with a deep sense of resentment, I finally wheel out of the spinal unit. I’m now scornful of the management. Who are these narrow minded individuals? Through censorship, they have destroyed an idea which, in my opinion, could have changed people’s attitudes towards disability. I really did not expect this. “Challenging the Perceptions of Disability?” They’ve certainly challenged my brain.
God damned puritans. Ought to be taken out, lined up against the wall and shot.
This is my hospital. I run a clean joint. Can’t have patients doing as they please. Filthy adverts? What next?
God damned Nannying chiefs, treating us patients like kids.
If I had my way all spinal patients would be lobotomised.
Up your arse with a bleeding cactus, mate!
At the entrance of the spinal unit — under the shade of the roof — patients are sitting in wheelchairs and smoking cigarettes and cannabis joints. The smell is delightfully pungent. It’s a no smoking zone. No one in authority bats an eye. Nothing is ever said. They would just get the finger anyway. It’s accepted. Why not my request?
All I wanted was a few willing participants. It would have been their choice. But where morality is concerned, the iron curtain comes down. Hypocrites!
I’ve got to stand up for what I believe in, dust myself down and get on with it. I shall continue with my project, try and enlist the help of people who can see the positives and not the negatives of my project. I’m sure I’ll find willing participants. Love, passion and a zest for life are what drives me forward. What is life if you cannot stretch the boundaries? We have to keep going, experience new things and, like a fearless boxer, take the hits and keep moving forward. At least when you experience the highs and lows of life you are alive. You understand yourself and life more fully. I do not want to be like the managers with their shackled minds and shallow thoughts. I am free. I am my own man, unafraid and unashamed.