Walk on by

wheelchair user shopping

We all hate being pestered by the salespeople and charity workers that accost us on the high street, but how would you feel if they ignored you all together? Columnist Tim Rushby-Smith reflects on the changes he’s noticed since tackling Saturday shopping in a wheelchair…

Over many years I had perfected a thousand-yard stare and purposeful stride. The ‘I’m running late’ watch tap came in handy, too. On a few occasions, I even feigned the odd mobile phone conversation.

“But why?” I hear you ask (which reminds me, wearing headphones can help).

All these tactics helped me to avoid the attentions of the charity-bib-wearing corner vultures, and double-glazing reps in shopping centres.

Despite all that effort, I missed a trick. All I needed was a wheelchair. Not just any wheelchair, though. It appears that mine comes with an accessory that isn’t listed – a  cloak of invisibility.


For now, when I approach the same corners that used to cause me to wince in anticipated awkwardness, I drift on by, without so much as a hint of eye contact.  This leaves me with a puzzle. What exactly is happening here?

Is it just me? Or are the clipboard wielding gap-year poverty pushers on special orders not to accost disabled people? Overall the experience is bittersweet – being harassed has been replaced with a feeling of insecurity that comes from not being harassed. It’s a bit like being a teenager who’s just been told by the love of their life that she loves them ‘like a brother’.

Inevitably, such social awkwardness (by which I mean charity street corner encounters, not the unrequited passions of adolescence) may act as a bellwether for wider attitudes. Is it just that sales folk think we don’t have any money? In the case of the guilt-trippers, do they assume that we are already receivers of someone else’s charity? And as for the double-glazing or credit card offers, perhaps the assumption is that our accommodation is institutional and our purse strings are held by ‘a responsible adult.’


Statistically, disabled people are much more likely to be unemployed and reliant on benefits, but I suspect this is not the reason for my free pass when it comes to the sales pitch. It may simply be a question of height. No-one wants to be perceived as overbearing, looming over a wheelchair user and blocking their path.

Either way (and I can’t quite believe I’m saying this), disabled people have just as much right to be harassed and annoyed in the street as any other grumpy git who shares the pavement.  And as for the companies that do the corner accosting? Here’s a tip: have you ever tried employing disabled people? I reckon you’d get a much better return…

Looking Up by Tim Rushby-Smith is available on Virgin Books.

Enable, Mar/Apr 2013

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