On the 25th of March 2019, the Director of the South African Federation for Mental Health, Bharti Patel, took part in the Little Eden CEO Wheelchair Challenge. The aim of this initiative was to raise awareness for people who are wheelchair users through having those at the apex of an organisation spend a work day in a wheelchair. This was done with a view to raise funds as well as for those who took part to gain a sense of understanding as to what it is like to be a wheelchair user. We caught up with Bharti after the experience and did a brief interview with her to ascertain her thoughts on the experience and for her to describe what she had learnt as a result. An account of the interview appears below:
Please give us an overview of your experience:
I had to adjust to remaining seated for the entire day, and I found it difficult to perform tasks such as fetching documents from the printer. I was extremely conscious of moving about the office as I realised I would be blocking the entire passageway and I was conscious of the fact that I had to ask for assistance moving across the boardroom. This experience has been a real eye opener and has given me a new perspective on what it is like to be a wheelchair user.
What were the highlights of the day?
The concept of mindfulness of what it is like to be in a wheelchair dawned on me- I was able to see things in a new light. As the day progressed, it was no longer about the wheelchair, it was about getting things done using resources around me. I was motivated to go beyond the wheelchair and get things done and was able to appreciate how it was all very possible despite the challenges that had been so apparent to me at first, however I do realise that those with mental health challenges who also have physical disabilities face even more challenges.
How did people treat you?
Initially it drew a great deal of attention to me. People saw the wheelchair first and me second. People were accommodating but also almost apologetic. I almost felt like a victim at the start of the day. This dissipated as the hours went by.
What were your three biggest challenges?
In terms of context, I must say that I felt like someone who got into a wheelchair just subsequent to a traumatic accident- it felt sudden and confusing. I had to quickly adapt to being bound for the first time. I had to learn how to move around and my office had to be repositioned to allow me to get behind the desk. There were some doors I struggled to get through and it was difficult to pass by furniture and in passageways without being assisted.
Why do you respect wheelchair users more?
I appreciate the fact that people who use wheelchairs are able to go beyond the construct of them having a disability. Using a wheelchair also requires physical exertion and strength. People in wheelchairs are thus more resourceful in both mind and body.
Thank you Bharti for both your participation and taking the time to do this interview.