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Observing Life: Four wheels bad, two legs good, The National 19.04.2011

Eight weeks ago, the day before his seventh birthday, my son broke his femur. It turned out he had a cyst in his bone that caused it simply to snap. All our jokes about his huge appetite and lean frame meaning he had hollow legs rang truer than we thought. But, thanks to the excellent doctors at Sheikh Khalifa Medical City, he has a bone graft, enough metalware in his leg to set off airport scanners and a scar sure to impress all the girls when he is older.

While his leg mends, he needs a wheelchair and crutches to get around, which has thrown open a whole array of challenges for us.

I have become incredibly adept at spotting a ramp or lower kerb on a pavement and plotting a course towards it. I can tell you which shops to avoid due to narrow doorways or hidden steps, and had never realised before how perilous a fine coating of sand on a marble pavement can be for someone on crutches. Highlights have been seeing people clearly in need of some exercise waiting for the lift in Marina Mall, shamefacedly shuffle off the four yards to the escalator when they see us approach, and kindly souls beckoning us to the front of queues so we don’t get pushed and shoved.

Save for certain places in this city, Abu Dhabi is not really built around pedestrians, and certainly not wheelchairs. We set off on a walk to the shops, only to discover, three quarters of the way round, that the pavement just stopped. Only a narrow strip of sand separated us from the road, so we gave up and headed back to the car.

But those certain places are brilliant. We’ve spent several weekend mornings pushing the wheelchair along the new Corniche: a short circuit through the gardens, ending up for a quick dose of vitamin D and a cake at a café by the beach. Cinemas are easy, and although, allegedly, its meandering aisles are intended to cause disorientation and impulse buys, Ikea is very wheelchair-friendly.

In our car-based Abu Dhabi society, getting around hasn’t been much of an issue, but on a recent trip back to London, I saw how far things could go. As well as a dedicated wheelchair area inside, buses are fitted with ramps that, at the touch of a button, extend over the kerb to the pavement. Modern black cabs have likewise been adapted to accommodate wheelchair users. The only downside was the tube. London’s older, deeper lines don’t usually have lifts so trips out have to be planned around the newer stations. Who wants to go to the Natural History Museum anyway? Docklands is much more fun. 

My son is due back at the hospital this week when we expect to be told he can walk again. I will be delighted, of course, but a small part of me will miss old Ironside. Having given up buggies a few years ago, I’ve been reminded of the usefulness of having handles to hang shopping bags off. For every person who has gawped at him, there have been three who have smiled sympathetically, or offered to help. But overall, two legs good, four wheels bad, and we’re all looking forward to life returning to normal.

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