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Beware of Christmas shoppers

by Lisa Egan

12th December 2004

"It's Christmas time, there's no need to be afraid ..."

The famous opening line of Band Aid's Do They Know It's Christmas? suggests that we shouldn't be afraid of the festive season. Sir Bob Geldof might not have written those words if he'd ever experienced the joys of going Christmas shopping on Oxford Street when you're a person with bones that break easily.
I will confess to having several slightly Scrooge-like qualities and not being a fan of Christmas. Aside from the rubbish TV, the inevitable weight gain, the annual embarrassment of drunkenly snogging someone you shouldn't and the fact that in my entire twenty-five years, December 25th has only passed once without me being ill, the worst thing about Christmas is that the things I hate all year round become intensified.

Christmas shopping is my idea of hell. I hate it. My friends and family have, over the years, come to understand that it's highly likely that they won't see a single present from me until February, because that's when it becomes safe to once again venture out onto the high street. Being a wheelchair user, during the average shopping trip I will invariably get hit across the face by an oversized carrier bag at least once. But from late November onwards that statistic changes to about one hit for every five shops visited, as the crowds pile into the shopping centres searching for something that Aunt Mildred doesn't already have.

I'm a huge fan of my own personal space. Living in a crowded city like London, I'm not allocated all that much, so what I've got I tend to treasure. Like everyone, I get miffed when the one other patron in the otherwise empty cinema chooses to occupy the seat next to mine - especially if it's someone I've never met before.

However, as a disabled person, I've noticed that most people don't view those few feet of air around me in quite the same way they would if I was non-disabled. Sometimes this works very much in my favour. I've found myself able to yawn and stretch on an overcrowded tube train, because people would rather get very intimate with a non-disabled stranger reeking of terrible body odour than stand within hollering distance of the-lady-in-the-wheelchair (who, I feel the need to point out, did have a shower just before she left the house).

Despite my hatred of overcrowded shopping streets, I will confess to an enjoyment of watching people lunging out of my way with cries of "Jesus Christ!", just because they can't face the prospect of sharing a pavement with a crip. It's almost like playing a game of human skittles - if the pins were so terrified of the ball being 'different' that they started jumping out of the way before the ball had even left the bowler's hand. I should develop some kind of scoring system, maybe even a league. Bonus points would be given for encountering someone so crip-phobic that they push their companion over in their desperation to be as far away from the wheelchair / scooter / cane / dog etc as possible.

Of course, it also works the other way too. While some people will fall over backwards (literally) in their desperation to give me as much personal space as possible, there are others who seem to think that I don't actually need any personal space at all. Sadly, they are a far more common breed than those who treat me like I've just wheeled through dog poo.

Usually, if I come across a step which is too steep to wheelie up, I'll get out of my chair and push the chair from behind. If this happens within sight of any strangers, they'll invariably rush up to me, whisk my wheelchair out from underneath me and 'helpfully' lift it up the step without saying a word. It's only when they look back to see me lying face down on the floor that they realise I was actually leaning on the chair for support whilst pushing it. Oh, and then they look bemused when I don't thank them for their assistance.

Now, forgive me if I'm wrong, but if someone ran up to a non-disabled person, took their property out of their hands and walked away with it, wouldn't it be considered as some degree of theft? At the very least, it's an infringement of personal space of the highest order. Yet because I'm disabled I'm supposed to the thankful for the black eye I've received as a result of their 'helpfulness'.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not ferociously independent to the point where I automatically refuse any offer of help. (Even I sometimes think, "Hmm, actually, I did need someone to pass down the feta cheese from the top shelf". That stuff is like the food version of adult magazines - it's always on the top shelf in the supermarket). But I am a believer in manners. Would it actually kill someone to say "Do you need any help?" before they invade my personal space to such an extent that they risk injuring me or damaging my property?

This year, I think I'll do all my Christmas shopping online, so I don't have to worry about being tripped over, hit round the face with toys, or 'helped' straight into A&E.

I wonder if I can get away with only going to online Christmas parties too? Maybe that'll stop me making a festive, drunken fool of myself.
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