The Pandemic, the Premier & the Wheelchair
Or; how I was pushed to anger by a NSW Government staffer
A Wheelchair 2 by Jean Yang, 2014
It was moments after I’d tweeted a joke about being disappointed that I wasn’t in egging distance of NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet’s presser that I was approached by one of his staffers. I was sat in my wheelchair at the back of the post-vaccination monitoring bay, a good ten minutes from freedom, when a woman with blunt, shoulder length dirty blonde hair and a small NSW Government name tag approached me, flustered and blustering like a gust of hot air. She bent down to me, too close for a pandemic and flanked by subordinates wearing darker clothes and distant faces. She asked “Are you waiting?”
My immediate thought was that I was a person sitting in a wheelchair at a vaccination clinic during a NSW Government press conference about vaccines, so I assumed she was going to ask for some kind of photo-op. As I was taking my one second to prepare a sharp and indignant response to such a callous (albeit fictional) request, she’d already circled behind me, and grabbed hold of my wheelchair.
“We have to move you. The Premier needs to walk through here.”
The way she said “Premier” will stay with me. Her voice was rounded, her Rs were rolled. It was as though Perrottet were a King, and she was a put upon footman, trying to find space to drape her velvet cloak so his leather oxfords wouldn’t touch the plague-riddled floor. It was so dramatic, I might have laughed if she hadn’t been shoving me side to side like a rag doll, perhaps searching the room for a large, wheelchair sized garbage bin.
“Let me help you,” she said, as an afterthought.
I grabbed hold of my wheel. “I can move myself, thanks.”
I looked around the room in a slight panic. There weren’t any allocated spaces for wheelchairs, which does seem like an oversight by the staff at the clinic. Having said that, I was perfectly comfortable where they’d put me, lined up with a row of chairs at the back of the room, out of the way. Now I was forced to wheel myself to the front area, and sit there with my freshly wounded foot precariously intruding on a pathway.
It doesn’t escape me that all of this went down after my potentially ill-advised egg joke. I’m not a fan of our State Government. I think they’ve been astonishingly reckless with our lives, and that’s not something I will ever forgive, but I still believe it’s important to highlight my bias, especially before I say this: What happened to me was totally fucked, but what made me furious was that Perrottet was inside that vaccination clinic at all.
I won’t pretend like my wheelchair experience is unique, or even uncommon. Although I’m newly injured with a ruptured tendon that unfortunately rendered my good kicking foot useless, I have a chronically disabled mum, and I’ve spent my entire life watching her suffer these indignities our ableist society helps to facilitate. It shouldn’t need to be said, but it’s simply not OK to grab somebody’s wheelchair. Touching a person’s mobility aid is both a violation of their agency, and puts them at serious risk of harm. For these reasons, a lot of disability advocates consider such interference with mobility aids a form of assault, and, in many cases, the law agrees.
But it’s interesting to me as well that this woman (whose name I didn’t catch because I was too busy trying to stop her from black bagging me and hurling me into an unmarked van) was a representative of a State Government that has, in their short time in office, done everything in their power to remove protections for disabled and immunocompromised people during this pandemic, and to make it increasingly difficult for anyone - anyone - in the country to access any form of healthcare.
Earlier, as I was sat waiting for my booster shot, a nurse in a bright yellow vest stood in front of the over-capacity waiting area and apologised to us. “I’m so sorry about the wait, we’re understaffed, and we’re doing the best we can.” Her eyes were red. It’s unclear whether this was from tiredness, stress, or crying, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was all three.
At the same time, on the other side of the vaccination clinic, Perrottet and his press pack were assembling to reassure NSW that everything is fine, with Health deputy secretary Susan Pearce balking at the idea that some healthcare staff might still be at work, despite contracting covid.
“The suggestion that people are being brought back to work when they’re positive is certainly – we have no evidence of that,” Pearce claimed.
Today, NSW Health reported 35,054 new cases of covid-19, and hospitalisations doubled within the past week. But what seems most worrying is that medical workers all over Australia, and especially in NSW, are taking on the workloads of several colleagues who’ve been struck down by covid after working the frontlines. In light of this, it should be noted that while all healthcare workers on site at the vaccination clinic were required to wear extensive PPE, none of these requirements were adopted by Perrottet’s team. Although they did wear masks, which was the least they could do, I guess.
In a hilarious but macabre misunderstanding, many people on twitter assumed Perrottet did his press conference at a children’s hospital due to the cutesy woodland backdrop in the corner of the clinic his team chose. Considering many children don’t even have access to vaccines yet, and several childcare centres announced closures yesterday due to this fact, a choice like this would be satire worthy of Armando Ianucci. However, the reality of what happened is equally shocking, if not quite as sensational.
In the midst of a record high surge in cases, the premier of NSW decided to host a press conference inside a vaccination clinic, where lines were out the door and staff were clearly overworked, and overburdened after dealing with two years of this shit. They didn’t only violate my personal space, they violated the space of every single person in that building. They put us all at risk, for no good reason.
A hard thing for me to accept while I live in my wheelchair is that it makes me more vulnerable than I was when I was able to walk. I’m 5’9”, I’m not a small person - no woman would have dared to grab me if I hadn’t been so infantilised and objectified through ableist eyes. I think it’s difficult to come to terms with how vulnerable we become when we are injured, sick, or disabled. And it’s especially difficult, for me at least, to imagine the kind of callous disregard for human dignity someone would have to adopt in order to take advantage of a person in such a state.
Growing up I had a naive vision of our governments as forces for protection and care. I don’t think it will surprise anyone that this vision was shattered in primary school, when John Howard came into power. But the indignities we are suffering at the hands of the NSW Government right now (and the Federal Government, it should be said) are growing exponentially, in tandem with covid-19. We are sick, we are vulnerable, and they are taking advantage of us. And the worst part is, it’s getting harder and harder to fight back.
Update (06/01/2022): The South West Sydney Vaccination Clinic has become a covid-19 exposure site during the time of Dom Perrottet’s press conference (from 9:37am to 11:03am).
Thanks for writing that.
I'm so pissed that your good kicking foot was out of action! This story sums up perfectly the situation at the moment. Thank you.