LIFE IN A WHEELCHAIR – When there’s Wheels, there is a way

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A way around it. Maybe the long way around it, but eventually people with disabilities will find the way to override hurdles, and that is achieved not only by their determination, but also with the help and awareness of others.

This is the message that 18-year-old playwright Chloe Cortes Dellipiani recently broadcast at the Drama Festival, with her original dramedy “Wheels”, written, performed and inspired by young teenagers. It tackles issues connected to ‘visible’ disability, and it aims to explore the common perception of disability, and even challenge the very definition of what disability is, how it affects one’s social life, how others react, pro-act and interact, what are the practical and psychological obstacles, who lays them down and more importantly, who can knock them down.

In this 25-minute one-act play, premiered by the Whitelight Company Junior Drama Club directed by Jackie Villa, is condensed an ordinary day in an extraordinary teenager’s and his friends’ life, and a lesson about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes – or wheelchair. “The wheelchair is already on stage at curtain up, so the audience gets the full impact of what the play is about,” Chloe says, “but most issues highlighted are pertinent to invisible disabilities too. People may not be aware of them through no fault of their own, because they cannot fully understand the plight until they witness it first-hand, watching someone they care about being wheelchair-bound.” Chloe tries to make the audience see life through their eyes, rummaging through insecurities and emotions such as being ‘a burden to their parents’, being ‘just tolerated’ or a ‘pity date’ to other children.

Nicknamed ‘Wheels’ for the mechanical extension of his limbs, the protagonist tries to fit in and achieve his independence, despite being followed around everywhere by ‘Inner Voice’ who articulates loudly the thoughts Wheels is too polite to vent or just haven’t surfaced from his subconscious yet. A cast of fifteen young actors, and assistant director Rose Ann Victor playing Mum, accompany Wheels on a journey of ups and downs, false pity and real concern, selflessness and shallowness, delusions and acts of random kindness as he negotiates disabled toilets, steps, ramps, mood swings, the angst of watching family and friends accommodate their life plans around his needs.

“The situations presented are based on my experience, and most of it is real, dramatised to prove my point. Wheels’ friends are inspired by my friends and the ‘Mum’ character is a lot like my own mum, with her positive advice about going around it and getting there eventually.” In the final scene, at a support group meeting, Wheels concludes he can do whatever he sets his mind to, because an alternative route can always be found, albeit it turns out to be the longer or more winding road.

Chloe, who had mused about playwriting since a tender age but never found the right topic or incentive, was almost dared to put pen to paper by Jackie, her former middle school drama teacher who casually enquired about the progress of her acting career. “I am not into acting these days,” Chloe replied, “but I’m into writing.” “So why don’t you write me a play?” Jackie quipped. Thus project “Wheels” was born in less than six months. “Well, the skeleton script that was beefed up thanks to Jackie’s advice.” The next steps were about reviewing and editing the script and eventually holding auditions for the protagonists. “All Drama Club kids are talented actors, so I added small parts, lines here and there to offer everyone’s chance to shine in the limelight,” Chloe says. “No matter how small, all parts are essential to convey the varied perception people have on disability, and they all add perspective.”

Talented Nichola McAuliffe composed and recorded the soundtrack for the play, and parents helped design and craft props, including the red bus that rolls in too full for Wheels to be admitted on with his chair open.

While the final draft took shape – making the script grow with them and them growing with the script – they started rehearsals for their entry to the Drama Festival, ironically held in a theatre with no wheelchair access. “We had our trouble heaving the empty wheelchair up the stairs,” Chloe laments. Perhaps this was part of the lesson learnt, reminding them once more how troubles and tribulations can be overcome when working together at devising trouble-shooting strategies.

She explains how it felt natural to write about her story and her own relationship with life on a wheelchair, with a few friends being uncomfortable about it and estranging her, while others cemented new friendships over the positive side of wheelchair-bound teenage adventures, even if it included pushing her around uphill and jokingly whining about how fat her wheelchair was.

Chloe with the rest of the cast

As personal as this story can get, it isn’t a tearjerker that victimises disabled people, but a realistic way to raise awareness about the confrontation with architectonical, sensorial or behavioural barricades, more so when disabilities are not as obvious as a wheelchair. “It was the last play of the night, so we didn’t want people to leave the theatre feeling sad, and I owe it to my mum (who hadn’t read or watched the play before it premiered for the general audience) to grant her only request: a happy ending. The play just scratches the surface but it enables you to dig deeper and find out what part you can play next time.”

Life of a wheelchair-bound teenager in Gibraltar presents a lot of ups and downs, often literally: “I had trouble with using public toilets, finding room on public buses at rush hour, negotiating ramps and the lip at pelican crossing ramps. Westside School had no lift for me to reach the floor where a class I signed up for was held, so I spent those hours studying alone in the library, without enjoying the formative input of class discussion and peer feedback. Oh yeah, and St. Bernard’s Hospital entrance ramps aren’t wheelchair-friendly at all: my mum had to push me up with mighty strength while I helped her by spinning the wheels myself or we wouldn’t make it all the steep way up. Now that I can walk again, however, I wonder how the newly installed escalators could have benefitted us anyway.”

The young playwright remarks how disability may limit living life to the fullest at different degrees in childhood, adolescence or adulthood. Children usually see past disability, but their parents may be influenced by stereotypes and be wary about their children befriending someone ‘special’ and its potential consequences on any active outdoor lifestyle. “The biggest misconception I encountered was being mistaken for mentally disabled just because I was trolleyed around. During my pain management workshops in the UK, I met kids like me with a variety of temporary or permanent disabilities, some visible, some invisible. In both cases the struggle is very real, and very different in relation to each disability. Yet, invisible disabilities cannot trigger obvious empathy in others.”

words | Elena Scialtiel   photos | RoseAnn Victor