Author: Niall Sweeney

”Does he/she take sugar?’. A simple question that captures the frustrations of the disabled. It makes reference to the third person, when in fact the he or she in question is present and capable of speaking for themselves.

It’s a snapshot of the well-intentioned, but patronizing mindset of the able-bodied in their interactions with wheelchair users.

#ItAnnoysMeWhen people assume I am slow and deaf because I am in a wheelchair. #DoesSheTakeSugar?

— Tanya Lockhart (@TanyaLockhart) January 15, 2012

#Beddingout why do shop assistants talk to the carer rather than the disabled when it is the disabled making a purchase? #doeshetakesugar

— You’re upset so am I (@yourupsetsoami) July 31, 2013

I was unaware of this brilliant phrase until I spoke to Mags McHugh, an acquaintance who knows this scenario all too well. Mags is an aspiring comedian, volunteer, life coach and college lecturer. Her wheelchair was a driving force (pardon the pun) behind her comedy. It started off as a centrepiece of her routine (not actually disabled), but a sudden leg injury meant that life imitated art.  Mags has also played the role of carer for her elderly parents in wheelchairs, so has been on both sides. She spoke openly about her time spent incapacitated, the foibles of those around her, and what kept her sane. Wheels and all.

On what led to her wheelchair stint….

Mum was 89 years old. She wanted to see a film and it’s a long walk. I got a chair for her for 30 euro and she went and loved the film. She ordered pop corn and coke. The woman serving responded to me. Mum was annoyed and I requested that she was treated first hand. It was a ‘‘does she take sugar moment”. After that, I decided to use the chair as a ‘vehicle for change’ in my stand up comedy. I would use it each night and challenge perceptions. Audiences get it. I have managed to get it on TV a few times with Rubber Bandits and Sky TV again challenging people. I’m meeting the Wheelchair Association of Ireland so people can see comedy in accessible places. It’s not fair that people miss out. We can do things to change things.

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On caring for her parents, and her support network…

Really tricky minding two people aged 89 and 90. People you love and respect. Try doing it well when you’re getting by on so little sleep. Mum and Dad needed good care. I did my best. l did whats needed but was tearful and near breaking point at times. You have to be in the situation to understand it. Two times I had a break for a weekend, Mum was so dehydrated it took days to get her back. The carers all assumed she was sleeping. She had no drink for 2 plus days. I did voluntary work which helped at Vincents, neighbours were good and I paid people from the carers allowance for extra help. I rented rooms so I had a place to go, but often went back to staying nights as it was needed.

My Dad got an electric wheelchair. It was wonderful. He got around often in bus lanes as pavements are a nightmare. He never got to see me do stand up in the Funny Women finals in Dublin. It wasn’t fully accessible but he helped me get there. He had such a great sense of humour.

On the difficulties in losing her mobility….

Last year I used this chair for real as I broke my leg badly. It was useful but golly, friends made all sorts of decisions. I asked for frozen peas and I got Brussels sprouts ’cause its easier to manage. Same with jaffa cakes – I got malted milk ”to save me weight gain”. Really good friends made decisions for me. Was so strange but it became almost normal to ask for one thing and get what they want you to have. I felt exposed, dependent and shocked by the help I got.2

In the chair, I can be ignored completely. Talked over, or over helped. Been pushed across a road before while waiting for a lift. At gigs reactions are interesting. They see a woman in a chair. I am often pushed up in silence. They seem relieved I’m funny.

Access to buildings is almost impossible often. I carry my chair up flights of stairs. It’s a great example physically of how outside of life people can be when ill with anxiety, stress or simply different.

On challenging perceptions…

Once, halfway through my routine, I stood up out of the wheelchair and explained: “It’s not mine, I don’t need it.” Then comes the penny-dropping moment. How does the audience think of this woman now?

A woman in Galway said: I saw you in the chair and I am embarrassed to say, I said to my husband isn’t it good seeing them out midweek?She got it.  I was a them. The chair can represent any difference at all. Depression , mobility and anything that is  a bit uncomfortable at all.

After another gig in Dublin, a journalist congratulated my performance. He told me: “I’m an educated man, or so I thought, and when I saw you in the chair all evening I ignored you. When you were being pushed on the stage I was thinking ‘oh god, retard’…I’ll go for a smoke.’ And now I’m thinking: ‘Who’s the retard now?’” He pointed at himself.

I think: job done. One more person who may assume less. People are uncomfortable with my using a chair. I don’t mind that; I will settle with uncomfortable. I am very uncomfortable myself but will be less so when we see the person, not the chair.

On what got her through…..

Comedy, volunteering and good friends got me through the bad bad times. I am lucky a few good people helped me amazingly. Then a job at DCU lecturing helped as I could taxi in and get around.

On giving advice in supporting the disabled….

Ask them what they want and assume nothing. And if they ask for jaffa cakes, get them jaffa cakes!

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Having talked with Mags at length about the perceptions and annoyances of her situation, and that of many disabled folk, it made me think of my own attitude, and how I would interact with a wheelchair user. It was frustrating to hear her friends making decisions for her rather than grant her wishes, despite their best intentions.

The best stories, the best content always makes you think, and so Mags story serves a social function in, as she says, challenging perceptions and discrimination of the disabled. I admire her for the clever use of the chair in her comedy, as a means of doing this. As she says, laughter is a great leveller.

Hope you enjoyed reading Mag’s story. Funny woman. A radio interview of women in comedy featuring Mags can be found here, beginning at the 5:30 mark.

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