2wheels: The Return
Edward Genochio's bicycle expedition from China to England
September 2005 - November 2006
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Horseman Stole My Bicycle!
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The Wheelchair Foundation: bringing mobility to people
There but for the grace of God goes a fat rich old American.
Getting about is something most of take for granted.
To people who through disability can't get about easily on their own, a wheelchair can bring freedom.
Perhaps we sometimes look at wheelchairs as something that imprisons rather than something that liberates. We use the phrase "confined to a wheelchair" - perhaps without giving much thought to exactly what we mean when we say it.
Yes, it is true that there are places it is hard to get to in a wheelchair - and that is something we should be thinking about when we design and build the houses and streets and cities of the future.
I came to look on wheelchairs a little differently after my mother broke her leg (falling of a bicycle, ironically) a few years ago. Her injury meant that for many months it was very difficult for her to get out of the house.
When we are fit and healthy we can't easily imagine what it feels like when you can't even go outside to spend ten minutes in the sunshine, when you can't pop across the road to visit your neighbours, when it's not even easy to open the front door when your friends and neighbours want to visit.
Your house can become a kind of prison. When the Red Cross provided my mother with a wheelchair, she was able to get outside and appreciate and enjoy the fresh air and sunshine again.
Happily, my mother's leg has healed and she doesn't need a wheelchair any more.
But the episode taught me a few things.
First, that disability isn't something that only happens to other people and other people's families.
Second, that disability is not always a permanent state. It is quite likely that most of us will be disabled through injury or disease at some point in our lives. The healthy man running down the road today may be in a wheelchair next year - and with any luck will be walking again the year after.
Third, that wheelchairs are not prisons. They are tools that let people get about - perhaps to live an independent, "normal" life; perhaps to bring a little extra brightness into a life that has been made dark and difficult by injury.
Fourth, that wheelchairs are simple things, but they can make a big difference.
Fifth, that even in England, with a good health service, it wasn't all that easy to get hold of a wheelchair. How much harder must it be in poorer countries where the health service is less developed and less affordable - and where disease and injury leave more people, proportionately, in need of a wheelchair?
Kenneth Behring is an all-American kind of guy. He's big, fat, rich, blunt-talking and flies around in his personal jet. He's got a rags-to-riches kind of story that saw him start life flogging beat-up second-hand Oldsmobiles from a vacant lot somewhere in midwestern America. Since then he's bought an NFL American football team and become one of the USA's biggest and richest property developers.
When he started to become an old man (I suppose that happens at the moment you start looking back on what you've done in your life, rather than forward to what you're going to do), Behring decided that all the money he had made left him feeling strangely unfulfilled. Apparently this can happen when you are very rich.
One day in a foreign country he saw a poor man who had no legs "walking" down the road on his hands and stumps. Behring, a very rich man, had a simple thought, but one that changed his life. It was this:
But for the grace of God, it could be me, or one of my children, "walking" down that road on my hands and stumps.
There but for the grace of God go all of us.
Since that moment, Behring has used millions of his own dollars to establish the Wheelchair Foundation. Its mission is to provide a wheelchair to everybody, anywhere in the world, who needs one.
Seeing Kenneth Behring, a fat, old, rich American man tell this story in Shanghai to an audience of mainly skinny, young, not-particularly-well-off Chinese people, it was impossible not be moved.
Try it yourself.
Imagine a watching a fat, old, rich shootin'-and-fishin' American man stand up and say
There but for the grace of God go I - or my children.
And not just sit down again, but to start shovelling cash out of his bank and do something about it.
If the grace of God fails me one day, I hope someone will be standing by with a wheelchair for me.
It might seem a simple idea: give a wheelchair to everyone who needs one.
Isn't the world full of complicated problems?
Why do they need a wheelchair? Have they lost limbs to landmines? War? Terrorism? Preventable diseases? Were they too poor to pay for the healthcare they needed?
Shouldn't we be tackling the root causes?
Maybe. No, of course we should.
But sometimes you need a few fat old rich shootin'-and-fishin'- American men who've seen a few things to stop talking and start doing something, right now, today.
You need someone like that, because he's got a bank account. And the vision thing. He knows where he's going - that's probably how he made all his money in the first place. And that bank account opens some doors. He's got the King of Spain and Nelson Mandela on his committee.
There are people who have to walk down the street on their hands and stumps.
There are people who lie inside in a dark room for year after year, seeing neither sunshine or friends, because they can't move around.
There are children who cannot play with their friends because they have lost their legs to landmines.
There are a lot of people like this. Millions.
What are we going to do?
You can convene a panel ready to begin deliberations in 2009, then have a 5 year investigative study, a 5 year proposal development period, a 5 year pilot study, and a 50-year roll-out programme.
Or you can open your bank account, get on the phone to the wheelchair factory, say you're going to be buying 200,000 a year every year for the foreseeable future, and you want the first batch delivered in half an hour, and then, while you're working out transport arrangements with shipping companies, start loading wheelchairs into your private jet and fly the damn things out to where they're needed today.
Sometimes you have to admire a man like that.
Kenneth Behring is a wealthy man, but he doesn't have all the money. A few hundred or a few thousand of us ordinary folk probably make another Ken Behring. And there are a lot of us thousands of ordinary folk around.
For every pound or dollar or rupee or ruble that is donated to the Wheelchair Foundation, Ken Behring will donate another pound, dollar, rupee or ruble of his own.
At the end of the ceremony in Shanghai, a little Chinese boy with muscular dystrophy called Kun Sha, came onto the stage sitting in a wheelchair donated by the Wheelchair Foundation and sang a song to thank "Grandpa Behring".
There were tears in the eyes of a big fat rich old American man.
I think there were tears in all the other eyes in the room too.
And if you're a rich person looking for fulfilment, go take a stroll down to see your bank manager. You know what you've got to do. Tell him your money's got things to do.
Kenneth Behring's book, Road to Purpose tells his story straight up and down. Read it, it might help you see the wood for the trees.
Oh, and, Mr George H.W. Bush Senior, Sir, I know you're a regular 2wheels reader, so I've got a personal request for you.
You're not fat, it's true, but you're still an old, rich shootin'-and-fishin' American guy. I don't know how many more Iraqis need a wheelchair now that young Dubya has done his stuff out there, but I'll bet it's more than a few.
There but for the grace of God go you.
Or one of your children.
"Huh? Excuse me, we're trying to play golf here. Watch this shot."
OK, don't dig deep. Just skim a bit off the surface. How many extra millions have you made from your oil interests now the price of the black stuff is propping up the ceiling?
Tell you what, however much it is, split it, 50:50.
Then give half of it to the Iraqis with no legs, and half to that fine son of yours, for keepin' that price nice and high with little adventure of his in the Middle East.
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|Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005 Edward Genochio
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