I found myself in an awkward situation last might.

I’d popped down to my local supermarket on my way home from work to pick up a few supplies for my son waiting at home and was fiddling around in my purse to find the usual £1 coin for the trolley – you can never find it when you need it.

You know you don’t have that long to dig it out and scoot off before the queue builds and sure enough sensing another customer standing behind me, I turned and offered to take her (now) returned trolley off her, in the usual swap for the pound.

‘OH MY GOD! HOW DO YOU COPE ?’ She shouted – then continuing (at full volume) – ‘let me get the trolley out, oh dear, let me help YOU’. Then proceeds to continue to gawp at my hands, which I am very used to people looking at. By this time other people waiting for their trollies were starting to look at me which was not that pleasant. On she went, volume still set at self-awareness free mega-phone audio levels continuing to bullet blast the silence around the trolleys and onlookers with statements along the lines of ; ‘I find it hard enough and I don’t know how on earth YOU’RE coping with life.’ All well intended, but familiar territory as someone with a disability, used to these types of toe-curling, back arching moments that life has been chucking at me since the 1960’s. It reminded me of a memorable lunch time, when I was in one of my first jobs working for Granada TV Rentals. A lunch break out with a friend saw the cashier shouting; ‘MY GOD THEY’RE AWFUL’ as I handed my money over for sandwiches. Little did she know my ‘awful’ hands lumped, lifted and shoved heavy TV sets into the back of customer’s cars on a daily basis regardless of aesthetics.

I’m Debbie Boulter. I’m a single parent of one (lively and bright) son, hot-tub dipping, boot camp training individual – and yes also a person with a disability. I work for Cherry Trees children’s charity based in Clandon which supports children with disabilities, actively out in the community presenting to schools, WI groups, rotary clubs, Business meetings, about our fantastic respite stays, all with - yup – my ‘awful hands’.

When my mum was at 3 months gestation she caught German measles and as a result my hands did not form in the ‘normal’ manner, with some digits not forming at-all, settling into a (wonderful!) formation of self chosen angles and sizes of their own. 

Despite my mum’s adamant and credible push on me from a young age to do all the things little girls like to do; painting pictures, drawing, playing games – including cat’s cradle (yes the string will go across and around my own beautiful knobbles and bobbles), it’s been the world on the other side of our front door which has struggled to always realise – YES I (and many other disabled people) CAN.

In the early 1980’s I went to watch a disabled sports day in Reading, and saw people doing incredible things, watched and cheered on by an audience of ‘able-bodied’ people and that was a moment for me, and I knew I wanted to give my voice to speaking with great strength, clarity and truth about inclusion. 25 years later seeing the home 2012 Paralympic Games and the level of coverage, take-up and buzz about it showed me how largely people, attitudes and perceptions have come on. But what of those supermarket moments which might as well be a 1960-something reaction (horror) or 2019 (reacting with sympathy and aren’t you amazing?), both equally embarrassing because of the attention drawn and singling out?

My advice is this to those encountering some-one whose body/ behavior makes you want to look again; don’t assume someone “can’t”.

Taking a moment to hold back and observe can help you gauge whether a (quiet) offer of assistance is needed. A simple ‘do you need assistance there’ and not ramping up attention are a good starting point in everyday scenarios.  But could you do more? Does your child go to school with someone who’s disabled and have you possibly avoided asking them to a birthday party on the basis of not being sure how they will fit in? Do you run a business and ever think about asking a disabled employee for their very specific and insightful knowledge for future projects, designs, or events? The possibilities are endless once we start to think about how to adapt and include, and not look at, and speculate as to whether “they can” and then decide not to bother.

At Cherry Trees our young people’s disabilities and learning difficulties are VERY broad and often rare. That’s okay – bus outings to garden centers and animal sanctuaries, cake making sessions and Greek themed parties happen for all – regardless.

Final thought for my trolley friend at the supermarket? ‘I cope’ because I don’t have to!!!!

This is me, it’s the wider world which still has room to adapt and flex its muscles of inclusivity.


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