Peter Stanford heads for the Eternal City with an inspiring group of people
THERE is an advertisement on Italian television at the moment which shows a disabled man witnessing a road accident. He hurries to a 'phone box to call the emergency services only to find that he cannot reach the receiver. Although not so smug or foolish as to sit back and smile in my Rome hotel room, taking a too rosy view of Britain's faltering efforts towards making life more manageable for those in wheelchairs, five days in the Italian capital with a group of ten wheelchair bound Catholics, their respective partners and staff from the charity Aspire who organised the trip were more than enough to demonstrate that the home of Catholicism still has a long way to go before it can claim to be a place accessible to the disabled, let alone welcoming.
However to dwell too long on the rigours of cobble stones, the erratic behaviour of Romans when faced with a wheelchair, or the lack of what our Italian guide euphemistically called "facilities" would be to present a very distorted and negative picture of a quite remarkable and profoundly spiritual experience.
Highlight of the sojourn was, of course, a meeting with Pope John Paul II. Thanks to the good offices of the Catholic Herald's devoted correspondent in Rome and the generosity of donors, including many Catholic Herald readers and subscribers, the Aspire group spent last Wednesday morning in the shade (and for a chilly early morning hour, quite literally at that) of Bernini's facade at St Peter's. As the warm autumn sun finally rose above the apostles that top the strangely rectangular aspect of the most famous church in Christendom, John Paul emerged with a thesbian's timing and poise into the packed square. A simple service (or
"liturgical event" as the posters which festooned Rome described it) for peace in the Lebanon was followed by those personal and pastoral gestures for which John Paul is rightly noted. Brushing shiny suited bodyguards aside, he came down from his podium and mingled first, as protocol demanded, with the diplomats, then the cardinals and bishops, and finally with those in the "privileged positions" including the group from Aspire.
One purpose of the trip was achieved at that moment to present John Paul with a plan of a London garden that is to be named after him. It will stand alongside the Mike Heaffey Centre, a £1.9 million sports and rehabilitation complex built by Aspire at the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital at Stanmore in Middlesex. Designed by architect Andrew Walker, himself in a wheelchair since falling and damaging his spine, and one of the party in Rome, the centre will served the London Spinal Unit at the hospital as well as other patients and local residents. The garden also designed by Andrew, will complement the centre, linking it via green and pleasant walkways to the unit, and will add to the unique facilities offered on the site to nurture spinal injury sufferers back into the swing of everyday life.
And that goal of reintegration into society that is part of Aspire's motto was very much a feature of the Rome trip. A second presentation, made to John Paul in St Peter's Square, symbolised much of the inspiration provided by Aspire and the courage and spirit of those associated with it. Celeste Dandeker injured her spinal cord while performing with the London Contemporary Dance Company. Now, although in a wheelchair and finding it difficult to move her arms, she creates the most wonderful figurines out of dough. Once they have been baked she decorates them. John Paul received two of her works a pair of Polish dancers.
Italy and indeed the rest of European society may still have a long way to go in introducing the right facilities to enable people in wheelchairs to live independent lives, but the trip to Rome certainly proved, to me at least, that a few minor technical hitches (such as the Cresta runlike slope up to the Ambassador's house) are as of nothing compared to the boundless optimism and determination of the people from Aspire.
Perhaps the most memorable perspective on the whole excursion was the presence of two Polish boys, Maciej and Gregorz, who came from a rural village in the south of that country. Maciej, who was in a wheelchair after an injury to his spine and neck, and his brother spoke not a single word of English (though all their thoughts were shared with the rest of the group through the skills of Antonia Lloyd-Jones, an interpreter who joined the party).
Odd remarks they made put into grim perspective the struggle they face in Poland daily their family, for example, had queued for 15 hours to get the petrol to drive them to the airport to catch the plane to Rome.
On my return from Rome everybody I spoke to assumed that given my work I had been there for the Archbishop of Canterbury's visit. Memorable or not as that might have been, depending on your viewpoint, I felt as if I had been part of something less grand, less historical, but nonetheless undoubtedly memorable for all involved.
Aspire can be contacted at the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital, Brockley Hill, Stanmore, Middx HA7 4LP.