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  • Writer's pictureCatherine Mayer

Guest Post: Athena Stevens on Julian Sands

Athena Stevens is an Olivier nominated actor and writer, as well as a director. When she absolutely has no other choice, she is an activist.

I worked with Julian Sands at a retreat in June 2011. Networking as an artist with a disability is hard. You don't get to just 'pop around' spontaneously for a party. There's often some overactive eco-enthusiast who insists you don't need to use a plastic straw. Or sometimes you find yourself sitting on a sofa all night with people promising to ‘come back and chat to you’ but forgetting, because you can’t simply walk over to them.

The set up of this retreat meant that guests stayed in a house away from the building where we worked. Ables could, I'm told, cut across a field.I had to go up, down, and all around a narrow country road that was hedged on either side by a gritstone wall.

I was young, agreeable, barely had a career, and wanted to be liked. It’s a dangerous combination. I honestly saw no problem with access in getting to and from the workshop. It never dawned on me how unsafe it was to be driving a wheelchair on a road with no shoulder, until Julian's car passed me one day driving away from our workspace.

When his teal convertible edged by and I plastered myself upon the gritstone wall, I felt unsafe and vulnerable.

But Julian waited for me to get to the side, tipped his hat, and moved on. About five minutes passed and Julian came back down the road in the opposite direction.

'Sorry, turns out I'm supposed to drive people!'

He had received a call on his mobile to take three others with him.

So we did our little wheelchair car dance again.

And a third time when he passed again with the trio in his vehicle.

Now I need to point out to The Ables out there, an electric wheelchair is... huge. You can't just fold it down and toss it into the back of a car if someone wants to pick you up on the side of the road. It's a weird trade off you do when you are largely ambulatory but still opt for an electric chair. You have more mobility but less flexibility. I explained this to Julian when he offered to 'add one more' to his carpool.

Five minutes later, again, he came back down the road with the trio still in tow. 'She needs to wee! Sorry!' Julian shouted from the drivers seat, half joking but also, in a way that only I can see, he rolled his eyes at the absurdity of it all.

And so we did our little car / wheelchair dance a fourth time. I still had the required smile plastered on my face, the prerequisite one, that The Ables need to see so I am not locked up in some antisocial dungeon with a sign that says "Beware: Difficult to Handle" above my cage.

But I was irked and I could tell Julian was irked by the flagrant mobility of it all. The was an assumption that Julian’s time could be used to drive back and forth, but not get to where he wanted to go.

There was an apologetic grimace on his face when he drove by, again steering me off the side of the road. And we both knew in about five minutes, he would drive me off the side of the road once more.

It's when our vehicles meet for a fifth time on the gritstone road that he slows down, looks over his glasses and says to me in his slow, sultry voice:

"You are just too hot to Trotsky..."

I was never quite sure if he actually meant 'too hot to trot' or if I was more attractive than a Soviet leader (hopefully both!) but for the rest of the week he fed me chocolate cake, helped me walk into dinner ('take my arm and pretend like we're in a Jane Austin movie' I said when he asked 'the best way to help'), and generally kept an eye on me to make sure I was safe, happy, and seen.

I was never driven by him, but after that day, I never drove my chair on the that roadside again. Today, reading about his dangerous treks in the Andes, I wonder if he spoke up, insisting I was not to be left in that situation.

The best hikers I know are very aware how 'mistakes' compound into tragedy.

As someone with cerebral palsy, I know that too.

I never saw Julian again. And I really have not thought of his name (or even really knew who he was) until today. There have been many times over the years when I've been about to explode from the frustration and absurdity of ableism. But then in my mind’s eye I see an actor in a teal convertible slowly roll past me while peering over his sunglasses to say "You are just too hot to Trotsky..."

Thanks Julian. If the significance of our lives are measured not by bank accounts or credits, but in how we touch those around us, you left me with a support I have rested upon often; a reminder that I have dignity, even when others refuse to see it.

Rest now, friend.

You’ll always be too hot to Trotsky in my book xxx

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