The danger of false hope

It was great to see pictures of Christopher Reeve in the Millennium Dome at the weekend. I went myself at the start of the month. The kids loved it, access was brilliant; it was well thought-out.

But suppose that Reeve had wanted to go to watch Arsenal and take his family with him - and suppose he didn't let slip that he was Superman when he tried to arrange it.

The fact is that he'd be told on the phone to apply in writing two months in advance, and, if he was lucky, would get one of the 36 allocated tickets. However he wouldn't be able to take his whole family, because only one carer per wheelchair-user is permitted.

Of course, these sort of rules don't apply to those few wheelchair-users with high profiles. And that's the problem: people like Reeve don't see all the problems.

He could use his profile to do something genuinely useful. He could go to a theatre and be slung out because of fire regulations. He could go to Waterloo station and discover how many taxi drivers suddenly become visually impaired because setting up the ramps for a wheelchair-user is too much effort. He could work out how much benefit he would get if he were living in England - the vast majority of spinal cord injured people are unemployed. Now that might be interesting.

But instead, from my point of view, Reeve has swapped film stardom for a new role as victim and super-cripple. Nothing he has done has helped disabled people who want a better quality of life now - and not in five years' time.

Of course Reeve is a fellow human being who has suffered a terrible injury, and one way that some people come to grips with something like this is to focus on hopes for a cure, however unrealistic.

But the high profile that Reeve enjoys means that his words take on power. He doesn't mean to do it, but his promises of a cure imply that it is we wheelchair-users, and not society, that have to change.

Secondly, pinning your hopes on a cure is no way to live your life. I'm sure lots of people live, like Reeve, in hope of a cure. To someone three months after an injury - which is a catastrophic and life-changing thing - I'm not saying, forget about a cure. I am saying that if you lie in bed and wait for a cure, you are not going to have a good quality of life. If you can get on with your life and the cure comes, great. But if it doesn't come, it's not life-ending.

When I woke up after my accident in 1978, I thought, "This is awful." I got hooked on valium, watched Neighbours and felt sorry for myself. I spent more than a year in hospital and decided that I had three options: to blow my brains out; to spend the rest of my life feeling sorry for myself and destroy the people around me in the process; or to do something about it.

So I did something about it. I was an unskilled manual worker, but I chose to do an Open University degree and started working at my local Citizen's Advice Bureau, which is where I became interested in social policy and poverty.

It's easy to dwell on how awful it all is, but the fact is that you have to get your head round it and get on with life.

Personally, I'm not interested in the Reeve foundation or the research that's going on. It's irrelevant to me, and it draws the focus away from the real issues of quality of life: employment, transport, housing. It may be the hot and sexy thing to give money to a brave individual to find the cure to make him walk again. But it doesn't help the vast majority of those with spinal cord injuries.

Finally, it's naughty and it's dangerous of Reeve to speak of us finding a cure in five years. It does no good to anyone to put a deadline on these things: it raises false hopes. Imagine that you've just suffered a spinal injury. You might actually believe it.

• Peter Mansell is to take over as chief executive of RADAR (the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation) next month.

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