‘I wanted to show people that disability is partly in the mind’
When he was 10 years old, Harry Wade completed a sponsored walk up and down the hills of Hampstead Heath. In his gap year before Exeter University he drove an articulated lorry for Camden libraries.
When he was an undergraduate he rode to Amsterdam on a tandem. In his twenties, he had a whale of a time in Australia.
None of this particularly unusual – unless, like Harry, you have only one leg and fingers missing on one hand .
He was, as he has to tell people, born like that. He was not a Thalidomide baby, simply a baby with a birth defect. As a child he had to undergo numerous operations, and later had to learn how to deal with an artificial leg.
He had one enormous piece of luck: his parents, Diana and Christopher Wade, gave him infinite love and support. His mother was apt to say wryly that he’d had so much devotion that he’d grown up to be impossible.
He is certainly courageous and up-front about his disability. And he wants to spread a message: he didn’t have to go to a special school, he says, and he thinks other people in his condition should not either. “If you’re told you can’t do things,” he says, “you can’t do them. It’s about positive thinking.”
He has written a book that records his breathtaking achievements, and is very, very funny, particularly when he writes about his love life: Do you take your artificial leg off before or after you get into bed with a girl?
Harry lives in Leicester now, but is Hampstead born and bred. He lived with his family in Willoughby Road, he went to New End Primary School and then to William Ellis School. He worked for a while in Heath Branch Library in Keats Grove – and he enjoyed it all.
He was never bullied or mocked at primary school because of his artificial leg, and discovered it was rather an asset: “I bet it will hurt more if I kick you than if you kick me,” he would say.
Harry seems to have been totally relaxed and without inhibitions. But it wasn’t roses all the way. His stump was sometimes rubbed sore, and he was often in pain.
There were moments – when he was in hospital for weeks after an operation – when he contemplated disability more seriously than before. And there are times, as you read, when you don’t know whether to laugh or cry: after he had undergone a “trimming” operation and was ready to have a new leg fitted, the leg-makers went on strike – for three weeks. That was when, as he hopped on and off Tube trains with his crutches, he learned how many people will give up their seat. The answer is not many.
Aside from the leg (and the missing fingers, something that could not be hidden from view), he seems otherwise to have led the life of any healthy, happy, intelligent young man. There were lots of girlfriends, lots of laughs and a great deal of travel.
Most remarkable is the amount of sport he has played. Football was a passion when he was small, but rugby at William Ellis was a problem: “When pulled in a tackle, my leg was apt to slip off,” he says blithely.
Harry’s extraordinary book, frank and funny and moving, stops when he is 25. He is now 50, married with three children and he works for the National Youth Agency. If this fearless man has had any fear in his life, it has been that his children might have inherited what he calls his “missing fingers and toes”. He admits that there will be a faint holding of breath when they have children. He would not want them to suffer any disadvantages – even though the disadvantages in his own life have been so few.
Why did he write the book? “I wanted to show that disability is partly in the mind,” he explains. “I wanted to point out the importance of positive thinking. I wrote it to say: ‘This is what I want to tell you’.”
• Out On A Limb:Growing Up On One Leg. By Harry Wade. One-Legged Publications £8.95.
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