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The name scrawled on Natalie Wade’s take-away coffee cup by the cafe’s cashier wasn’t her own – and the young lawyer wants everyone to know why this troubles her, and why it matters.

Most Saturday mornings Natalie Wade heads out for a caffeine fix at her local coffee shop a couple of kilometers from Adelaide’s CBD.

It’s a time to relax, clear the hangover maybe or perhaps just chill. It’s a break whatever for the 23-year-old lawyer with the State Government where she deals daily with all manner of housing, arbitration and litigation matters.

She goes to the same coffee house every weekend as it has wi-fi and the weekend’s newspapers are spread out on the tables for everyone to grab. That’s important for Nat. Papers stacked in ascending shelves can put a block on her reading before it’s begun.

Her local isn’t the comfy, ultra familiar Central Perk we’ve seen in ‘Friends’ over the years but it’s a decent enough spot. Two weeks ago she called in as usual, chose her skinny cappuccino and gave her name to the cashier while the barista made up her order.

Nat stayed and enjoyed the drink until she chanced to look at her cup, a standard brown takeaway type with a detachable plastic lid. The side of the cup lists a dozen different choices of coffee and above this there’s a space for the name of each customer.

‘Nat’ or ‘Natalie’ would have identified her perfectly while a misspelling or even a complete mistaking of the order with another customer would have gone unremarked.

Only the name on her cup didn’t say Natalie or Natasha or Norman or Ned. It read simply ‘wheelchair’.

A skinny cappuccino for 'wheelchair'.

A skinny cappuccino for ‘wheelchair’.

Nat has been in a wheelchair all her life. She’s never walked, not even a step. Her mode of transport is an electric powered thing, low level, nifty and it does the trick. It gets her places -to the bus stop each day, to classes at Adelaide Uni when she was a student there, and early every morning it gets her to work.

“The cashier obviously didn’t hear or understand me and so instead of asking for clarification wrote this,” says Nat. “I didn’t realise until I left – I had sat there reading the entire Saturday morning paper drinking a cup naming me as an object.”

Twenty-three-year-old Nat was born with an undiagnosed medical condition, a congenital muscular myopathy.

In her 23 years, she has never made a single official complaint about education, services or living arrangements. She’s fought for funding, to be able to live alone and for the help she needs to get ready every day. She has a great best friend, Jess, who is always there for her, many other mates too and a dedicated and supportive family.

“I’m not sure that the name on my coffee cup could be any more misleading,” Nat smiles.

“The wheelchair component occupies really none of my life – arguably there could be an exception of approximately three hours of my day where the reason behind the wheelchair causes me to have assistance but beyond that…..”

For those three hours, Nat needs full support to achieve the most fundamental of tasks, like getting dressed and going to the toilet. But by positioning these supports around her work and social commitments, she manages a full and independent life virtually uninhibited by her physical disability.

She reckons there are two or three incidences each day when the wheelchair is the vehicle for her to be treated differently to the average person on the street. Small slights often, many unintentional, people speaking to her carefully and loudly, always loudly, the nutter on the bus targeting her with sympathy and words of advice.

She told her friends and work colleagues about the Saturday coffee, stuck it on social media to an overwhelming response of “it’s mean and rude with comparisons to calling Aboriginal people black or writing gay on someone’s coffee cup.”

So she wrote to the coffee people – it’s an international company, you’ll know it – and got a phone call from a customer services operative. A pleasant call. They’d look into it, he said, and conduct an internal investigation. Oh, and have a free coffee on us.

“I do not want anyone suspended or sacked,” says Nat. “If that happens I’ll defend them myself.”

She doesn’t want to name the cafe – it could become the object of a campaign, which Nat believes would miss the point.

What she’d really like is to make the smallest dint in a general outlook towards people with disabilities of all kinds. A wholesale re-evaluation of corporate attitudes might be more appropriate given the initial company response. She knows the scrawling was thoughtless and nothing more but it’s a worry that this big, international company sees little wrong that a gratis cappuccino or two won’t fix.

This is what Nat first said when she got in touch with me about the story.

“The most peculiar thing happened to me yesterday so I thought I would drop you a line. I could explain this peculiar moment to you in play by play detail but a picture speaks a thousand words…. Yes, you are seeing that right. It’s a coffee cup that says my name is ‘wheelchair’.”

Perception clearly can be everything but if you’ve read this all the way through, it might lead to a move, however small, in the right direction.

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