Monday, 16 July 2012

Learning from the wheelchair weekend

I have always tried to understand how hard it can be as a disabled person to deal with getting around day-to-day. The world doesn't make it easy; help is there but has to be specifically requested and the onus is on the traveller to calculate all the timings precisely. I've been aware of this for some time; I worked with disabled students at UCL and sat on the 'Committee for People with Disabilities'*. I saw how hard it was for people, and like to think occasionally I helped to make it easier, but the fact is that the world was designed by people who don't have to think about this stuff, and changing it will take a really long time.

As I've said, a lot of people in customer service work really hard to make life easier. The staff at Travelodge were excellent, and although the system didn't seem to live up to much, once I'd managed to get support at Marylebone the staff were really helpful once they'd realised I was there!

Being dependent on taxis is really hard work; and a lot of cab drivers were really reluctant to lower the ramp or carry the wheelchair at all. The first time I tried to get into a cab on crutches, I fell over on the pavement twice and then had to crawl in - I refused to try again after that!

When you get into a black cab in London, there is a helpful diagram showing you how to position a wheelchair. It is to be wheeled up the ramp, then rotated 90 degrees so that it is facing backwards. The problem is, the wheelchair I was in (which is by no means oversized) didn't have the space to rotate. I found that a little worrying. Obviously I'm fine, but if the guidelines exist, surely they do for a reason? Did no one stop to wonder if there would be wheelchairs that couldn't be manipulated into that position? Why did none of the drivers of the four cabs I took in the wrong position reassure me that they believed it was safe? Why did I have to fight to get the ramp lowered? I don't want to be difficult; I avoid confrontation when I can, but after the disastrous attempts to get into a cab independently at Marylebone I really wasn't going to try again! When you only have one load-bearing leg and are still learning to use crutches, cab floors are too high and ceilings too low to allow it.

When you travel in a wheelchair or need assistance at a train station, you have to phone and pre-book assistance at both ends of the journey. Once you're on the train, the staff at your station of origin should confirm with your destination that you're on the train. The problem I found was that although two members of staff helped me onto the train, and another one assisted me at the barrier, at High Wycombe, no one phoned ahead to Marylebone. If they did, the message didn't reach the people it needed to. I was left on the train until someone came aboard to clean and found me, but they did then help me and it was ok.

The other thing I noticed was that the attitude you face as someone in a wheelchair is unpredictable. A few people got onto the train with large bags, and obviously had hoped to be able to use the wheelchair space to store them. I was a bit embarrassed at their exasperation. Someone also tried to sit in one of the fold down seats but stopped because it would have meant folding it almost onto my lap, so tutted and moved away. I was a bit embarrassed. Of course, other people were very kind. Someone stopped on the way out of the train to ask if I would be ok to get off. I think she was partly responsible for finding a member of staff at Marylebone, actually.

The other thing I found was that people are somewhat prone to help without being asked! I once saw this happen to someone else; I was on the escalator at Angel tube (the longest on the Underground, fact fans), and a man in front of me was supporting himself in a wheelchair. It took a lot of concentration, and he was clearly very focused and knew what he was doing. I didn't want to startle him by offering assistance and would never intervene without permission. I was shocked when a woman marched up the escalator, pushed me out of the way, and said, "Why will no one offer any help?" She just seized his wheelchair without asking permission.

I had the same experience trying to get from the Travelodge to Featherstone Street. People took hold of the wheelchair to move me up onto curbs, or out of their way. Someone even pushed me into the breakfast table mid-mouthful whilst I was still eating breakfast at the hotel! There is a very fine balance between assistance and interference. I was quite scared by people grabbing hold of the wheelchair to move me without asking. You become very conscious of just how vulnerable you really are.

The whole experience taught me a lot about how much we expect from disabled people. I don't know that I see that changing any time soon, either. But we can all educate ourselves about what it's really like.

Have a read of some of these blogs:
Through Myself and Back Again: Lil Watcher Girl, blogging about feminism, disablism and everything
Benefit Scrounging Scum: Bendy Girl, blogging about benefits and the reality of living on them

They both link to a number of other brilliant bloggers and activists.

*Yes, it is a stupid name. And apt; for a very long time there were no spaces reserved for disabled staff or students. 

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