I love shopping – for anything, that is, apart from shoes! Shoe shopping I find a complete trauma. Not because I can’t find any I like! Oh, believe me, I can find plenty. No, it’s because of the way my feet now work – or actually don’t work, if truth be told. This means getting my feet into shoes or boots is nigh on impossible. So, when I do find a pair that I can get on, I wear them until they fall to pieces!
However, shoes aside, I love to shop. Whenever I’ve been abroad, I’ve always loved a trip around a local supermarket, thrilled by the discovery of some hitherto unheard of vegetable, fruit or local delicacy. Not for me the lure of a gaudy memento with ‘a present from… wherever’ printed on it. No, I am far more interested in cans of food that I can’t get at home. Except I probably can these days, now the world is a much smaller place thanks to the wonders of the World Wide Web, but more of that later.
So I was greatly saddened to hear recently that, as a result of these desperate Covid-ridden times we’re living in, John Lewis is one of the companies being forced to close some of its stores, my local one included.
John Lewis is my happy place. I could spend all day in there, and if, by some moment of sheer serendipity, they overlooked my presence at closing time and locked me in for the night, I would be quite content, whiling away the twilight hours, fondling all the beautiful things and raiding the cafe for egg mayonnaise sandwiches and scones.
I’ve always been a huge fan of department stores, loving that there are a variety of goods all under one roof and particularly those that have a Food Hall. Department stores are invariably airy, with good lighting, wide aisles, lifts and disabled toilets, in other words, perfect for someone in my situation. Throw in everything from designer handbags to potato peelers, is it any wonder I feel happy there? Modern supermarkets are the same, minus some of the more exclusive products, as are shopping centres such as The Bull Ring in Birmingham and The Trafford Centre in Manchester.
The High Street, however, can be a different matter for people with disabilities, especially those in quaint old towns that look beautiful, but are a nightmare to negotiate with steps at entrances and – my own particular pet hate – cobbles! Yes, I give you, cobbles look great, as do flights of worn old steps, but only to those not being pushed, or pushing, a wheelchair, having to use a walking stick or other walking aid, or those with a visual impairment.
One of my favourite films is Brief Encounter. I love the whole look and feel of it. Men raising their hats in greeting, women wearing natty little suits with nipped-in waists who pop into the refreshment-room at the train station for a cuppa and a rock bun before catching the 5.25 back to suburbia, after a fabulous day shopping and going to the pictures with someone else’s husband! I long to be able to walk along the High Street in Milford, as the main character does, calling into Boots to buy a toothbrush and change my library books because, apparently, back in 1945, the nation’s favourite chemist doubled up as a library! How splendid is that?
I say I’d like to walk because that’s exactly what I’d have needed to do, as the term ‘access for all’ would not have been found anywhere in the lexicon of the day. Yet, while access for people with disabilities is a lot better than it would have been back in the 1940s, I’m sad, and more than a little cross to report that it’s a problem that still exists today. Bear with me, won’t you, while I wheel up onto my soapbox and question, yet again, why the opinion and advice of a panel of people with a variety of disabilities aren’t sought by whoever is responsible for the layout of shops.
Yes, yes, I accept that there will always be some chocolate box village where the local planning officer would hyperventilate at the idea of ramps being fitted (until either he/she or someone close to them becomes less mobile and able). But seriously, the number of times my husband has lost sight of me in a shop because the aisles are too narrow and the rails of clothes are placed too close together, prompted him to suggest I have a flagpole fitted to the back of my wheelchair with a large flag affixed to it so he can actually find me!
In one particular well-known chain of sportswear, anyone in a wheelchair or pushing a pushchair might as well pass straight on by because to try and negotiate the aisles is nigh on impossible. I understand that the world of retail is cut-throat and, in order to survive, a shop needs to have as great a choice of goods on display as is possible, but aren’t we supposed to have moved on in our consideration towards those of us who aren’t bipeds? Hmm, apparently not!
Dropped kerbs that are not absolutely flush can present a nightmare for anyone being pushed in a wheelchair, as the front wheels, which are not flexible, hit that admittedly quite low kerb and stop dead. At this point, Newton’s First Law of Motion is demonstrated beautifully as the occupant of said chair continues to hurtle forwards at an alarming, and unprotected speed, towards the ground.
I’ve often wondered what a group of late-night revellers really thought of my friend who, and I have to be fair to her here and make it clear that, being only 5’2”, found it difficult to see over the top of me and therefore was oblivious to the fact that dropped kerbs will do this, pitched me neatly out of my chair and onto my hands and knees on the pavement.
That we both laughed loudly probably indicated to them that we were as drunk as they were and I was beyond feeling any pain, for they did not rush to our aid, but stood watching while she hauled me unceremoniously back into my chariot, all the while berating me for dropping her Vivienne Westwood handbag, which was a fair point, I suppose.
And it’s not only disabled people who suffer discomfort or, at worst, injury. Kerbstones that are not absolutely as flat as a pancake, heavy doors, paving stones that have become dislodged and are raised and the aforementioned cobbles can cause painful incidents for those pushing, as shoulders and wrists get jarred and strained.
My long-suffering husband now always puts his weight down onto the handle as he pushes me to lessen the risk to me, but increasing the risk to himself. If that’s not true love, I just don’t know what is!
A very dear friend, upon discovering my foray into the world of blogging, messaged me this, “My understanding and knowledge of living with a disability comes first hand from you. I’m now very conscious of good and bad disabled facilities and the obstacles you face every day – I’ve lived some of them with you.”
Now, wouldn’t it be a good idea if the opinions of my husband and my friend were sought by retailers before they engaged the shopfitters? Would it be so difficult? It shouldn’t be, and yet it seems to be the case.
I know that there are people who are ‘access advisers’. There should be more, of all abilities, and consulting them before a project is commenced should be mandatory.
I would urge everyone to listen to a very interesting and enlightening programme, which was on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday, 16 July, entitled, ‘What if Everyone Was Disabled?’.
It was all about imagining how different the world would be if everyone had a disability. The programme focused on design, technology and attitudes. Basically, a lot of it boils down to money and not being the law, just like most things. I think if only everyone had to spend a week in a wheelchair, or blindfolded, or with ear defenders that completely drowned out every iota of sound, the world would be a very different place. As it would if all able-bodied people had to accompany a disabled person on a shopping trip and wait, as the lift doors opened time and time again, on a lift full of able bods who can’t even be bothered to use the escalators, let alone the stairs, and not want to start biting people. When did something I love to do, something that should be simple, become so stressful?
Which brings me to my own personal favourite – online shopping! Thousands of shops, the world over, make up my personal massive, virtual High Street, except everywhere is accessible! It’s very rare to come across somewhere that doesn’t have a website and, with a few quick clicks, I can order anything and everything I could possibly need, and even get some kind soul to deliver it to my door in a trice! It’s bliss!
Even during the darkest days of lockdown, John Lewis and Marks & Spencer still delivered all manner of goodies, when other stores did actually close. I know a lot of people feel ambivalent about the place the ubiquitous Amazon has in our world but, for someone in my position, it is a boon.
I feel for all the High Street stores that are being forced to close because of the effects internet shopping is having, but do they care about their disabled patrons? No, they don’t, and this is why shopping online for me is a joy. I can take my time, I’m warm and dry, and I can shop whenever I want, because a virtual shop doesn’t close, what’s not to like?
Recently, I have shopped online for quite an eclectic selection, from patio furniture to teapots, and not once did I have to consider whether I’d be able to park close by, actually get into the building, or get soaked. My friend Google found me everything I needed and always in under ten seconds.
If everyone was disabled, shops would still close down, but those that didn’t would be in a High Street that could still look really attractive… and accessible! The two are not mutually exclusive! There wouldn’t be any store I couldn’t get into, no shelves I couldn’t reach, no aisle I couldn’t whizz along and no handbags that bashed me in the eye because there’d be so much room.
Just like shopping online!
Lesley Greenwood enjoyed a modicum of success in a previous incarnation when her children were smaller, as a writer of pre-school children’s stories under her maiden name of Lesley Rees. These days, she lives in the countryside with her fabulous and long-suffering husband and has developed a passion for oak trees.
While officially classed as ‘severely disabled’ by certain short-sighted and ill-informed medics, she prefers to view herself as amazingly and extremely ‘differently-abled’ as she hurtles across the field in her super-sparkly, turbo-charged power chair.
Watch out for her next blog – it’s bound to be an interesting read!