I’ve always enjoyed travelling and, as a wheelchair user, have not found it that much of a problem. Well, apart from the time they forgot to come and get me off the train at Euston!
The carriage had emptied rapidly and, as I sat and waited for the staff to arrive with the ramp to get me off, I regretted turning down the offer from a sweet young man to back my wheelchair down the step and onto the platform. “They’re coming with a ramp,” I assured him, “I’ve booked assistance.”
Except they didn’t, and my unease turned to panic as a disembodied voice suddenly announced over the tannoy that this train would soon depart for Edinburgh!
Passengers had yet to arrive and, with no signal on my phone and no way of reaching the emergency cord, I had visions of myself hurtling North when I was supposed to be enjoying a lovely day shopping in London with my daughter.
In the end, it was my daughter who saved me. Ignoring the staff who hadn’t believed her when she’d told them her mother was stuck on the train that had just arrived from Birmingham, (they’d told her she was not allowed onto the platform under any circumstance), she pushed her way through and ran along the platform until she found me. It’s a wonder she wasn’t arrested! I knew having children would prove useful one day!
That, however, was just a small glitch, a hiccup in communication, because I’ve found that, as long as I contact the train company beforehand, my journey passes smoothly, with staff expecting my arrival and very willing to help me. A bit like when the Queen travels, but with less pomp!
I love airports. I love the buzz of excitement and anticipation as people wait to catch a plane, especially if their journey is for pleasure. I love browsing the bookshop, buying magazines for the journey and searching for that perfect holiday read. I love trawling through Duty Free, tempted into making unnecessary purchases because, as soon as I pass through the entrance, I am in Holiday Mode!
The waiting areas are spacious, they have lifts, smooth flooring and people who want to help me and, as I require a fair amount of assistance, I’m happy for them to do just that because I never worry at airports. I just figure that, as soon as I’ve checked in, I become the responsibility of the airline and it’s then their job to ensure that I get onto the right plane at the right time. I never have to wait in queues because, apparently, disabled people can’t wait in queues! Seriously, what is that all about? Waiting in line, sitting in my own chair, involves no effort on my part whatsoever and yet I’m whisked through check-in, security and passport control, as though I’m royalty.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining about this! I don’t mind getting on the plane first, and I understand why I’m taken off last, but then I am raced past my fellow passengers, bleary-eyed after a long and arduous flight – because who sleeps on planes, right – as I obviously look as though I might become ferocious if asked to wait my turn.
I’m not saying, though, that plane travel for the differently-abled passenger is not without its problems.
My newly-serviced chair was once given back to me with a very buckled wheel because some clueless soul had turned it on its side in the plane’s hold and piled luggage on top of it.
I once had to sit bolt upright all the way from Mumbai to Frankfurt because the Lufthansa staff, somewhat inept in their attempts to lift me into my seat, actually broke the reclining mechanism, resulting in not the most comfortable of journeys. Actually, they’d not cloaked themselves in glory on the outward journey when, arriving from Birmingham at Frankfurt, I discovered they’d given my very sparkly, Chanel-esque, heavily-labelled and, obviously not an airport passenger transport wheelchair called Princess Lily, to some elderly lady, who then seemed most disgruntled at having to relinquish it to me! So much for their labelling system!
I was mollified though by their toilets. Frankfurt airport does have fabulous disabled toilets!
I’m more than slightly obsessed with toilets and do have a tendency to judge a place by the standard of their facilities. The aforementioned Frankfurt Airport had plenty of grab handles in just the right place, a hoist, a sink I could get my knees under and… drum roll please… a mirror that tilted forwards so I could actually see myself.
Yes, I can hear you asking why that should be so astounding, but you’d be surprised how many places seem to think that disabled people neither need, nor want to, ever look at themselves! Why is this?
I never go anywhere without my lipstick on, and my wayward hair is a constant cause for concern. Therefore I need a mirror. The best thing about the mirror in Frankfurt was the tilt, meaning it was accessible by all. Standing, or sitting, every person who needed to see themselves could do so. A thoughtful person had thought it through.
I truly believe that the opinion of any disabled person, whatever their disability, isn’t ever sought prior to a building being built, or refurbished.
My Goddaughter got married in a lovely old hotel in Warwickshire. When I went to look at it with her, it was somewhat faded, but we were reassured that it was about to undergo a 16 million pound refurbishment and, by the time of her wedding, it would be restored to its’ former glory.
The disabled toilet was in the Ladies’ Powder Room and, whilst a bit shabby, was large enough to accommodate me in my wheelchair.
After their multi-million pound overhaul, my Goddaughter invited me to return with her to see the results and my question is this – would it have been so difficult to consult with a group of people of varying abilities beforehand, so I was not confronted with not actually being able to access the ladies’ toilets independently?
The doors leading in were too heavy and angled in such a way as to prevent me from entering and exiting without having to ask someone to hold them open for me. The newly-built disabled toilet was now half the size. I had to use the toilet with the door open because it wouldn’t close! I could be in there, or my wheelchair could be in there, but not both at the same time.
At the time, my wheelchair was below-average width. Now I’m in my power chair phase, I would never manage. I did discover that if I got someone, anyone, to pull out the over-sized swing bin and I backed in, I could actually shut the door, but my knees were jammed painfully against the toilet itself, I couldn’t pull down the handle to help me as there was not enough room and it was very heavy. The toilet was too low and, whilst beautifully decorated, there was no soap, hand lotion, or anything to dry my hands on and no mirror!
Some tidy-minded person had, though, neatly rolled up the emergency pull-cord and placed it on top of the reset button, way out of my, or any other wheelchair users reach. Did I complain? You bet I did! I penned a stiffly-worded letter, which was completely ignored. However, when my Goddaughter wrote, they promptly enlarged the disabled cubicle. I like to think it’s because she mentioned certain laws pertaining to the rights of people with disabilities, but I suspect it was more to do with £30K her father was spending on her wedding.
I use this recollection dear reader, not to moan, but to try and illustrate the fact that, whilst travel for this disabled person has been relatively stress-free, arrival has not always been so, and it can still be very difficult finding hotels with suitable facilities for anyone with a disability in the UK.
I find this incomprehensible. Obviously, my experience of disability is, as a wheelchair-user and, with around 1.2 million wheelchair users in the UK, many married and with children, this offers hotels a market of over 3 million potential customers and yet there are still so many hotels that proudly offer accommodation for dogs and yet, when it comes to facilities for disabled guests, fall far short of the mark and, sadly, don’t appear to be bothered.
Opportunities for online booking are inadequate, or non-existent, necessitating the need to phone and speak directly to someone who knows what’s on offer because they’re actually there.
I have been told that I can’t stay in some beautiful old hotel because “we’re very old so we can’t have any handicapped rooms.” That’s a favourite old chestnut of a lot of hotels. Just because they’re old and have steps and uneven floors, it somehow gives them special status and exempts them from trying to be accommodating.
Well, my own home dates from 1650 and I access all areas. I have a lift, I have ramps, and none of these adaptations has detracted from its’ character. For goodness sake, I have even been in a lift in Windsor Castle! If it’s good enough for Her Maj, in her thousand-year-old home, it should be good enough and mandatory in these supposed days of social inclusion, for disabled people to enjoy the same opportunities for travel and hotel choice as our able-bodied counterparts and yet I have stayed in 4-star hotels with bathroom doors to narrow to allow a wheelchair through and one exquisite 5-star hotel in Scotland who, although they had a sumptuous ground-floor room with a wet room, thought it appropriate that I sit on a step ladder whilst showering because they’d never invested in a shower chair!
Conversely, I have stayed in beautiful hotels with wonderful rooms that can be used easily by both able and disabled patrons, and I applaud those. The ones who have a discreet ramp at the side of a flight of steps, so I do not have to ‘go round the back.’ Excellent! Those who hide behind their Listed status, or tell me that I can’t use the disabled toilet because the only one they have is in the leisure suite and the manager went home an hour ago? See me after school for a sharp slap with a carpet slipper!
What we need is for the opinion of people with disabilities to be sought out more often, for architects and engineers to spend time on-site with a disabled person, using a wheelchair themselves, or shadowing someone with a visual impairment so their designs and refurbishments become more empathetic in the future. For too long we disabled people have had to put up with what we’re given, almost as though we should be grateful for any small accommodation of our situation.
Well, I’m a big greedy girl, and I want a big fat accommodation, just the same as everyone else!
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!