Monday, 16 August 2010

Life in a wheelchair

I recently discovered a whole new world; a world where more often than not you do not exist and you do not matter. Thanks to my own clumsiness I found myself wheelchair bound for about three weeks, with a torn ligament and an oversized, purple and green ankle (sounds lovely, I know). It is almost as if this ordeal allowed for a bit of undercover investigation of what life is like for those in wheelchairs. So, ofcourse I decided the best thing I could do would be to share my experiences with you lot.

(Gross, right?)

For anyone who has ever attempted travelling London in a wheelchair, it comes as no suprise that ramps are not a common feature. I was lucky enough to have been able to grab hold of my crutches to hop up and down stairs where necessary whilst someone else was left with the task of carrying the wheelchair (usually Kaity). I must stress how massive this wheelchair is! I could quite easily fit two of me sat side by side in it! But what about those people who are permanately tied to their chairs? In all honesty I have no idea how the people who can't just stand up, get around London at all.

I began what became more than just a journey from Zone 5 of London to Swindon, but an unecessarily difficult mission to the beyond.  

As it goes, busses do not really have much space for wheelchairs and their access ramps don't always open. 

It also seems as though not many Underground stations have lifts, meaning we had to try to take a route that would accomodate us. Handed a giant map of the London Underground, which was designed to help blind people out too I imagine, the journey began. 

I do have to give it to King's Cross for having lifts, placing it ahead of many a station, but it was like working our way through an underground labyrinth, moving from lift to lift trying to change lines spread across different levels and at different ends of the building. Having made it all the way to Paddington, we were naive enough to think we'd be in the clear... Oh how wrong we were!

Paddington station, one of London's prime mainline stations, failed to provide any accessibility and right when we thought they might have had some sensibilities towards those who's only mode of transport is on wheels, they yet again let us down. The gap from the tube to the platform is a little scary! As Kaity pretended everything was ok to me, to stop my panic, she tried to figure out how on Earth one person could ever possibly get someone in a wheelchair onto the platform. We were lucky; four men jumped to the rescue and picked the chair up off of the train and on to the platform. In small pinches throughout my time in a wheelchair, human kindness was discovered. People would go out of their way to be helpful... This is most definitely a side of London I don't usually get to see. 

Once on the platform we were faced with our next challenge; the flight of stairs up to the main station. A man that worked there appologised about the lack of accessability and offered to carry the chair whilst Kaity helped me up the stairs on foot. I wonder how I would have made it if I couldnt use my legs at all! 

To top it off, we saw the most ridiculous scene. Like I mentioned above, we could remember there being a ramp and rolled over to where we thought it was. We were excited to be able to just relax for a minute and roll along to our train. Alas, things were not so simple; at the top of the ramp were three steps leading down. 

I can't understand why this is necessary. Who's idea was it to build steps leading down to the disabled ramp? Who was it that looked at the proposed idea, and signed it saying, 'yeah, sure. That makes sense'? 

I have a new found respect for anyone who has to deal with this day in and day out. Both disabled people and their carers work incredibly hard just to go from A to B, something we constantly take for granted. Even something as simple as going into a shop and having a look around becomes a task, having to fit through gangways placed too close together. Many trips to the shop taken during my time in the chair, would result in me being left near the entrance because the chair could not fit to navigate the store. 

Back to the topic of human kindness, it does seem like people are a lot more willing to help those less able, if they could see them struggling. Well, sort of...

As it goes, people were more than happy to help Kaity help me around, but it was very rare for anyone to even really look at me for too long. It was as though I didn't really exist, just a piece of luggage a pretty lady was struggling with. Being us, we questioned many people while we were out, taking the opportunity to talk to strangers (as we do) and learn something new about a world I for one never gave much thought to. 

Many people told me they didn't want to offend anybody by offering them help, whilst others would be more than happy to help someone if they needed it. It seems like it's a tough call, as there are all those  people who are independent and can manage on their own, regardless of anything we might class a handicap. I did however sure appreciate any help people would offer, but maybe that's because I'm not used to having to deal with such situations alone. My upper body strength is somewhat nonexistent, so rolling myself along in the chair or using the crutches to get anywhere was far too difficult and I'd have to stop every 20 seconds for a break. 

People would constantly be apologising to me, even though normally it was me that was in the way. On the train back to Swindon, we were in search of somewhere to put the wheelchair so we were out of the way and were pointed towards the wheelchair space. A woman with a buggy was on one side, so we parked the wheelchair on the other; there was plenty of space. She immediately began apologising and trying to take up less space, she then asked us if we wanted to take her seat as she had a table on the end. We politely declined and left her and her child put, but she explained how her wheelchair bound friend is always complaining about buggies in the wheelchair space. 

The train conductor came to talk to us and apparently we can request help getting on and off trains, who knew? This meant once we reached Swindon we could just roll off on a ramp rather than me jump out and Kaity carry it off. If only we knew we could ask for help sooner...