Over the years, travel with a wheelchair has provided friends and family with a good laugh and left me with plenty to write about. I have found that interesting things tend to happen when I am out of my own environment generally. Add jet-lag to the equation and things start to get interesting!
Over the course of my childhood I visited the USA three times. Our family holiday to Vermont really sticks in my mind. We arrived at our first stop, a quaint little guest house by the name of “Mavis’s”, tired and jaded after a long flight. I went into the bathroom to use the toilet and, in the process of standing up, I put my hand on what I thought was a wall only to discover it was in fact a pristine white shower-curtain. Unfortunately I only realised this when I was lying half in, and half out of the bath tub, draped in the aforementioned curtain, the supporting pole of which had cracked me on the head on the way down!
This is not to say that all my state-side adventures were negative. They were, in fact, my first experience of integrated design. Aged eight (1986), I stared with wide-eyed incredulity at an all-weather, outdoor, “stair-lift”, designed to descend 200 feet over a cliff face enabling my family and I to experience a boat trip under Niagara Falls. Coming from a country that, at this same point in time, confined it’s rail-travelling disabled citizens to transit in the guards van, with the luggage. The Niagara “stair lift”, along with that other state-side invention the “handicapped bathroom” was a mind blowing experience.
It amazes me that, more than 20 years on from my experiences in the USA, the UK has yet to achieve even half this level of seamless integration.
Recently, on weekend educational seminar, I began to wonder if Iain Duncan-Smith had struck a deal with the hotel I was staying in. Within an hour of arrival, I had already been forced to undertake something that resembled a Paralympic event to get into my room with my luggage. Then, my leg spasmed while I was trying to get out of my chair onto the kingsize bed resulting in the emergency cord winding itself round the heel of my boot and alerting reception. (I have something of a reputation with pull cord alarms. – I was once in hospital, trying to undress, and I got my arms tangled up in a mixture of bra straps and intravenous drips, resulting in my having to pull the assistance cord using my teeth). It seemed the demon had struck again! Fortunately, the lady on reception was quick to call and instruct me in how to turn the alarm off. It was at this point I learned that the hotel room designers had, it seemed, not planned for a solo disabled traveller.
The alarm “cancelling switch” was on the other side of the bed and there was no room for my chair to fit down the gap between bed and wall to deactivate it. With the alarm ringing in my ears I threw myself onto the bed, disregarding everything I had been taught by my paediatric physiotherapist about the need for “control”, and proceeded to “commando crawl” my way towards the headboard where the off switch was located.
I rather ungracefully achieved my goal and wondered fleetingly if my new found abilities would threaten my eligibility for Disabled Living Allowance – if observed.
One of the things that frustrates me about welfare reform is that the people reforming and implementing changes to disability benefits have probably never found themselves sitting in an empty bath with their clothes on to see if using the bath with the adapted grab-rails is A) possible and B) safe – the answers being “just about” and “not very”. (We’ll excuse them trying this stark naked and wet!)
The idea that the social change and inoculation policies implemented in recent years somehow reduces the need for benefits like DLA is, I have to say, lost on me.
When I have a whole year of travel on public transport without significant access problems or I can book a hotel room that advertises that it has the wheel-in shower I need, and be sure that yes, it really does, perhaps I will think again!