The Road to Nowhere.

One of the most important components of a strong business model is to know your target audience; you wouldn’t make much money trying to sell War & Peace to a bunch of 3-year-olds. Surely, then, public transport companies should be going out of their way to provide excellent services for disabled people, given that being a disabled pedestrian is rather difficult. Yet I will avoid public transport at all costs thanks to the difficulties I have experienced when using their services, & I strongly suspect that I’m not the only disabled person to do this.

Taxi companies often have fleets where some of their vehicles have been specifically adapted to accommodate wheelchairs. Despite having spent a substantial amount of money adapting these vehicles, they then go out of their way to make it incredibly difficult for us to use them. Some companies refuse to let wheelchair-users book in advance, stating that they cannot guarantee the availability of an adapted vehicle at any particular time, despite this being the very point of booking in advance. Surely then, this should apply to all of their taxis, but you can book a normal vehicle in advance & they won’t bat an eyelid. This is particularly irritating when you see adapted vehicles being used to transport people who don’t have extra luggage or mobility equipment.

Some taxi services do permit the luxury of booking in advance, but they will always tell you that they cannot guarantee the availability of an adapted taxi at that particular time, which again, is the very point of booking in advance. This is no meaningless disclaimer either; I have waited 90 minutes for a pre-booked taxi to arrive &, if I’m under any obligation to be somewhere at a particular time, I must now leave ridiculously early.

In the miraculous circumstance that a taxi does arrive, drivers will usually have a sulk about having to get the ramp out, & on the drive I am bombarded with invasive questions about why I use a wheelchair.

It’s also a frequent occurrence for people with assistance dogs to be denied access to a taxi, despite this being blatantly illegal. Let’s not even mention Uber or Lyft which, due to the self-employed status of their drivers, have no obligation to provide access whatsoever.

For travelling the local area, I prefer busses. The recent law ensuring that wheelchair users get priority over prams for the space ingeniously named the wheelchair priority spot, has improved things greatly. While some people with prams still take exception to being asked to lift out their tiny child & fold up their tiny pram, insisting that the chronically ill person who is running late should wait outside in the cold, most people are accommodating. The manual ramps, unlike the automatic ones London insists on having, never break down so access is guaranteed. Occasionally a driver might try to close the doors before you board, pretending not to have seen you because they don’t want to have to stand up for 5 seconds to lower the ramp. Other than that, the only problem occurs when more than one wheelchair user wants to use the bus, because how dare more than one disabled person be out & about at any one time.

For longer journeys, coaches are preferable to trains. When assistance is booked (which isn’t even obligatory) it is provided, & not only can the wheelchair be folded up & placed in the hold with the rest of the luggage, but through a series of ramps & lifts a wheelchair can be loaded onto the coach itself. While awkward & longwinded, this far outshines the dreaded trains.

Trains insist you book assistance at least 24 hours in advance; spontaneous travel is not allowed if you are disabled. To receive the booked assistance, you must turn up half an hour early, & even then it’s a lottery as to whether someone shows up. If you are late, even if that is because you’ve missed a connection thanks to the train you were on being delayed, you are denied help. Train guards then go on strike because robots are taking their jobs, but they refuse to do anything at all to help a stranded disabled person. I’ve been left stuck on trains before now, fortunately always having someone with me to get a porter, as purposefully obstructing the doors to make it impossible for the train to leave is apparently a fineable offence, even when it’s because a pre-booked porter decided to take a cigarette break.

Once on the train the disabled toilet is usually out of order, people often leave prams & luggage in the wheelchair spot (and refuse to move it), and the wheelchair spot isn’t big enough to accommodate a wheelchair anyway. In short, the longer, hotter, more awkward coach trip is the easier option.

And God forbid disabled people ever want to go abroad. I don’t have a passport & have never been abroad (!) so I can’t really comment on planes or ferries, but given the frequency with which airports manage to damage or lose wheelchairs, I think this speaks for itself.

Need for Speed: Yet Another Short Story.

“Place your bets!”
The betting shop overlooking the start line was packed full of people, all of them shouting and waving slips of paper in the air, vying for the bookie’s attention. Those who weren’t in the betting shop were pressed up against the metal barriers on either side of the track, calling out the names of their favourite drivers. A few people had brought umbrellas and were huddled beneath them, but the majority of the crowd were content to expose themselves to the drizzling rain in order to get the best view possible.
The lights above the track started to flash, and engines began to rev. The lights moved from red to amber, to green, and as one the racers moved off the starting line, tires screeching and throwing water in all directions. The roar of the crowd was lost among the chorus of engines, and the racers weaved around each other, all of them trying to claim the lead.
Dan contented himself to sit behind the other racers, planning to make his move later on. The first corner was a sharp right, and already one competitor had skidded off the track and into the tire barrier. Unable to carry on, that meant there was one less opponent to chase down.
At the next corner, Dan glided slowly down the inside of one competitor, and then moved across the front of the other; he was now in 6th place. The driver in 5th place pulled across the front of him, blocking his path and throwing water upwards. Dan’s visor was completely obscured by rain, and he skidded onto the muddy gravel at the apex of the corner. His tires lost all of their grip, and he was sent flying across the track and into a barrier on the other side. He collided with the barrier with unimaginable force, and was thrown sideways, landing face-first on the gravel. The crowd gasped in horror as Dan skidded to a halt, and a group of officials burst through the barrier, hurtling to his aid.
Slowly and tentatively, Dan allowed two medics to sit him upright. Thanks to his helmet all of the damage appeared to be superficial, but the same could not be said for his wheelchair.
***
Dan was bored. While his injuries had indeed proved to be superficial, he still had another week before he was medically cleared to compete again. However, within the week the racing season would be over, leaving him with several months to fill before even the training stages would re-open. Normally this period was something of a holiday for him, with the rest of the year being filled with a relentless stream of training and competitions, but he had already been out of action for two months.
He sighed heavily, his eyes drifting away from the TV screen displaying some mind-numbing daytime chat show, settling upon his new wheelchair in the corner. It probably wouldn’t do much over 50 mph without some serious adaptations, and his finances were already tight without the money he usually received from his races he had missed.
His phone buzzed in his pocket, and slowly, without any semblance of enthusiasm, he pulled it out. He was surprised to see the face of his manager flashing on the screen, who hadn’t been in contact since the doctors’ verdict.
“Hello?” Dan answered.
“Ah, Danny boy, how you doin’?” the manager didn’t stop to hear the answer, “I’ve got a job for you.”
“A job?” said Dan, confused.
“Off the books, mind,” the manager said, “but the pay’s good. The money would cover spicing up your new ride with plenty to spare.”
“I’m listening,” Dan said cautiously.
“I have a friend who uses a wheelchair, right-“
“Are you trying to set me up?” Dan sounded exasperated.
“No, but don’t rule it out, buddy,” his manager replied, “and she needs a getaway driver.”
“A getaway driver?” Dan repeated.
“Well, someone who can be in and out real quick. She’ll do the donkey-work, but she needs someone to get away with the reward pronto while she fends off the police.”
“Woah, woah, woah, are you asking me to get involved with a criminal?” Dan half believed that this was his managers’ idea of a joke.
“If all goes to plan there’ll be no way you could be implicated, and you’ll get a big cut of the reward. We’re talking over £100,000 here,” the manager was not joking.
“But-“ Dan began.
“You wanna race again next season or what?” his manager barked impatiently.
“Well, yeah, but-“
“Then this is your chance,” the manager said, “meet me round the back of the warehouses on Sandy Lane at 8 pm sharp.”
“Tonight?” Dan asked, glancing at the clock on the wall.
“Aye, tonight,” the manager hung up.
Dan let his phone fall onto the sofa next to him, staring blankly at the wall, deep in thought. He made a decision.
***
It was 8.05 pm when Dan’s manager sauntered around the corner, cigarette protruding from his mouth at an awkward angle, seemingly without a care in the world. He looked around to check that the coast was clear; he had half expected Dan to give the police a tip-off, and that the police were waiting in the shadows for an incriminating remark.
“Alright, Danny boy?” he called loudly, trying not to let his voice sound as uneasy as he felt, “Care for a walk?”
Dan glared at him.
“Bad choice of words,” his manager said without apologising, “C’mon, let’s go.”
Dan kept pace with his manager, staying resolutely on his left side, away from the cigarette.
“Her name’s Susie,” his manager began, “and she got into this business a small while back when her PIP payments were revoked.”
Dan remained silent, knowing that his manager hated awkward silences.
“We’re meeting her by the ATM on General Street.”
Dan nodded, but said nothing.
Ten minutes later they turned onto General Street, and could see a young woman in a powered wheelchair sat by the special ATM that was lowered for wheelchair access. She didn’t acknowledge them until they were close enough to hear her speak quietly to them.
“You don’t need to say a word,” she said to Dan, “just keep your mouth shut, and get the hell out with the money. I’ll meet you at the rendezvous on Sandy Lane.”
Dan noticed that his manager had disappeared.
“The less witnesses, the better,” she explained.
“I think I recognise you,” Dan was looking at her through narrowed eyes.
“Probably from the front pages of the newspapers when I tried to rob a bank when my PIP was revoked.”
“Probably,” Dan said, “Weren’t there three of you?”
“Sam and Dave got busted for another job that went south a while back, they’re still in jail. But don’t worry, that’s the only time I’ve come close to being caught since being released from prison. We’re here,” Susie took a sudden turn into an alleyway between two banks.
Susie continued round the back of the banks, keeping close to the wall to remain obscure on the CCTV cameras mounted on the corner. She stopped in front of an old door with chipped paint revealing the dirty wood underneath, a stark contrast to the gleaming front entrance that was the epitome of modern capitalism. Pulling two bobby pins from her hair, she began to wiggle them inside the lock until a quiet but satisfying click was heard. Carefully, she pulled the door open to reveal a dark corridor. There was no sign of life.
“Wait here,” she whispered before disappearing inside.
The following minutes were uncomfortably tense. Every sound made Dan jump as he grew increasingly uneasy. Suddenly the alarm inside the bank erupted, screeching deafeningly, and Susie came flying out of the door. She threw a heavy bag onto Dan’s knee but didn’t say a word before turning in the opposite direction. Dan whipped around and shot around the corner, bursting out onto the street as sirens became audible in the distance. He drove quickly along the pavements, desperate to crank up the speed but also knowing that it would only draw attention to himself.
He took an indirect route, twisting and turning down back streets and alleyways, keeping away from the main roads which police cars were hurtling down in the opposite direction. By the time he turned onto Sandy Lane, he felt sure than Susie couldn’t possibly have escaped. As he drove to the back of the disused warehouses, he was surprised to see her sat there, waiting for him.
“How-?” Dan began.
“The less you know, the better,” Susie replied with a wicked grin, “Did anyone see you?”
“Not that I’m aware of,” Dan replied.
“Good. You’re manager will receive a payment from an anonymous sponsor in a couple of days.” Susie took the bag from his lap, turned around, and was gone.
***
Just as promised, Dan had access to £125,000 within the week, and immediately went with his manager to their favourite engineer. There was a queue by the reception desk which the manager skipped entirely, much to Dan’s embarrassment. The receptionist opened his mouth to protest when the manager slammed down a huge wad of cash on the desk.
“We need to see Liv,” he barked, “There’s more where that came from.”
“Right away,” the flustered receptionist ushered them through, painfully aware of the discontented grumbling from the queue, including one man complaining about the special treatment of wheelchair users.
“Liv!” the receptionist called.
A tall brunette wearing oil-smeared overalls stood up from her workbench at the side of the room, and came towards them, smiling.
“Hey,” she said, “I heard about the accident, are you OK?”
“Yeah, yeah,” Dan replied, “but my wheelchair wasn’t. Let’s just say my replacement isn’t exactly up to much either.”
“Ah,” she walked around him, examining the chair.
“Well, that’s going to take a lot of work,” she tilted her head to one side as she assessed the situation, “I’ll need to drop the suspension, add a spoiler, and tune up the engine for a start. I may well need to replace all the tires too, and swap out some of the frame for lighter materials. And then there’s the safety measures to consider. It’s gonna cost a pretty penny, I’m afraid.”
“Money ain’t no problem,” the manager casually dropped the bag full of cash at her feet.
“When can you have it done by?” the manager asked a startled Liv.
“Two weeks,” she recovered beautifully, “Courtesy wheelchairs are on the left.”
As she led them over to the bank of courtesy chairs, she chatted idly with Dan.
“Did you hear about that bank robbery that happened the other day?” she asked.
It was Dan’s turn to look surprised, “Err, yeah, yeah, I did now you mention it.”
“They reckon it were that lass again, what was she called, Shannon-“
“Susie,” Dan interrupted.
“Yeah, that’s her,” Liv continued.
“Now…” Liv talked Dan through his choices of courtesy chair.
***
It was a bright, clear day with a cold breeze as Dan sat, engine quietly humming beneath him, on the starting line. As always the bookies was full, and the crowd at the side of the track were suitably excited. The lights flashed and changed colour, and the race began.
Before the first corner was reached Dan had moved into 4th position, taking great pride in the looks of shock as his wheelchair glided past at tremendous speed. He threw the chair into a graceful drift as they rounded the corner, then overtook the next wheelchair to claim 3rd place. His wheels gripped the tarmac firmly as he thundered along the track, eyeing up the apex of the next corner. As he approached 2nd place, he could only wonder what exactly Liv had done to his wheelchair; he was convinced that she could work miracles.
The racer in first place had a large lead, but that lead was decreasing steadily as Dan hurtled forwards. It wasn’t until he was right behind his adversary that he noticed who it was. He might have only seen her under darkness, but that wicked smile that she flashed at him as she glanced over her shoulder was unmistakable. It was Susie.

Curiosity Killed My Privacy.

Perhaps I’m making assumptions here, but when I notice people staring at me as I go about my business, I don’t think it’s because of my goddess-like beauty. I think it’s got a little more to do with how exactly I’m going about my business, that being in a wheelchair.

When out & about in Leeds city centre I regularly see other wheelchair users; I often see ten wheelchairs in as many minutes. Admittedly Leeds is the most disabled-friendly place I’ve ever been, certainly more so then London or Manchester, so perhaps wheelchair-users are more likely to be seen here. However, I’ve even spotted an increase in wheelchairs being visible in high-profile TV series & films. Surely by now, the novelty of seeing someone disabled has worn off.

Being stared at as if you were a circus act is beyond irritating, & particularly in adults only serves to make people look gormless & dim-witted. However, unless a well-placed lamp post is involved, it tends to be a relatively harmless practice.

Sometimes, however, the staring is accompanied by questions & I am expected to answer those questions. It doesn’t matter if I am in a hurry to get somewhere, or simply don’t want to recount the miserable tale of how I ended up in a wheelchair for the tenth time that morning; if I don’t provide a sufficient answer, I’m the rude one. More & more I’ve taken to ignoring such questions from strangers on principal; I should be able to go about my business just like anybody else, without having to justify my existence at regular intervals. I have more than made my peace with being considered rude; it’s not like information on disability is particularly hard to find.

When it comes to staring & questioning there is one group I never mind, & that is pre-school children. There ignorance is born of innocence; they lack social inhibitions, & unless someone in the family is disabled, they probably won’t encounter disability until at least school-age. However, at school children have daily social interactions, & since disabled people are no longer separated & institutionalised as in previous times, they are highly likely to encounter some kind of disability as their horizons expand. If nothing else, they should at least know that staring & pointing is considered rude.

It is not my job or my responsibility to educate children. In fact, on more than one occasion I have been chastised for trying to parent somebody else’s child when answering a question. The expectation that disabled people do not have the right to privacy, & must be completely transparent with total strangers about complex & intimate symptoms, is ableism in a nutshell.

Nor is disability something to be ignored, being hushed & hurried away leaves the impression that that is the appropriate response to seeing someone disabled, not treating them as simply another person.

Disability is something that exists. Parents & teachers have a responsibility to teach children that despite our differences, we are still human beings. As a childless person I have no right to tell people how to parent their children, but as a disabled person I should have the right to set boundaries concerning my privacy, & for those boundaries to be respected.

Defining Disability.

Lots of interesting things were discussed at a conference I recently attended, but nothing quite captured my attention as much as the discussion on how disability is defined. The dictionary definition of the word is “a physical or mental condition that limits a person’s movements, senses, or activities”, but this definition has multiple fallacies. Most problematic for me is the use of the word limit, suggesting that our contributions to society are weaker & lesser. It also promotes inaccessibility by making assumptions about our conditions & how that affects our needs.

Furthermore, in my personal experience of disability I am mobile; I can stand or walk. My difficulties arise because I can’t do them for even a short time, nor can I do them frequently, & so I must use a wheelchair to be able to get around. Is time or distance considered a limit under this definition of disability?

Then we have the medical definition of disability. This model of disability defines an illness or disability as the result of a physical condition, which is intrinsic to the individual & which may reduce the individual’s quality of life and cause clear disadvantages to the individual.

This is somewhat more inclusive towards people with chronic illnesses like myself, except that many of these illnesses are still lacking a biochemical or physiological explanation, so could be denied the status of intrinsic physical condition. It also fails to encapsulate environmental factors such as being involved in a traffic accident. While perhaps the physical damage is intrinsic, a large metal box on wheels causing said damage is distinctly extrinsic. In addition and somewhat similar to the dictionary definition, there is also an emphasis on disadvantages & limitations. Once again, we are weak & pitiful creatures with nothing to offer, & nothing can be done to help us.

Finally, we have the social definition of disability, as developed by the World Health Organisation in 2001. They state disability to be an umbrella term for impairments (problematic body function or structure), activity limitations, & participant restrictions. Quite how the last two points differ I’m still unclear upon, but what does come across in some of the examples used to explain them is that these limitations are not always intrinsic. For every aspect of disability like pain or fatigue is another aspect beyond our control, imposed upon us by an inaccessible society.

If you are a wheelchair user, a step is a barrier. There are ways of overcoming said barrier, namely a ramp. For a flight of steps a lift is often more appropriate, & as simply as that, the barrier is removed.

If you have a visual impairment, reading written words can be a barrier. A screen reader or braille can overcome that barrier.

If you have a hearing impairment, sign language or subtitles can overcome that barrier.

What comes to light through this social model, although it is by no means perfect, is that society is as disabling as the conditions that ail us. With the proper inclusion of accessibility features, many barriers can be reduced or removed altogether. At the end of the day disability will always be a disadvantage, but does it really have to be as big of a disadvantage as it is right now?

Saturday Streamer Starts Tomorrow!

Don’t forget to log into Twitter (@WheelsofSteer) tomorrow at 6 pm (BST) for my first livestream! You’ll get an exclusive look around my new home, an update of my health, & an introduction on how I plan to run these livestreams every other Saturday.

Living in Leeds: Saturday Streamer. 6 pm BST on Twitter.