London Calling: Part 1.

Just prior to midday on the 30th August Jarred and myself made our way down to the train station, a mere 10 minutes down a gentle slope surrounded by shops. I had borrowed my mother’s manual wheelchair which Jarred was pushing as I wasn’t confident that the trains could accommodate my powered wheelchair. We grabbed sandwiches from a café hidden just behind the doorway of the train station and sat in the waiting area looking at the departure board, waiting for the 1.15 pm to London King’s Cross (yes, that is the one featured in Harry Potter) to appear.

Half an hour before we were due to leave we went to the disabled support desk. When booking the train tickets we had also booked a porter and ramp in advance, and I had printed off the documentation to prove this. Once the documents were shown to the porters they happily escorted us to the train, and by 1 pm we were safely aboard. The only fly in the ointment was the woman who had a pram in the space reserved for wheelchairs, who not only refused to move (despite the notices and even the law giving wheelchair users priority to these spaces), but once I had claimed a nearby seat and the wheelchair had been folded up, fretted to Jarred that it would fall on her precious offspring. Her precious offspring then continued to cry all the way to Wakefield, where I was grateful to see them exit the train.

A little over half way through the journey, having drunk a 500 ml bottle of Coke Zero, certain needs made their presence felt. I waited until the next stop before getting up and hobbling the few metres to the bathroom. Unfortunately the train set off just as I was getting up again, and I very nearly ended up flat on the rather sticky floor. I managed to steady myself against the walls of the cabin and then made the short journey back to my window seat.

As I sat down Jarred began to laugh. Naturally assuming he was laughing at me for something stupid like having toilet paper stuck to my jeans (we’ve all been there), I glared at him. Then I realised that he was using his phone to track the progress of our train, and as it turned out, we were passing through the charmingly named “Bitchfield”.

Less than an hour later we pulled into Kings Cross, where a porter greeted us with a ramp almost as soon as the train had come to a halt. We made our way through the impressive train station, which in all seriousness has a dedicated Harry Potter shop, alongside a platform 9¾ complete with luggage rack entering the wall which fans spend hours queuing by just to get a photo of it.

We wandered out of the train station, from which our hotel could be seen. We crossed the insanely busy roads in the pouring rain, and were soaked by the time we reached the reception desk. The lovely receptionist offered us two key cards for our room, not just one, in case I wanted to venture out on my own. Given that I was relying on Jarred to push me everywhere this would have been pointless, but the unprejudiced gesture was very much appreciated anyway.

The room we had been given was perfect, with plenty of room to park the wheelchair, and a bathroom full of grab rails to help me move around. The beds were twin beds because in most cases a disabled person would be with a carer, and it wouldn’t be appropriate to share a bed. Fortunately the beds were pushed together, although on occasion one or the other of us disappeared down the gap between them.

Tired as we were, it seemed a shame to waste the remaining afternoon in our hotel room, and so we made our way to a nearby attraction you may have heard of; the British Museum. It was both free to enter and accessible, although the tent where bags were checked by security guards had wheelchair ramps that were, rather ironically, almost impossible to surpass in the wheelchair. Just inside the accessible entrance to the side of the museum there was an old lift. The first time the lift arrived for us, however, we couldn’t enter because a family of physically able-bodied people refused to budge one inch. The lift being old and slow, it was another 5 minutes before we finally got to enter the lift.

With only an hour or so before the museum closed, we didn’t have time to explore more than part of the Ancient Egyptian display. However, we still had plenty of time to find some impressive artefacts including the Rosetta stone, and this sheep-sphynx that reminded me of my favourite teddy, a sheep named Lamb-da.

Image description: a stone ram in a Sphinx-like position found in the Egyptian area of the British Museum.

By 6 pm we had returned to the hotel, where we made hot drinks to warm ourselves through. After this, we made our way to the only accessible pub in the vicinity – Wetherspoon’s. Having travelled all the way to London, we ended up in a pub we have less than 10 minutes from our flat. One hotdog, millionaire sundae, and Strongbow Dark Fruits later, I was feeling very happy.

Roll Models.

I’m usually one to stay well clear of clichéd ideas like role models, as I believe that people should be themselves and not have to live up to anyone else’s standards. However, I cannot deny that there have been inspirations in my life, particularly where living with a disability is concerned.

Perhaps the most obvious choice for the role model of a disabled scientist is, of course, Professor Stephen Hawking. The man is legendary, and has not only pushed physics into ground-breaking territory with the discovery of Hawking radiation, but has helped to advance the medical understanding of Motor Neuron’s Disease, a relatively rare and peculiar condition. He was also involved in encouraging children to pursue the sciences as viable subjects in schools, co-authored a series of science fiction stories that are entirely feasible according to laws of physics, and attempted to make complex physics accessible to most adults in his book “A Brief History of Time”. In all of this he has not been afraid to expose just how debilitating his condition is, nor has been afraid to poke fun at it. In fact, he has featured on charity specials and TV shows like The Simpsons, and on most of these occasions his disability forms a comedic element of the performance. It would be ludicrous of me to deny that he has influenced the way I cope with my own disability, and has made me grateful for the things that I can do that he could not, such as talking with my own vocal cords.

Image description: a black-and-white photograph of Stephen Hawking in a lab.

Other inspiring role models include two of the hosts of The Last Leg, Adam Hills and Alex Brooker, both of whom are missing part of at least one limb. Although neither is wheelchair bound they have helped to make people more confident around disabled people, and have shown their viewers that disability isn’t the burden some make it out to be. They have highlighted the serious issues surrounding disability on a widely viewed television program so popular it got its own series of special episodes at the Rio 2016 Paralympics. Similarly, they have proved that disabled people are capable of caring about other social issues such as racism, sexism, Islamophobia, and homophobia, and in this they have earned my complete respect and have helped me come to terms with my own life circumstances.

Image description: the 3 hosts of The Last Leg. On the left is Josh Widdecomb, Adam Hills is in the centre, & Alex Brooker is on the right.

Although I am a lover of rock music, one other significant role model for me is pop superstar Lady Gaga. She is completely unafraid to stand up for what she believes in when facing an intense media following, and is open and confident about her sexuality and any other trait that sets her apart from the norm. She also suffers from fibromyalgia and has had to make difficult decisions concerning touring schedules and public appearances just to manage day-to-day existence. I would dearly love to have the sort of self-confidence she exhumes, although I perhaps wouldn’t follow her fashion choices.

Image description: Lady Gaga where a black dress with a plunging neckline, and neatly styled blonde hair.

There are lots of people, some famous, some who are friends and family, who have inspired me, encouraged me, and helped me to become who I am today. While I do not wish to become carbon copies of any one of them, I would hope that my actions emanate their intentions and that I could also have an impact on issues in modern society.

Words Without Meaning.

Even as a young child I found great freedom in writing. It was a way for me to escape the bullying I experienced at school and to become immersed in a world different to my own. To be able to sink into someone else’s problems helped me to avoid thinking about my own, but the countless pages I filled with half-developed characters and meagre plots are long gone. They were words without meaning; I knew in my mind where the characters would go and what they would say and do, so I never let anyone else see much of my work. The stories were already told. Besides the escapism there was no purpose to the writing, and as such the joy I found in it soon dispersed.

I find that the pleasure of writing comes not from the putting of pen to paper, but in the knowledge that others will read the words you wrote, will think about them and learn from them, and maybe even be emotionally moved by them. It is this that prompted me to create “Diary of a Disabled Person” and it is this that keeps me filling the pages of notebooks while sat in coffee shops; a perfectly typical writer with a message to send.

This blog is not aimed at those with disabilities themselves, although I am extremely pleased that many disabled people have given me positive feedback and support, which means that I am representing the community well and have avoided offending anyone. This blog is in fact targeted at those without disabilities.

Disabled people know what living with a disability is like; they do not need to be told once again by someone in a similar situation that there are issues in the way disability is incorporated into society. While I accept that disability support groups help some people, I find the culture of a large group of disabled people meeting up to sit off to one side moaning about being disabled irritating; nothing will ever change if the rest of the world doesn’t know that there are issues in need of solutions. Nothing will ever change if we don’t try to integrate with the rest of society. Martin Luther King had the support of the African-American community when he gave his infamous “I have a dream speech”, but the people he wanted to target were the white supremacists. It would be like preaching to the converted; it wouldn’t have an effect.

Those not living with a disability, or not living or working with someone who is disabled, are probably oblivious to some of the issues faced on a daily basis; how could someone be expected to know about something they have had no experience of? It is not a criticism, it is a fact, and I started this blog to address that fact. In my attempts to integrate with society and to preach my message to those who have not heard it, I have made some headway in the battle to fully incorporate disability into modern society. The more people become aware of the issues, the more they will fight back against them and support those with disabilities. Many people discriminate by accident; by not switching on an automatic door or lift, or parking over a ramp. Educating people as to why those things are significant will make an impact on society.

Perhaps, if anything, I’m trying to stir up a little trouble. The good kind of trouble, I might add. I want people to talk about disability. I want people to ask me questions. I want people to think a little more carefully about their actions towards anyone with a disability. If enough people raise their voices the authorities cannot deny hearing us.

I didn’t write this blog to generate sympathy but empathy, and it is this that gives my words meaning.

Power to the Wheels.

Want to know when the words “wheelchair access” don’t actually guarantee wheelchair access? When you use a powered wheelchair.

In all honesty I’m not certain someone would choose to use a powered wheelchair over a manual one if they didn’t have to. I’m pretty sure I don’t have to spell this out for you, but powered wheelchairs are significantly heavier, bigger, and bulkier than their manual counterparts, reducing manoeuverability. They are also far more expensive, and much harder to fix should something go awry.

Additionally, it appears to surprise some people that I’m using a powered wheelchair because I need to and not because I’m too lazy to propel myself, which is an accusation I have faced on multiple occasions. Propelling your own manual wheelchair with the addition of your body weight with muscles smaller than those in your legs is extremely hard work, and I am simply too weak and fatigued to do this, plus the cut and blistered hands and muscle strains don’t appeal either. Being pushed around by someone else in a manual wheelchair means that you can’t even go to the toilet without asking someone, and you can’t go out or do anything independently. I decided to sacrifice a little manoeuverability and money in exchange for my independence, and I do not regret that in the least.

What I dislike about using a powered wheelchair is the way companies are allowed to claim that they have full wheelchair access even if a powered wheelchair can’t be used in their facilities. I cannot count the number of taxi firms that have told me I can’t use their accessible cabs because my wheelchair is too big or cumbersome for their vehicles. On one occasion using the trains, the porter sulked at me because he wasn’t sure whether the ramp they’d provided would take my wheelchair’s size and weight, and he had to fetch another. One of the libraries at university had spaces between the shelves wide enough to take a manual wheelchair but not a powered one, although fortunately a similar set of books could be found in another, more accessible library. Many accessible toilets and changing rooms are barely large enough to take a manual wheelchair, let alone a powered one. A local shopping centre even decided to replace their broken lift for entering the premises with a thin plywood ramp that doesn’t  look strong enough to take a manual wheelchair, and won’t change this despite me launching a complaint. On one occasion, I was even turned down for a job because their lift wouldn’t accommodate my powered wheelchair, and they weren’t going to adapt to my needs. Whether this is even legal is debatable but I don’t have the finances to take them to court for discrimination, so they got away with it.

None of this is to say that life in a manual wheelchair is easy; this is far from the truth. Businesses still choose to make themselves inaccessible in general, they face the same problems I do concerning the perception of disability, and sometimes the seats in manual wheelchairs really aren’t comfortable when staying seated for any length of time. It just seems that the world is set up to accommodate some disabilities more than others, which is equally as wrong as any other form of discrimination.

Ignorance is Bliss.

Despite having reproduced for millennia, humans continue to marvel at the mind of a child and the way it tries to piece together the coalition of chaos that is life. This often provokes brutally honest and usually quite amusing reactions to social situations, which arise from the ignorance of complex societal norms created by adults with the sole purpose to make other’s lives as miserable as their own. A child’s views on disability are no exception to this, and in particular young children will not treat someone in a wheelchair differently to someone who can walk. They also occasionally think we’re mermaids (https://diaryofadisabledperson.wordpress.com/2017/06/10/the-real-mermaid/).

One summer, I was browsing the isles of the local supermarket searching for a birthday present when a little girl with blonde pigtails and big blue eyes tottered round the corner, almost into my wheelchair. She stopped and looked up at me, before asking in earnest;

“Are you poorly?”

I smiled and confirmed this.

“Will you get better though?” she continued.

“Hopefully,” I said in reply.

“And you’ll be able to walk like me?” she asked.

“Absolutely,” I returned.

Throughout this exchange, the blonde woman who I presume was the girl’s mother looked utterly mortified and desperately tried to coax her daughter away. I looked up at her, smiled, and said it was absolutely fine. I would much rather children ask the questions they want to ask instead of staring silently at me, so as to break the taboo surrounding disability. Children are remarkably robust when facing the negative aspects of life, and are rarely as perturbed as we might have assumed. As such, disability and sickness should not be hidden from children, as it is simply a part of real life.

Sometimes, children have wonderful reactions if they see that the adults they are with have blocked the path of a wheelchair. In many instances children have pulled prams, bags, baskets, or even the adults themselves out of the way, allowing me to pass safely. On a good few of these occasions, the adults have even received a ticking off from the children. My personal favourite occurred after a distracted mother let a door swing shut in my face. Her son, a boy of maybe 6 or 7 years old, came back and held the door open for me. His mum called out for him to stay with her in a somewhat irritated tone, and in response the boy told her he’d only tried to be nice, as she had taught him. He then attempted to say it was “hypocritical” without much success, which fortunately broke the ice and the mother relaxed and apologised.

At other times, it has been me who has been the first to speak to a child if the situation calls for it. I remember on one occasion I was in the local park and a girl was riding her scooter down the hill much faster than her dad could walk. Unfortunately the front wheel of her scooter got caught in a rut in the pavement and the girl went headlong over the handlebars, landing heavily in a messy heap. The closest adult to the fall didn’t bat an eyelid and walked past almost as if they hadn’t seen or heard what had happened. As the next closest adult I went to the child to check she was OK and handed her a tissue to wipe her tear-stained cheeks. Her injuries were very minor, superficial scrapes to the skin, but the shock of the fall seemed to be what had upset her. I remembered doing almost exactly the same thing ten years before, on another hill within the same park, and said as much which made her smile. Seconds later her dad arrived, almost out of breath from trying to stay upright on the slightly slippery path. He smiled and they both thanked me before we went our separate ways. It was not that a disabled person had stopped to help that required gratitude but the fact that a person had stopped to help at all, and I fully believe that they would have spoken to anyone else in exactly the same manner.

The ignorance of these children towards the taboo surrounding disability did not bring bliss to themselves alone but also to me as a disabled person, and I can only hope that as they grow and develop their inclusive attitude is unmarred by the loss of their ignorance.

Pride Without Prejudice.

The first weekend in August marks Pride in Leeds, when the LGBTQ+ community come together with the rest of population to celebrate their differences, mostly by sinking back huge quantities of alcohol. This being my first pride since coming out as bisexual I was incredibly excited to be attending the various events occurring in the city centre throughout the weekend. So excited, in fact, that I decided to turn my wheelchair into Donald Trump’s worst nightmare.

Image description: my wheelchair with a pride flag on the back, and a rainbow cushion on the seat.

On the Saturday the sun was out, and a gentle breeze helped to prevent my skin from burning and peeling off like I was some kind of mutant reptile in the roasting 20°C heat. Jarred and myself made our way to the viaduct, a region of Leeds so closely associated with gay culture that a man in a police uniform walking down the street is not necessarily a policeman. A street party had been set up; there was music playing and an impressively sophisticated outdoor bar set up on one side of the street. There was also a small stage and people were being invited up onto the stage to sing and dance together. It was, perhaps, the only time I’ve ever been glad to see something inaccessible.

We meandered up and down the street, listening to music and investigating the few stalls there were. After a little while the music stopped rather abruptly, and a drag queen whose make-up was far in advance of anything I could do took to the stage, introducing a performance by the Show Girls, a group of drag performers from one of the local venues. During the introduction various members of the audience were subjected to light-hearted criticisms, such as querying whether a woman’s afro was fake or real, or whether one man naturally had silky smooth legs. Being on the front row, I was pretty easy to spot.

“And oh, look, Davros has delighted us with their company!”

Jarred and myself both burst into uproarious laughter, setting off the rest of the crowd who had seemed a little nervous as to how to react. What no one seemed to realise is that it was actually quite refreshing for someone else to make a joke about my wheelchair, which quickly becomes the elephant in the room when people do everything they can to ignore its presence for political correctness, highlighting in the process that the wheelchair is all they see. The drag queen was teasing everyone, not just myself, and there was nothing to take offence to.

The Pride parade took place on the Sunday, starting in Millenium square in the centre of Leeds with a free-entry concert. The council had made sure to provide an elevated wheelchair platform meaning that I could see the stage above the rest of the crowd, although because I couldn’t see through the crowd, another audience member had to direct me to said platform. I lost count of how many other wheelchair users I saw at the event, and not once did I have to deal with things thrust in my face or people stepping directly over my feet. Nobody stared at me, and nobody ignored me either.

Towards the end of the concert I was invited to ride on one of the council’s accessible buses in the parade, representing both the LGBTQ+ and disabled community. I jumped at the opportunity, figuratively, not literally of course. Once I was on the bus my wheelchair was secured safely to the floor of the bus by a driver who clearly had many years of experience doing this. I got the flag I had attached to my wheelchair to wave, and waved it while meandering slowly through the crowded streets until my arm felt like Attila the Hun was trying to remove it. I was extremely surprised to find that I got a huge response from the crowd, who cheered loudly and waved vigorously back at me.

The best reaction of all the crowd members came from another wheelchair user who I had shared the wheelchair platform with earlier in the day. When she saw me waving from the bus her face practically split in half as she grinned from ear-to-ear, and I knew then that I had truly made a difference to someone’s day.

I was as welcome in that crowd as I am at my beloved wrestling shows, and I hope that I never forget what it was like to find pride without prejudice.