Workplace Wheels: Yet Another Short Story.

“Do you work here?”

Zoe was sat in her wheelchair looking up at the shopper, trying not to let her exasperation show through her forced smile. Surely her polo shirt displaying the company logo, and the matching lanyard and I.D badge, were evidence enough of her work status.

“Yes, I do,” she replied in a falsely chirpy tone.

“Oh good, I wasn’t sure you see…” Zoe hated it when customers rambled. She had plenty of tasks requiring her attention before the shop closed for the day and simply wished that the customer would hurry up so that she could continue with them. She didn’t fancy another over-run shift.

“I was wondering if you could tell me where the sportswear is,” the customer finally got to the point.

“It’s on the back wall, sir, women’s on the left and men’s on the right,” somehow Zoe refrained from adding “underneath the huge sign saying SPORTSWEAR”.

“Ah, thank you,” the customer trotted off and Zoe turned back to the task at hand, refolding the pile of jumpers on sale for the third time that day, knowing that before long someone would destroy it again.

Once the jumpers had been folded, Zoe glanced at her watch and was relieved to find it was time for her break. She rolled past the tills and let Sara, her colleague, know that she would be in the staff room. Sara nodded her acknowledgement while continuing to explain to an increasingly angry customer that the voucher they were holding had expired some months ago and therefore wasn’t valid. Zoe didn’t envy her.

Zoe went to the back of the shop and turned left to a white door with the words “STAFF ONLY” printed in bold, black letters across it.

“You can’t go in there, love!” a customer piped up, “it’s for staff only.”

“I can read, thank you,” Zoe’s patience was wearing thin and she only just managed to remain civil.

“Well, why are you trying to go in?” the customer continued, the obvious conclusion eluding him entirely.

“Because I am staff, sir,” Zoe entered the four digit code into the pad by the door, waited for a click, and then pushed the door open. She rolled through into the small, dingy room that somehow equated to a staff room and let the door swing shut behind her, dulling the incessant sound of the music on the shop floor. Considering the vast size of the shop floor, she wondered why the staff couldn’t have been allocated just a little more room.

She went to the small fridge balanced on the rickety table beside a toaster and a microwave, and pulled out a water bottle which she drained in record time. The she was heading back out into the shop to find the disabled toilet, as the staff toilets lacked wheelchair facilities.

Zoe was well practised at avoiding customers with a series of complex manoeuvres while she was on her breaks, and had no trouble avoiding any responsibilities as she moved across the shop floor. The route was somewhat indirect, but it would take far longer to use a direct route flooded with customers.

When she got to the disabled toilet she was hardly surprised to find the door locked, with a red icon showing beneath the handle. She stopped, put her brakes on and waited patiently, aware of her break wasting away. Several minutes later a woman strode out of the disabled cubicle dragging a basket of shopping behind her. Although Zoe suspected that the woman was in no way disabled, she remained quiet. She had once landed herself in hot water by challenging someone who, as it transpired, had a hidden disability that was unfortunately indistinguishable from lazy able-bodied people who just wanted to take a dump in peace.

Once Zoe had been to the toilet it was time for her to get back to work. Her first task was to attend to the stack of jumpers which had just been knocked over by a curious toddler.

“Excuse me, love, do you work here?” as Zoe finished restacking the jumpers a customer tapped her on the shoulder.

“Yes, I do,” Zoe could feel her cheeks aching from the constant smiling as she also tried not to roll her eyes.

“Could you direct me to the home décor section please?”

“Err…sorry?” Zoe was perplexed.

“The home décor section. You know, cushions, candles, that sort of thing,” the customer seemed to think that she was stupid.

“We don’t sell those things sir, this is a clothes shop,” Zoe kept a calm, reassuring tone.

“What do you mean you don’t sell those things? I bought a cushion cover in here just last year,” the customer was beginning to sound frustrated.

“Perhaps you’re confusing us with one of our branches in the department store down the road?” Zoe suggested.

“No I’m not confusing you with a department store. What do you take me for, an imbecile?”

Zoe maintained a diplomatic silence on this point.

“I’m sorry sir, we’ve never sold those things in here. Perhaps it would be best to visit our other branch anyway?” Zoe tried to placate the increasingly angry customer as other customers were now beginning to take interest.

“This is ridiculous. I come in here with perfectly good money to spend and this is how I’m treated. Perhaps your manager might know the layout of the shop,” the man stormed off towards the tills, pushing past the queueing customers getting ready to pay and bellowing in Sara’s face.

“I want to speak the manager, now,” he interrupted Sara as she was handing change over to her customer.

“I’ll call him onto the shop floor,” Sara pressed a button on a bleeper hooked onto her belt, “next please.”

A few minutes later Amjad appeared on the shop floor, and made a beeline for the man stood in the corner, scowling and muttering to himself. Zoe positioned herself by the adjacent clothes rack in order to eaves drop.

“Are you the manager?” the man barked. Amjad nodded.

“Where is your home décor section?”

“I’m sorry sir, but we don’t have one. Perhaps you ought to try our branch in the nearby department store?” Amjad replied in an even, emotionless tone.

“Is this supposed to be a joke?” the man practically exploded, “that lass in the wheelchair said exactly the same thing.”

“Probably because that’s the truth,” Amjad had to sympathise with Zoe, everyone seemed to assume that they were both stupid. Meanwhile, Zoe was having a hard time wiping the self-satsified smirk off of her face.

“Is there anything else I can help you with?” Amjad asked politely.

“Pfft, I hardly think so, given that your stock is so poor. I won’t be coming back here again, that’s for sure,” and with that the man stomped off, almost pulling the shop door off of it’s hinges as he left. He didn’t hear the manager mutter “good riddance” under his breath.

“Well, if you don’t need anything else, I’m going to go back upstairs to carry on with the endless paperwork,” Amjad smiled at Zoe and Sara, “Call me down if you need me again.”

“Will do,” Sara chirruped from behind the till where she was still serving a string of customers.

Zoe turned her attention to some price tags that needed amending for a sale that would start the next day, but almost as soon as she had picked up the roll of stickers she needed, a customer tapped her on the shoulder before querying whether she was a member of staff.

“I was hoping you would be able to reach something down from the top shelf for me,” the elderly woman asking the question was practically bent double over her walking stick.

“Oh OK, you might want to speak with Sara for that one, I doubt I could reach from down here either,” Zoe replied, waving to attract Sara’s attention.

“Can’t you just stand up and get it?” the old woman queried impatiently.

“I’m not exactly tall even if I do manage to stand up,” Zoe smiled back, trying to turn the situation into a joke.

“Oh,” the women seemed somewhat surprised as Sara crossed the shop floor having dealt with the last customer in the queue.

“What do you want reaching down?” Sara chipped in, disrupting the awkward silence. Together with the elderly woman she walked to the shelf in question, and stretched up to reach the pile of jumpers on the top. She lifted them down and allowed the elderly woman to peruse them until she decided that they were no longer of interest to her, and she wandered off to look at something else. Sara tried not to appear too exasperated as she battled to return the stack of jumpers to their place.

As the end of the working day drew nearer the shop grew busier again, particularly with teenagers who had nothing to do and nowhere else to go after school. Sara was kept behind the till for almost the whole afternoon while Zoe made sure the shop floor was as it should be, and Amjad occasionally made a brief appearance in between filing paperwork. By the time 6 pm came around Zoe was exhausted, and was looking forward to a meal and a hot shower.

Zoe was turning the sign in the door from “open” to “closed” when the door was pushed open by a customer.

“I’m not too late, am I?” he said eagerly, not waiting for a response before pushing into the shop.

Zoe rolled her eyes and turned her attention to the new customer.

“I just need something for the wife, it’s our anniversary and I totally forgot,” he made a beeline for the scarves, selecting one from the middle of the rack and sending several scarves to the ground in the process.

“Oops,” he said before hurrying over to the till.

Once the man had bought the scarf he left the shop, and Zoe closed the door firmly behind him, making sure the sign stated that the shop was closed. Amjad trotted downstairs to let them know that he was leaving, offering no help at all with the closing time chores. After waving their polite goodbyes to Amjad, they set to cleaning the store, Sara running the hoover over the horrible, nylon carpet tiles, and Zoe placing stock back on the shelves. Scarves were hung neatly on hooks and the stack of jumpers was straightened out once again. Labels for the sales were stuck on the last few items. Finally, they pulled the shutter down together and locked the door, turning the lights out as they headed out of the back door by the staff room.

“See you tomorrow then,” Sara said as she buttoned up her coat against the chilly breeze.

“Yeah, see you tomorrow,” Zoe replied, before parking herself beneath the bus shelter outside the shop. She was stressed and tired as she waited for the bus, and could think of nothing besides a warm shower to soothe her aching muscles.

As always the bus was late and was crammed with passengers. The bus-driver, who Zoe could only assume had had a long and stressful day much like herself, barely covered his frustration at having to leave his comfortable booth to put the ramp out for her, but he did so without complaint as she showed him her bus pass. She barely had time to squeeze between passengers into the wheelchair space before the bus set off, from which she gazed out of the window at the world passing by outside.

Aspirations of Inspiration.

When I started this blog as a student, I barely expected anyone to read it. I thought a few of my friends & peers might find it interesting, and I found that writing about my experiences helped me to process them. It wasn’t until some months after starting to write that I even set up social media to support my blog, & it took over a year before I bought a proper web domain, having never expected Diary of a Disabled Person to get beyond its first birthday.

As the weeks turned into months, & the months into years, my words appeared to be having a bigger impact. More people were visiting my blog, & more of them were returning each week for my latest piece. My follower count was climbing, not just on WordPress but on social media too, in particular Twitter. While I am under no delusions of grandeur or infamy (except for the fact that I am undeniably fabulous), it is hard to deny that my influence is growing.

Anyone who knew me at school will know that I was mostly quiet & reclusive, putting up walls before allowing people to get close, & preferring to spend time with my cat than other people. These traits have mellowed but still exist to this day. My loud & brash mannerisms displayed on the internet give the impression that I am an extrovert, but in reality, if I get an unexpected phone call, you can find me hiding behind the sofa. Yet I unwittingly find myself at the head of a slowly growing movement towards improved accessibility & equality for the disabled, with people looking to me for advice & asking me for my opinion on stories in the news.

Almost on a weekly basis I get emails asking me to participate in equality groups & societies based in Leeds, inviting me to give interviews for articles, & even to appear on documentaries representing the disabled community. Increasingly I’ve had to politely turn down many of these opportunities, as working full time while running a blog leaves little time for rest as it is, & I do have a chronic illness after all!

As an aside, if you message me trying to get me to sell something for you, you’re going to get ignored. If you persist, you’ll get blocked. I don’t do shady business because, contrary to my appearance, I have standards.

Anyway, to go from a complete nobody to slightly less of a nobody in the space of two years has been a lot of things; exciting, enthralling, & downright bloody scary. Recently, an American teacher emailed me to ask if he could use my short stories to educate 9th grade children about disability. After googling what on earth 9th grade means, I said yes, but the idea that I could be having an influence on impressionable youths across the globe does make me worry for the future generation.

I’m proud to achieve what I already have, & I’m excited to see where this goes next. I hope that my influence continues to grow as I would like to help disabled people of future generations have a slightly easier time of it than I did, if only so I can use “back in my day” to annoy them.

While it’s important to me that I don’t become “inspiration porn”, deep down everyone secretly wants to have left a mark on the world, & I feel like this is mine.

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.