To See, or Not to See?

In the past few trips we’ve made into town Jarred and I have noted a shift in behaviour that contradicts my “invisibility cloak” experiences; people are now able to see me. This is a massive breakthrough in the way disability is perceived by society, a bonus that cannot be ignored. Unfortunately, their actions towards me have not changed, and I still experience doors being shut in my face, and people stepping over the front of my wheelchair on a daily basis, even when I’m visible.

At first it confused me why people would do this but then I had an epiphany, albeit the most boring epiphany ever described in all of history. People are impatient.

I’ll be the first to admit that when patience was given out I was at the back of the queue, impatiently tapping my foot on the floor. Given that at the time I wasn’t disabled, I couldn’t even pull my usual trick of skipping an entire queue purely because I’m a wheelchair user. This means that when somebody is walking ridiculously slowly down the middle of the pavement, often weaving from side to side like a driver in the British Touring Car Championship, I have to ignore the urge to use my chair as a plough, and act like I have nowhere to be or nothing important to do.

Although I do earnestly try to be patient, I cannot deny that I find being stuck behind someone driving their wheelchair slowly down the centre of the pavement frustrating too. I know that some people aren’t able to travel quickly, particularly in manual wheelchairs, and I know that I should be far more patient and understanding than I am, but it gives me the pedestrian equivalent of road rage. I refuse to believe that I am the only one to feel this way, especially as I understand the trials and tribulations of using a wheelchair and still manage to get annoyed. This means that, instead of risking being stuck behind a wheelchair user who might be moving slowly, people push in front of the wheelchair to be on their way. Unfortunately for those of us who are able to move their wheelchairs at a faster pace, this results in a few difficulties.

Recently I was in a local shopping centre, and there was a choir performing Beatles songs to entertain the crowd of Saturday shoppers. Not being a huge fan of The Beatles myself, let alone choral versions of their songs, I drove my wheelchair as close to the shop-fronts as possible, moving behind the crowd that had gathered to watch. At the back of this crowd were three women, two of whom upon seeing me approach stepped forward from their position blocking a shop door (where people trying to exit the shop were getting annoyed) into the path of my wheelchair (which made me annoyed), and I swear there was a Starsky and Hutch style screech as my tyres slipped on the smooth floor although it could just as easily have been the choir. The third woman gestured to allow me past, looking particularly smug that she had been considerate enough to do so, and I bit my lip before I said something I knew I’d regret.

I wasn’t invisible, and the acknowledgement of my existence on any level shows that society is progressing towards a more tolerant and inclusive way of life. However it is clear to me that there is still progress to be made, including progress on my account to be more patient with those less able than myself. People like me have to lead by example, so my example needs to change, and that is what I aim to do.

Mission Impossible: Go Shopping.

What might seem to be simple everyday tasks for the majority of the population can become Herculean feats with a malfunctioning body, and one of these things is to go shopping.

Most modern supermarkets have excellent accessibility around the store; if not you could hardly be expected to use a trolley. For one thing, they often provided lower tills so that a wheelchair user doesn’t need a periscope to arrange their shopping on the conveyor belt or successfully pay for their selected items. However, there still remain a few issues for wheelchair users in particular, mainly to do with height. The items on the highest shelves are usually completely unreachable, although I have learned that if I sit staring longingly at an item on the top shelf, someone will come and reach it down for me. The prices displayed below each product are not visible to me on the top shelf, so on the odd occasion I may get a nasty surprise when trying to predict how much something will cost me.

Unfortunately items on the lowest shelves are also difficult to reach as the sides of the wheelchair restrict how far I can bend over to retrieve and item, and if I try to face the shelf, my feet and legs get in the way. It’s usually a little more difficult to convey that I might need some help because no one can see my facial expression, although I don’t usually have to wait too long before someone comes to my rescue.

The freezers are perhaps the worst offenders in a supermarket; the glass makes it easy to see each tantalising product, but trying to reach over the lip of the freezer to grab hold of the desired product is almost impossible, and my hands grow cold after mere seconds in the sub-zero temperatures. The freezers higher than this present the same issues as the high shelves elsewhere in the supermarket. I could, of course, ask someone for help, but I’m English; making any face-to-face contact with total strangers is awkward and uncomfortable.

None of these things are the fault of the supermarket, and there would be little they could do to improve accessibility without massively reducing the availability of products due to the limited shelf space reachable from a wheelchair. However, I can only wish that other shops would follow suit. There are so many shops out there with even just a small step in the door that means I cannot enter, and pubs are often the worst offenders. Admittedly since many disabled people take some form of medication, all of which state not to drink alcohol whilst taking those tablets, you could say they were actually being responsible by being inaccessible. Unfortunately I’m not sure that they’ve ever given the issue so much thought. In many cases only a small and relatively cheap ramp would be needed to resolve the issue, and they would be able to make more money simply by allowing more people into the store.

Unfortunately even when shops do have accessible facilities, they may choose to misuse them. I have lost count of the shops I have entered that use the disabled changing room as a store cupboard, and have had to navigate the wheelchair around large boxes and racks of new clothing. I also know a shop in a mall, where accessibility is supposedly prioritised, which has a small platform lift next to the three steps up into the main body of the shop. The lift is entirely blocked off by clothing rails and mannequins, and I can therefore not purchase anything, despite having bought lovely clothes from other branches of the same brand in the past. When asked, staff tend to shrug their shoulders nonchalantly, stating that it “wasn’t their decision”, and that “I’d just have to go elsewhere”. This is naturally frustrating and also a bit demeaning, although it has probably saved me a lot of money.

The shop owners that do make their facilities accessible not just to wheelchair users, but to all those with any kind of disability or other issue that might hinder their ability to go shopping, will make more money than those without access. Effectually this is a classic case of “voting with your feet” (choosing to go elsewhere if the shop in question isn’t good enough), although this statement is perhaps not the best thing to declare in front of a group of disabled people…