Agent 48: A Short Story.

The woman looked completely out of place as she entered the pub. She had tried her best to dress inconspicuously but her crease-less blouse and plain jeans tucked into knee-high leather boots made her stand out like a sore thumb among the crowd. She kept her head down as she hurried across the room, relying on her hair to obscure her features. As promised to her by her advisor there was a wooden door hidden in a dark recess at the back of the pub which she gently knocked on. She turned and looked over her shoulder, but everyone seemed to have lost interest in her and were focusing on their drinks instead.

A panel in the door at eye-level opened and the woman found herself looking at a pair of bright blue eyes before the panel was slammed shut again. She heard the sound of locks and bolts being us  and then the door opened. She stepped through wordlessly into a plain, simple room containing a desk and two chairs, before the door was shut firmly behind her by the man who had opened it.

“Take a seat, ma’am,” the man said, “he will be here soon.”

“Thank you,” the lady said politely before perching on the edge of a chair, clearly agitated.

To the right of the desk was another wooden door, which promptly opened.

“Ah, Lady Mansfield-Hope, I was wondering when you would arrive,” a man in a smart tuxedo seated in a wheelchair tried to glide elegantly through the doorway but caught one wheel on the narrow door-frame, and had to reverse to free himself. He positioned himself opposite her and apologised for his ungainly entrance.

“You’ve been expecting me?” Lady Mansfield-Hope asked, clearly perturbed by his statement, having accepted his apology.

“A woman of your intelligence and beauty would not marry a man like Lord Mansfield unless there was something to be gained by the marriage, or more specifically, his death. I am only surprised that you did not come sooner” the man replied.

“I thought it would be suspicious should he die too soon after the wedding,” the woman had regained her composure. “I would prefer to discuss this matter further with Agent 48 himself, if you please.”

“Madam, I am Agent 48,” came the reply.

“But-“ she uncomfortably gestured towards the wheelchair.

“I charge extra for ableism,” Agent 48 retaliated. “Speaking of which, let us first discuss prices.”

“Money is no object here, I will pay what you ask.”

“In that case then I will ask about the job at hand,” the man leant back in his chair, calm and composed as if planning a murder was nothing to him.

Half an hour later Lady Mansfield-Hope exited the pub, and went to find the chauffeur in a nearby café.

***

Agent 48 waited on the platform for his train, getting soaked by the incessant rain while he waited for the ramp he had booked the week before to be brought to him. It was on his third visit to the coffee machine that he asked a member of staff about the ramp, who proceeded to inform him in a patronising manner the process of booking a ramp for future occasions. Agent 48 informed the staff that he knew the procedure well enough having used it many times before, and that he was concerned with how to access the ramp he had already booked, not how to book one. It was bad enough that he had to book a ramp in advance, which prevented spontaneous travel altogether, but to yet again face the lack of a ramp at the train station made Agent 48 snap.

“It may surprise you that wheelchairs aren’t made with the ability to levitate, but I’m afraid to inform you that this is the case. So if you could find someone with a functioning body to put out a ramp, allowing my dysfunctional body to ascend the insane foot-long gap between the platform and the train, I’d be grateful. What exactly is the point of going to the trouble of booking a ramp, which by the way is more complicated than a power outage at an electricians’ convention, if a ramp never appears?”

Eventually, after much more detailed and heated discussion, a porter with a ramp showed up mere minutes before the train was due to leave.

“Sorry,” he shrugged his shoulders nonchalantly, clearly not concerned about his lack of punctuality, “I was on a fag break and saw an old friend.”

Once Agent 48 had been reprimanded for making a fuss about nothing, he boarded the train and manoeuvred through the tight doorway and into the carriage, only to find a pram in the one wheelchair space in the carriage. The porter left him to deal with the angry mother alone, who refused to move her pram despite notices saying that in the case of wheelchair users she was obliged to do so. Agent 48 decided to sit outside the dingy bathroom in the space between carriages, having people clamber over his feet as they went past. He noticed that it was always him who received the tuts and looks of disapproval for blocking the way, particularly when the snack trolley was brought through, but being used to this it didn’t bother him too much. He was merely glad that when the train pulled into his station, a porter was ready with a ramp on the platform for him, a rare occurrence.

After this, Agent 48 had to wait for an accessible taxi, watching people climb in and out of inaccessible cars while he waited. Eventually a wheelchair taxi pulled up and, once he had managed to convince the able-bodied people trying to climb in that he needed the adapted car, he was strapped into the vehicle. As inevitable as it was to ask the taxi driver what time his shift finished, the taxi driver asked why he used a wheelchair.

“I kicked the last person who questioned my disability,” Agent 48 said in a deadpan voice. The rest of the journey was spent in silence bar the exchange of money at the end of the trip.

Once Agent 48 had found the ramp, he entered the hotel and checked in at an overly tall desk before being told that his room was on the top floor. He went to the lifts and waited with his luggage in a heavy sports bag balanced precariously across his knees. He was glad that he had allowed extra time for all the hold-ups, as was his standard protocol.

Eventually the old lift reached the ground floor, and a wave of pompous businessmen in expensive suits pushed passed him without so much as a glance. Once again Agent 48 thanked his lucky stars for the benefit of anonymity that came with a wheelchair.

The lift moved slowly up the building, occasionally scraping in a very disconcerting manner as it travelled up the lift shaft. It stopped at almost every floor, sometimes for people who didn’t want to walk up one flight of stairs, and sometimes opening the doors to find no one there, as whoever had called the lift had clearly got bored and decided to walk anyway.

Finally Agent 48 reached the top floor of the hotel, and he laboured across the thick, woollen carpet to reach his room. He struggled to reach over his bag to insert the key-card into the scanner, which was placed so far up the wall an orangutan would have struggled to reach it. After stretching and straining Agent 48 finally entered the room. His wheelchair only just fit between the bed and the wall, leaving muddy streaks down the crisp, white bedding. With no room to turn around he had to reverse to shut the door behind him, and then he heaved his bag onto the bed.

After sorting out the contents of his bag he went to the window with his sniper rifle, and watched many important political figures being questioned by journalists as they entered an environmental policy conference across the road. The clasp to open the window was at the top of the frame, so Agent 48 had to use his rifle to undo the clasp before forcing the window open the fraction it could without allowing people to throw themselves, or someone else, out. Finally, Agent 48 set up the rifle so that he was ready to take the shot before covering it with a curtain, giving the appearance that the curtain had been pushed back by a careless guest.

Inevitably the several cups of coffee drunk in the train station while waiting for a ramp to make an appearance had their effect, and Agent 48 had to use the bathroom. He reversed, leaving more muddy marks on the bedding, and stopped by the bathroom door. This he opened with relative ease, although the door now blocked his route to the window, and with some mishaps he negotiated his way into the bathroom. Once inside he stretched up to reach the light switch, and then began the struggle of trying not to fall over his own wheelchair while he manoeuvred himself around the room. After about ten minutes Agent 48 made it back to the window, just in time to see Lord Mansfield’s car approaching slowly down the crowded street. He positioned himself carefully, took hold of the rifle, and exhaled. As Lord Mansfield climbed the steps, hindered by over-zealous photographers, Agent 48’s finger hovered over the trigger. He took the shot and Mansfield fell forwards onto the stairs while the crowd ran panicking in all directions. Another shot sealed Mansfield’s fate and then Agent 48 fired some more shots to hide the fact that this was a targeted attack, giving non-lethal injuries to two more politicians and one journalist.

Quickly Agent 48 wiped the rifle to remove any fingerprints, and grabbed a pair of balled-up socks from his open, semi-unpacked bag. He shoved them in his mouth and then in one swift, well-practised movement, over-turned his wheelchair. He lay sprawled on the floor and only had to wait a matter of minutes before policemen were hammering at the hotel door, having figured out where the shots were fired from. When the door was not answered it was kicked down, and three policemen practically fell into the room, where they were horrified to discover that a poor disabled man had been attacked by the sniper before he escaped.

Agent 48 was helped back into his wheelchair before being taken to the police station to submit a witness statement, describing how the sniper had followed him to his room and attacked him, gagged him, and had fired the rifle several times before fleeing. He recounted that the sniper had been wearing a mask to disguise his identity, and hadn’t spoken a word. While he gave a statement his luggage was collected from the hotel on his behalf. The following morning he left the police station having given all the evidence he could to aid the capture of this fiendish villain, and made his way to the train station which was only round the corner. He was predictably hampered by a few journalists who wanted to hear his version of events directly from him, rather than the edited witness statement released by the police. As requested Agent 48 remained silent, only breaking his silence to ask a photographer to step aside as she blocked the road crossing.

At the train station Agent 48 had once again to wait for a ramp, and so he decided to visit the newsagents as a newspaper would be helpful for him to remain discrete from the public’s eager eyes. He expected the headlines to scream of Lord Mansfield’s terrible assassination but was surprised to find that actually, the majority of the headlines were far more concerned with the attack on the heroic disabled man than the cold-blooded murder of an important political figure. He bought one of the papers and settled down to read the article on the assassination while he waited for a ramp. The article gave a brief discussion of the previous days’ events, including the fact that no suspects had as yet been apprehended, and a small mention of what all this would mean for Lady Mansfield-Hope was made. However, far longer than Agent 48 deemed necessary was spent focusing on the diabolical nature of a man who would physically attack someone deemed weak and defenseless.

As he finished reading the article a porter arrived with a ramp tucked under his arm, and finally Agent 48 could board the train. It did not surprise him that once again a pram had been placed in the wheelchair space, but this time the mortified mother was more than welcome to accommodate him. Smiling and relaxed Agent 48 buried himself in the pages of the newspaper, reading the latest about global politics and new scientific discoveries. He had never known such a pleasant commute as this.

Wheels of Fortune: A Short Story.

As soon as I arrived home I rang my mum, who I knew would be waiting my call. She answered almost immediately.

“Hi mum,” I said.

“Hey sweetie, how did it go?” mum never did like small talk.

“Not well,” I replied, “They turned down the appeal; I’ll only get the lower rate of mobility payments and nothing at all for care costs. According to the doctor in charge of my case I could choose to use crutches to move around and a manual wheelchair on bad days.”

“That’s ridiculous,” mum exclaimed, “You did explain that you can’t walk very far on crutches and that you can’t push yourself any distance in a wheelchair, yes?”

“Of course, mum. They just said I would have to have someone to push a wheelchair on bad days.”

“But they haven’t given you any money for care,” mum sounded as exasperated as I felt.

“Apparently it should be such a rare event that I can simply rely on friends and family.”

“How utterly ridiculous. If they had to live with a disability-“

“I know, mum, I know,” I interrupted her before a long rant ensued.

“So now what?” she asked.

“Well I can no longer afford payments on my powered wheelchair, so they’ll be coming to collect that in less than a month.”

“Can you try and push for a pay rise?”

“Mum, without a wheelchair how am I even supposed to get to work, let alone get a pay rise? There’s no chance of me being physically able to walk around the office on crutches all day and my colleagues have work of their own to do; they can’t be my carers.”

“Oh Susie, I wish your father and I could help you out, I really do, but he’s still hunting for a job and his redundancy pay has run out.”

“That’s OK,” I said. There was a short pause, before I asked, “Any ideas as to what I should do?”

“Short of robbing a bank, Susie, I don’t know.”

***

Dave was driving an adapted mini-van hired especially for the occasion with Sam sat beside him. I was sat in my wheelchair in the back, with the wheelchair steadied on the floor by series of straps more convoluted than the Lord of the Rings trilogy. We pulled up outside the bank and Dave craned his neck round to face me.

“You don’t need to do this, you know,” he said, “I’ll do it.”

“Are you saying that because I have boobs or wheels?” I retaliated.

“Fine, fine, it’s your money. Got your mask?” he asked.

“I’m in a wheelchair,” I said levelly, “that’s a pretty damn obvious clue towards my identity.”

Dave looked horrified but Sam was grinning from ear-to-ear, his balaclava pushed back to look like a normal hat.

“Everyone knows that wheelchair users are invisible,” he pitched in.

“Yep,” I agreed.

Dave rolled his eyes and climbed out of the drivers’ seat. He opened the back door, put out the ramp, and released my wheelchair. I reversed down the ramp with ease, a practiced manoeuvre I was very used to.

“I’ll be here when you get back,” Dave leant casually against the open boot of the car and crossed his arms, clearly not happy about my lack of a mask.

Sam and I moved towards the platform lift provided for wheelchair users to traverse the flight of steps into the bank. A piece of paper with the words “Out of Order” was pinned to it, waving in the breeze. Clearly the lift had been out of order for some time as the paper was dirty, crumpled, and damp.

“Right,” I said to Sam, “the actual disabled entrance is round the side.”

“Sure,” Sam replied.

I traversed up the narrow ramp which had a tight hair-pin bend half-way up, and hit the button for the automatic door to open. As usual the mechanism wasn’t switched on.

“I’ll get it,” Sam heaved the door open which, due to the rather pointless automation, was incredibly heavy and cumbersome.

Once inside the bank we joined the back of the queue and slowly we moved towards the cashiers’ desk. Aside from getting caught in the tightly weaving line set out by flimsy barriers, this was uneventful and even boring. After what seemed like an eternity we reached the head of the queue.

“Next,” a bored assistant said in a monotonous voice, “How can I help?”

“This is a stick-up,” I said to the marble panels lining the front of a desk so high I would have needed a periscope to see over it.

“Pardon me but I can’t hear you,” the assistant said.

“This is a stick-up,” I said loudly. Everyone stopped what they were doing and turned towards me, a stunned silence sweeping the room. I was used to being a spectacle so this did not perturb me. Sam turned to face the crowd, his balaclava obscuring his face and pulled the most realistic-looking toy gun we could find out of his back pocket.

“I need £6,000 in cash in this bag now,” I said, “and nobody gets run over.” I gave the bag to Sam who put it on the counter for me.

“Very funny,” the assistant didn’t laugh, “now what are you really here for.”

“Gimme the money!” I shouted in my most gangster voice.

It dawned on the assistant that we weren’t actually joking and she must have hit the emergency button underneath the desk. Red lights started flashing as the alarm screamed and the doors locked themselves. Everyone started running around like madmen, trying to cram themselves into the offices lining the walls of the bank for safety.

“The money, in the bag, now!” Sam yelled, turning to face the assistant and pointing the toy gun at her.

“That is not real,” she said.

“Wanna risk a bet?” Sam levelled it at her head.

“Yeah I would be since the armed response team will have real guns to shoot you with on the off-chance that yours is real,” she retorted, “so I suggest you put it down and take a comfy seat until the police arrive.”

“C’mon Sam, let’s just go,” I was disappointed but I knew when I was beaten.

I put my wheelchair on the highest speed setting and rushed towards the disabled exit. Since the automatic mechanism wasn’t switched on the door hadn’t locked. I hurled myself through the door and down the ramp and headed towards the car, only to find another car parked over the space where the pavement levelled with the road. I could see that Dave was already arguing with him.

“I’ll only be here a minute, what’s the rush?” the driver was saying, dangling his cigarette out of the window and dropping ash onto the road.

“Move or I scratch your precious car,” I said from the pavement. The driver saw Sam behind me, toy gun in hand, and looked as if he had had an accident that didn’t involve cars.

“OK, alright man, chill,” the driver reversed his car the two feet necessary and I hurried towards our mini-van.

The ramp was already down so I could drive straight into the vehicle but then began the complicated business of strapping the chair to the floor. It was a full minute before this was complete and as Dave pushed the ramp in behind me, three police cars screeched around the corner. Almost before they had stopped moving the officers were out of their cars and running towards us and were quickly joined by a van-load of officers with viciously barking dogs.

“Stop right there!” an officer yelled.

“The armed response team is only minutes away so I suggest you cooperate,” he continued, “Now let the hostage go and nobody gets hurt.”

It took me a second to realise that by “hostage” they meant me. As this sunk in Sam threw his head back and laughed loudly, sending the dogs into a burst of loud barking and growling. The officer who had spoken looked stunned.

“She ain’t no hostage,” our cashier hurried down the steps towards us, almost stumbling in her ridiculous heels as she did so, “She’s one of the robbers.”

The officer opened his mouth to speak but she told him that it was her who had sounded the alarm before he could ask how she was involved.

“I have no doubt that they were using this poor woman as some kind of protection, almost like a human shield,” the officer raised one eyebrow and glanced over at me.

“She was one of the robbers alright,” customers were now filing slowly out of the bank, and among them was the middle-aged man who spoke. A few officers were occupying themselves by stopping them from leaving the scene as they were all valuable witnesses.

“Are you?” the officer gaped at me. I figured there wasn’t much point lying as every witness would testify otherwise, so I told the truth.

“Arrest them all,” he ordered his subordinates. Quickly Dave and Sam were cuffed and placed in the back of separate police cars while being given the usual spiel about having the right to remain silent. However, I presented a problem; none of their own vehicles were accessible. Even when the armed response team came screeching around the corner a minute later, there were no facilities capable of transporting me in my wheelchair. Thinking on his feet the officer ordered that I was cuffed, and that a couple of officers drove our van to the police station.

The ride back to the police station took no longer than five minutes as we followed the cars containing Sam and Dave, but upon arriving at our destination my case presented yet more problems. It took ten minutes for the police officers to figure out how to release my wheelchair from all the safety measures, and then they realised that while cuffed driving my wheelchair would be rather difficult.  They tried to push my wheelchair, but it wasn’t designed to be pushed by others and it was extremely heavy. Eventually they had to settle for my slow and shaky driving as they escorted me into the police station.

The reception desk in the police station was as high as the one in the bank and yet again I found myself taking to a wall, wishing I had a periscope. After signing in I was escorted to a holding cell down a corridor so narrow it was virtually impossible to fit the wheelchair through. What the people already in a cell must have thought when they heard an electronic whine combined with the scraping of metal on whitewashed walls I do not know. The door of the cell was too small to allow the wheelchair through, and so I had to hobble over to the bench on the far side of the cell bracing the walls, and my wheelchair was taken somewhere where I was told it would be safe. Once the door had been slammed shut, I was amused to hear the sounds of the policemen struggling to drive my wheelchair to said safe place.

That evening mum and dad came to see me just as I was swallowing the last of something that barely qualified as food. Dad looked bemused and a little concerned but mum had a face like thunder.

“They’re releasing you on bail until the trial comes round since you didn’t actually hurt anyone or steal any money,” dad said calmly, “but only if you live with us until then with a curfew, and if you go out alone you’ll be arrested again. Count yourself lucky that this is some kind of wheelchair perk.”

“Oh and surprisingly enough, you’ve been fired. So now you really are out of money,” mum snapped.

I heard the barrage of whining and scraping that signified the re-appearance of my wheelchair and an hour later I was lying on a flimsy camp-bed in my parents’ cluttered lounge, trying to get to sleep while being licked by their dog Ringo.

***

The day before the trial I sat on the kitchen floor and scrubbed my wheelchair clean; they do say that appearance is everything in court. I picked out a matching dress and jacket combination, and made sure that my leather boots had been polished. Outside a group of photographers and journalists lounged on my parents’ garden fence which was scuffed and dented thanks to all their attention over the past months, much to my mothers’ dismay. I was actually grateful for their media coverage as my motives soon came to light and public pressure had forced the reinstatement of my disability benefits, allowing me to keep my wheelchair. It seemed that even after my little escapade, most people felt sorry for me because of my wheels.

For most of the introductory speeches at the start of the trial I remained lost in my own thoughts rather than listening to what was being said, all the while trying to maintain the appearance of being riveted for the benefit of the jury. The state-provided defense lawyer had advised all three of us to plead guilty to charges of attempted robbery, since there was an overwhelming amount of evidence in the form of witnesses and security camera footage against us.

Once Sam and Dave had been called, pleaded guilty, and been sentenced to a short stint in jail followed by many hours of community service I went to take my place opposite the witness stand. There was, however, one minor inconvenience. Despite the excessive media attention having taken great pains to emphasise my disability, turning me into the victim of the piece, between me and the microphone where I would confess my guilt there was a step. When the press saw my plight, uproar ensued as photographers leant dangerously far over banisters to take pictures of the court stupid enough not to provide accessible facilities.

The following day while lounging in my prison cell I was given a newspaper by a guard who had finished reading it. On the front page was a birds-eye view photograph of me seated in my wheelchair looking at the step in the court room. The focus of the article was not the fact that I had attempted to rob a bank but the fact that blatant discrimination still existed in a court of law. The scathing headline summed it up perfectly; “COURT NEEDS TO STEP-UP THEIR GAME.”

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…

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.

Pimp My Ride.

When I meet new people many of them feel very awkward about my wheelchair; they are so afraid to mention or even look at it that it quickly becomes the elephant in the room. It falls to me to break the ice, which I have several ways of doing. Sometimes I’ll use a quick one-liner to put people at ease, but a surprisingly effective technique is to positively draw attention to the wheelchair.

My first wheelchair had a dull grey metal frame, around a dull black seat, and a dull cream cushion. I quickly grew tired of people being so afraid of an awkward social situation that they would go to great lengths to avoid me, although it could always have been my personality of course, so I bought some high-visibility reflective stickers of yellow smiley faces and placed three down each side panel of the wheelchair. Where-ever I went they would make people smile, and in knowing that I was not afraid to play the fool, most developed a more welcoming attitude towards me. Children adored them and would reach out to touch them, before being whisked away by mortified parents.

When I upgraded to my second wheelchair, I purchased one with a red, sparkly frame, which in itself did a lot to dispel the awkwardness when meeting new people. I have applied the same principle to my newest wheelchair, which also has a bright red frame, and is a talking point for many.

Christmas is another fantastic opportunity to assure people that I am an ordinary human being with a sense of humour. Every year I buy some cheap tinsel which I wrap around the frame, and every year I receive lots of positive feedback. Complete strangers even call out complements across the street. However, this pales into comparison with what my school peer and Paralympian, Coral Batey, once did with her wheelchair. She somehow managed to wrap battery powered fairy lights around her wheels, and it was quite a sight to watch her glide down the corridor with twinkling lights beneath her; it certainly had the desired effect. The BBC have even reported on a group of wheelchair users who modified their wheelchairs for Halloween, including one child who wanted his wheelchair to become a Tie Fighter for the day: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/disability-37774000.

It may seem a simple and even immature thing to do, but adding something special to a wheelchair raises people’s interest and they see you in a positive light. Changing society’s stereotypes and taboos does not happen without effort on behalf of the minority, taking time and persistence instead. That is, of course, the very purpose of this blog because people’s opinions and actions towards disability will not change if others continue to live with misconceptions influencing their actions. Therefore a little silliness could be the driving factor behind immense social change.

Rock and Roll.

Anyone who knows me well knows that Green Day are the best band in existence, followed closely by My Chemical Romance and The Foo Fighters. Many hours have been spent lying on my bed, eyes closed, becoming immersed in the music. Each song conjures up another emotion or memory, and the best songs are the ones I remember hearing for the very first time. Music is a large part of my life and has been one of the driving factors in coming to terms with my disability, while also offering me a simple form of stress relief when it is needed.

Most of my meals are accompanied by the radio tuned into Planet Rock, who don’t just play the classics on repeat like most stations, but bring in new and obscure material. It was where I first heard about Green Day’s latest album, and where I first heard many of the singles from that album. When one of the presenters, Wyatt, embarked upon a country-wide cycling tour to raise money for charity, I naturally rushed out to welcome him when he stopped in Leeds. The poor man had cycled more than 200 miles in a little over a day, but when I asked for a photograph with him, he still made an attempt to get on the same level as me. This was despite the fact that his knees were almost completely immobile, hence the awkward pose.

Image description: Wyatt from Planet Rock in high-vis cycling gear, including his helmet, leaning awkwardly in for a photograph. He had cycled 200 miles at this point. I'm sat in my wheelchair in my leather jacket, with black lipstick on.

While rock music over speakers is still an experience, nothing quite tops live rock music. I will never forget going to see British Rock bands Yashin, and The Blackout; it was one of the best evenings of my life. The wheelchair space for the concert was on a balcony connected to the stage, where the band that wasn’t on stage would mill around, and I managed to worm my way in with several of the Yashin crew. They were friendly and comedic people, and the surrealism of it made it all the more special. Several photos were taken that evening, and the picture my best friend took of me with Harry, the lead singer of Yashin, is still one of my favourite photos of all time.

Image description: Harry from Yashin with his arm around me, smiling up at the camera for a photograph. I'm wearing my ghost-busters t-shirt. This was taken backstage due to the wheelchair access route, just before the gig kicked off.

When I bumped into another Yashin member, Kevin, at a different concert, I was a little disappointed that I didn’t manage to get a photo. However, he seemed so genuinely pleased when I complemented him on their newly released material that it didn’t matter to me. He even held the door open for me and shook my hand afterwards, contrary to the stereotypical image of a self-centred rock star. So it seems that the people of rock are much like the crowd at a wrestling show; loud, obnoxious, and warm-hearted.

A Pub Roll

One of the most common aspects of student life is the pub crawl; going from one pub to the next and getting shamelessly drunk along the way. The most popular of these in Leeds is the Otley Run, which goes through 15 pubs and is usually themed.

My personal favourite of all the themes I’ve seen was a Donald Trump theme, where a group of approximately 20 men staggered through the door of a bar in the student union, dressed in suits with cheap red ties and false blonde wigs. The news was being broadcast on a television behind the bar, and when the president appeared on the screen, the entire group started roaring and jumping up and down in their drunken state. However, much as I would like to join in with such an event, there is one small but significant problem; over half of the pubs have steps into them, and wheelchairs cannot levitate like Daleks.

In contrast to my predicament, I am not prepared to sit aside and be excluded from this. I decided to take action and designed my own pub crawl, the pub roll. Jarred and myself started in the students union, in the modern bar called the Terrace, before heading down to the basement to sit in the cosy and traditional Old Bar.

Image description: A selfie of myself & my husband as students. I'm wearing a navy blue & white striped jumper & blue dungarees, & Jarred is wearing a black University of Leeds hoodie.

After a couple of drinks we headed out into the brisk Winter night, and wandered down to Dry Dock, a bar stylised to look like a boat beached on a mound of grass. Much to my surprise the bouncer held the door open for me, and did the same on the way out, wishing me well as he did so.

I would like to think that although I was a tad tipsy no one could tell, as I did not have to face the troubling task of balancing on two feet, and could rely on six wheels instead.

We crossed the main road and entered City Bar, which was in the union of the rival (and inferior) university, and then headed up to a branch of Wetherspoon’s called the Stick or Twist.

Image description: a similar selfie taken later in the evening at another pub.

When we were done there, we meandered slowly down to another Wetherspoon’s. By the time we were done there, I was seeing three of everything, so instead of progressing onto the Botanist as planned, we dragged ourselves home. Trying to drive my wheelchair in a straight line was something of a challenge, but the quiet streets posed no threat to unsuspecting pedestrians.

I was proud to have done something about the Otley Run situation, that being getting drunk in the name of social justice. It’s always good to know that with a little extra thought such issues can be overcome and it is worthy of note that the shops, pubs, and other venues that make themselves accessible are the ones to receive my money.