Sunday, June 26, 2011

Two Girls, One Wheelchair & 21st Century "Accessible" London..

It’s been a looooong weekend and both Sue and I are on our respective trains home utterly spoonless and exhausted. Having just found out my train’s massively delayed because the signalling equipment and cabling has been stolen it’s pretty much the final straw and there will be tears before bedtime.

I could tell you all about the politics and the campaigning we did this weekend, but the real story is in how we got around and what happened to us. The whole premise of the Welfare Reforms and in particular the new Personal Independence Payment is that now we have laws about accessibility, benefits aren’t needed in place of that. The edited highlights of two spoonies alone in London for a weekend go to show how very far from the truth that is and just how much needs to be changed for sick and disabled people to be able to compete on an equal platform in life, let alone the workplace.

The journey here was relatively uneventful, Scousers are incredibly helpful people so it was no surprise that a lady passing by insisted on helping with the case all the way through the station whilst my neighbour pushed me in the wheelchair, or that after several slightly dodgy jokes that the Burger King man sent me away with enough fries to feed a family. Assistance was booked, turned up and all went well.

Until we got to the hotel. The very pretty, but very, very inaccessible Hotel Russell in central London. The front entrance to the hotel is lovely to look at, as is much of the inside…but you only get that view if you can walk up a flight of marble steps. If you are a wheelchair user you get to go all the way around the block to the back of the hotel. There there is a delivery entrance with intercom… far too high up the wall for a wheelchair user to access. The videos speak for themselves, but for those who can’t see them the trip into the main hotel involves a hair raising ride on a pallet lift and trip through the kitchens, past the storage carts etc. According to the very embarrassed and apologetic staff members it was because it’s a listed building and that meant not being able to alter the front entrance. I would have considered that fair enough had there been ANY effort made to make a proper accessible entrance around the back of the hotel, but as they hadn’t it’s obviously just an excuse for ‘we can’t be arsed’. I was horrified to hear from other wheelchair users on twitter that they had had that exact same experience at the Hotel Russell three years ago and been assured it would be remedied when the hotel was fully refurbished, which it claims to have been recently. The only positive about the Hotel Russell was how lovely and helpful all the staff were. It’s obviously a frequent issue as on one of our tours through the bowels of the hotel we were introduced to the ‘big boss’ who didn’t even bat an eyelid at the wheelchair route we were being forced to take.

The accessible room was prettier than the route into the hotel…but it wasn’t exactly accessible. It was just a normal room with a decent sized bathroom and some grab rails. The contrast of the braille on the room number plaque made both Sue and I giggle, but the fact that we were completely unable to get in and out of the hotel alone did not have such a cheery effect. But, we’re spoonies so we made the best of it, ordered room service and got on with planning for our seminar.

Saturday morning we had to be at the Institute for Education bright and early. After a disastrous trip to the hotel’s business centre which the staff insisted had printing facilities we found three non functioning computers and a broken phone meaning we couldn’t call for help. So we set off for the Compass conference which we were assured was just around the corner….it was. But unfortunately we were directed the wrong way so by the time we arrived at the Institute for Education we were both knackered but Sue who’d been pushing me was beyond exhausted. I don’t think we can thank Left Foot Forward and particularly Dan Elton enough, not just for taking a chance and hosting a seminar about welfare, but for being able to cope with two hysterical women, one sobbing, one shaking and get us calm and organised.

After all that we decided to sit out the morning’s main speeches, we were just too tired and sore to even contemplate it and just took it easy until our seminar time. We’ll post separately about the seminar, but suffice to say it was described as the most interesting seminar on welfare ever. Which obviously has nothing to do with the crawling under a table or shoeless presentation style.

Sue sensibly went for some lunch and a lie down after that bit, but there was another lecture I wanted to see and so the very kind Neil Coyle of Disability Alliance took over as wheelchair pusher. Although I’ve got some mobility the conference centre was too big for me to move around so I was dependant on whoever I could find to charm/bully into pushing me around…including a member of the House of Lords….thanks by the way Lord Glassman!

Eventually we were done seminaring, speeching and politicking and all decided to head off to the pub. I’d like to thank Declan Gaffney for pushing me around so much of the day…and to say I hope he’s recovered from the trauma of launching a small, bendy wheelchair using woman out of the wheelchair and onto the kerb in such spectacular fashion that even in London people stopped what they were doing to gape open mouthed at the sight. I giggled when I hit the floor…because that’s my response to hurting myself, especially in public and was so panicked about being on the floor with the wheelchair sticking into the road that all I could think about was that. Declan managed to scoop me off the floor and off we went. It was only later when the adrenaline wore off and the pain started that I realised I’d dislocated my whole femur from the combination of force from hitting the supposedly lowered kerb and falling onto my left knee. There were copious amounts of prescription and non prescription medication consumed after that!

Sue and I were completely incapable of returning to our hotel alone after that. We’d both like to thank the fabulous Charlie Covell who took over as chief wheelchair pusher, got us back safely and went off to buy us dinner to eat in our hotel room as we couldn’t possibly have gone anywhere or done anything.

This morning we had to again brave the terrifying pallet lift, but were helped by hotel concierge Steven who organised things so well it wasn’t as much of a problem for myself and especially Sue. The cabbie went out of his way to help us and dropped us off at what was supposed to be the easiest entrance to Euston. And it was…just a few steps in and we spotted a staff member wearing a Virgin Trains uniform and asked him to get us some assistance.

So…the man pushed us into what we thought was a broom cupboard, closed the door on us and went off, claiming he was going to get mobility assistance to help us. We sat there a bit bewildered but not as confused as the poor man whose tradesman’s office it turned out to be who was very surprised to see two women, one wheelchair and luggage parked in his office. He chatted away to us until it became clear the other man had literally dumped us and not even bothered to let anyone know we were there. The gentleman insisted he would take us where we wanted to go himself and was joined by an incredibly apologetic employee of Virgin Trains called Justin Stockwell who could not have done more to help us if he’d tried. Justin and the other man pushed me and Sue out to the place we intended to eat at, made sure we were safe and arranged to meet us himself at the mobility assistance place and put me safely onto the train.

Which is when Sue and I hit our final straw. Exhausted, hungry, in pain, unwell and verging on tears we both desperately needed to eat, but I’d managed to pick a place that Sue couldn’t eat the food at and I couldn’t eat at any of the places we could see. Somehow, neither of us know how we managed to stagger to an adjacent place and order some food in time to gulp it down. But that was it, we didn’t even have the energy to manage to get ourselves, two cases, two laptops and a wheelchair back into the station.

Fortunately Sue spotted a British Transport Policeman who came to our rescue and pushed me in to meet Justin so that Sue could get her taxi.

I was escorted onto the Virgin train by the still apologising Justin and the lovely transport policeman and upgraded into first class. The train manager and Justin explained how to make a formal complaint and said they will be too and made sure I was safe as did the policeman before leaving.

Just imagine trying to be fit enough to go to work every day when you're already sick and/or disabled...and then going through that kind of  performance to get anywhere. It's what the Welfare Reforms are banking on us being able to do...

19 comments: said...

Can you please write a post about the conference for Disability Voices, when you have the spoons?

Stitched Together said...

Since I became sick I have only been to London once and was put off it so much I've never been back. I too ended up in the road after using a supposed drop kerb. Luckily I only hurt and don't dislocate. Still, I hate not being able to get around a city I always loved.

Tony Holden said...

The listed building excuse is bullshit.

One of the hotels local to me is listed and they wanted to install a lift to give disabled people access to all floors. They did have to fight the council for permission, but they did finally get it.

Personally I don't think the Russell should be able to call itself accessible if the access is through a loading dock and up on a pallet lift. Thinking about it, I also have to wonder if the pallet lift should be used in the way it is, and if their insurers are aware that industrial MHE is being used to lift disabled guests?

ChrisD said...

I work twice a week round the corner from Hotel Russell, so have always feared the maintenance/smokers' space/tradesman's entrance was the only accessible entrance.

Am also a frequent use of Euston and know the help for wheelchair users is usually pretty good. There is a phone near the taxi drop of point to get assistance, but I guess familiarity gives me the edge there! :)

Casdok said...

I empathise. I went to the Autism Show this weekend at ExCeL by public transport.
I used up all my spoons :(

Melissa Smith (Queeniejelly) said...

London is a huge pain in the arse to navigate in a wheelchair. Though I wouldn't want to live anywhere else, there is much that needs to be improved on. Even in Greater London. When I fell out of my wheelchair - after it tipped on a steep, uneven "accessible" curb, not one person stopped to help. My mum was struggling to help me, I skinned my back getting up, and my heavy wheelchair needed righting. Like you, we both had a fit of the giggles. My concern was calming my very panicked mum. We then had to run to St Thomas's Hospital to get extra dressings, almost screaming at the idiotic tourists who seemed to expect us to go in the road, rather than ask them to move.
If someone in London helps you, you can be 90% sure they have a disabled or ill friend or relative. No one else really bothers.

Melissa Smith (queeniejelly) said...

Also, my dad works all over the place fitting air conditioning duct work. He has had to tell so many businesses that their "accessibility" plans are useless. He has met, and challenged, poor disability provisions in special needs schools and hospitals, too. It's disgraceful.because my dad is "just a manual worker", they don't always want to listen. Then he's shown building contractors a photo of me, and suddenl they want Dad's help!

Sarah said...

The last time I tried to get to London on the train I found myself cheerfully abandoned in my wheelchair in a cold and drafty guard van with no windows but lots of luggage. No way out even to get to a toilet.

When in London I had to resort to taxis as the buses were all "full" (read can't be bothered to move out of the wheelchair space or fold up a buggy).

On the return trip, although there 30 minutes before departure the guard wouldn't at first let me on the train as I hadn't booked 24 hours in advance.

Naive as I was, I thought that I was allowed to go on a day trip to London and come back when ready. It eventually transpired that they had lost the ramp. When they eventually found it, it was the wrong size for the train and was too wide. This was solved by one of the members of staff jamming it in the door and jumping up and down on it until it was more or less parallel to the ground. I got on by stint of my friend pushing me up it at a run. Luckily we had taken my manual wheelchair as my electric one would simply have tipped over sideways.

This time I had the great honour of travelling in an actual carriage instead of a guard van. On the other hand I was unable to get off the train on the other end for half an hour as they had also somehow lost their ramp since using it in the morning and even though they had been warned I was coming.

That was 4 years ago. I haven't dared try again since.

I *could* move on to my experiences in hotels which also include back entrances and being abandoned with a shrug at a lift which was too small for the wheelchair, but I wouldn't stop for quite some time.

Tom said...

I can honestly say, hand on heart, that another hotel to avoid for Accessibility reasons is the Britannia Country House, Manchester. You can read why: Here

Your experiences with transport assistance are also not unusual. Sadly.

Out of interest, why was it the Hotel Russell(?) that you chose? Did you have it on good/reasonable authority that they were decently DDA compliant?

Anonymous said...

What does spoonie mean?

Iconic Imagery said...

A trip to the 12th level of hell - absolutely disgraceful in one of the wealthiest countries in the world and in the 21st century.

You raise fair points and what struck me to comment was thinking back to when I was not-yet-disabled and all of the drama of getting to and from work every single day in London. Yes, every single day from overcrowded buses that close the door in your face, to overcrowding and delays on trains & tube ... it's enough to have to psych yourself up just to make out of bed and out your flat... but there were many times when I gave up and went home. I recall the last proper vacation I had in Bath several years ago - fabulous boutique hotel, great service and beautiful room, but I was already using a walking stick to aid my deteriorating mobility so just making it up a double set of steep stairs from sidewalk to front door nearly killed me as did the stairs to get to my room. I am housebound now in Wales without so much as a scooter - but your experience fills me with dread. One of the reasons why I dont attempt to leave my flat often is because I cant cope with dramas like this anymore; but sooner or later I will need to travel and/or attend an event. God help me then ... 8((

DavidG said...

@Anonymous, spoonie is disability slang for someone with a fatigue based disability - you have a handful of spoons (a metaphor for your energy) and have to sacrifice one for each activity (getting up, getting dressed, eating etc). Once you run out, tough...

DavidG said...

The other problem you can face, the one that ultimately put me off going into London, is that no matter how well planned your trip, you can suddenly find yourself being dumped at a tube or train station you have never heard of, because of signal failures or whatever the excuse-de-jour is, with no idea of the accessibility at the station, or how to get yourself from unknown station to where you need to be by accessible route.

Anonymous said...

On saturday last, we travelled to Brighton for the day, via London. As two wheelchair users, was necessary to travel on separate buses between Liverpool St. and Victoria stations, BUT the ramps on the buses didn't work, as often happens! Also, there is rarely anyone to meet you at the station with a ramp to get off, so able-bodied companions have to search for staff to help. Highlight was using the only (apparently) disabled friendly loo at Victoria station, with other people banging on the door and shouting because we'd been in there longer than 5 minutes! Would anyone spend longer in such a place than is strictly necessary? All these things add up, and I wouldn't want to travel in this way too often.

Achelois said...

I would like to personally thank you both for attending. I am not at all suprised at the trauma's you encountered, everywhere. I read Sue's post where she mentioned a little of your speech, well done. You both put people like me to shame. I hide at home.

One of the reasons I have not attended an appointment at UCHL for so very long is the reasons you describe regarding accessibility etc. Which obviously means I don't get to see who I should.

Ehlers Danlos hurts a lot doesn't it Kali, rest up and don't rush to post about it. I am not going anywhere and understand you will be exhausted beyond explanation.

THank you again for campaigning so hard, I am humbled by both your efforts.

Gentle hug

misspiggy said...

...but then you go to Paris and realise how much worse things are there. You appreciate how many handrails there are in London streets, vehicles and subways, and how many widened entrances; Londoners start to look positively saintly (many will help if asked outright); there are a few properly dropped kerbs; some stations have lifts and more have escalators; and there are some doors that it is possible to get through without maximum strength and fitness.
Not that I'm saying we should stop pointing out the problems - just that, crap as things are here, there is still a relatively good starting point to push for progress in the UK compared to several other countries.

Iconic Imagery said...

The psychiatric team I used to have in London actually encouraged me to move; trying to cope there before my physical and mental health deteriorated was bad enough... I dont even want to think of trying to get by there now especially with no scooter or support.. And on public transport no one really gives a hoot if you are disabled... people look elsewhere and pretend you aren't even there or at the extreme think their baby buggy is more important than a wheelchair user or perfectly healthy people getting aggressive when you ask them to get out of the disabled seats at the front. I even got chewed out on the Tube buy a guy who had his teenage daughter sleeping across three seats.... and people were muttering that *I* shouldn't let him talk to me like that... but none of them were going to help. All that glitters definitely isnt gold in the capital, especially for disabled people.

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