It seems fitting to wake up to the first post Paralympic day to drizzling, miserable rain - a sort of real life pathetic fallacy warning of political and economic doom to come after the excitement and optimism of weeks of sport dramatic enough to get even a lazy, chocolate eating focused scrounger such as myself interested.
I was lucky enough to go the Paralympics last week, a treat from my lovely twitter friend @fionalaird There aren't enough 'amazings' or 'awesomes' to describe what the atmosphere was like in the Olympic Stadium; the whole experience was surreal, a happy, positive London where strangers interacted and on the Olympic travel routes abundant volunteers couldn't do enough to help. It was far from the typical travel reality for disabled people, but a glorious utopian vision of how access could be all the time with the right funding, attitude and will.
My journey to London was easy and well supported, but when I tried to return to Birmingham it was back to travel reality for disabled people with a big bump. Despite having booked all my assistance 48 hours in advance when I arrived at Euston there was no ramp to get on the train and a grumpy, unhelpful platform staff who told me off for not having sat in the assistance lounge waiting like a good little cripple, disregarded my "but I booked it all properly" explanation and made it quite clear that although a ramp would turn up...it wouldn't neccessarily turn up in time for me to get on my train. Fortunately the Virgin trains staff overheard this exchange and came over to say that they weren't allowed to use the portable ramps as they aren't insured but that there was no way the train was leaving without me. My new Luggie scooter came into its own as it was easily lifted onto the train and I was helped on - a very good job as the train did leave before the ramp arrived. Back at New Street station the ramp and support arrived, and despite a few moments of stress while we waited for the lift to be fixed it was all easy. Well, easy until I tried to get a taxi. Other passengers pushed in front of me despite it being obvious I was at the front of the queue and four or five taxi drivers either refused to meet my eye or just plain refused. Fortunately it wasn't too long a wait until one stopped and got the ramp out willingly, later apologising for his colleagues but enough to have caused a bit of a panic while I tried to work out if I could manage to find my way back to my friends on my scooter.
After all that I was very relieved that I was being driven to Bristol for the 100 Voices conference held by Brandon Trust this weekend. 100 Voices is the only conference for people with learning disabilities who also choose the agenda for the conference. Last year employment was the topic everyone wanted to cover, and this year transport was the choice. People with learning disabilities are even more disadvantaged in the employment marked than those with other disabilities, and there were many complaints about the lack of adequate public transport to enable people to get to work on time. Whilst bus passes are available for free, they can't be used before 9 or 9.30am in many places, which prevents people from getting to their jobs on time.
We all arrived in Bristol on friday evening to stay at The Thistle Grand Hotel. Its an old Victorian building, so wasn't designed to be accessible, and there were the usual complaints from staff that the hotel wanted to put a proper ramp at the front entrance, but had been refused planning permission by the local authority to do so. Although the building itself isn't perfect in access terms, the hotel have the best access statement I've ever seen, it details the width of doorways, if there's a ramp, what kind of ramp, whether it can be used independently, that there is a loop system etc. It was those little details that made it so impressively accessible...its the first hotel I've ever stayed in which had what it described as DDA compliant TV channels set up to ensure there were either subtitles or audio description permanently available.
But, as ever it was staff attitude which made it a great place to stay. The portable ramp at the front of the building was tricky to use, and as my scooter is so low to the ground it got stuck every time, but every time the concierge was on hand to help. The most impressive part was that when 40+ disabled people arrived at once with a huge variety of access and support needs the staff didn't bat an eyelid and simply got on with assisting everyone, making us all feel like that was just part of the service they put on for all guests.
Typically I disappeared to bed before 9pm as I was speaking the next day - and everyone else stayed up late drinking, partying and pulling. It was really good to see everyone I met last year. I was so touched during the press photo shoot when Anne appeared behind me, gave me a massive hug and said "I helped you last year". I hadn't thought she would remember as we'd met just the once, but when I told her that everytime I talk to a politician about people with learning disabilities and employment that I explain about her job she nearly levitated with pride and excitement. Anne works as a carer in an old people's home, and having experienced the way she looks after people if I lived close enough I'd be trying to employ her to look after me.
So now I'm back in rainy Birmingham where I based myself for the week so that I could manage to get to both the Paralympics and Brandon Trust. Its been exhausting and I'm wiped out, but 100 Voices is my absolute favourite event of the year. Its actually the hardest to plan a speech for too as there is a huge range of disabilities all of which have different communication needs, so as usual I planned music to relate to the transport topic. Its also really tricky to find music that is instantly recognisable to 100+ people aged from 18-65, some of whom have profound and multiple disabilities, and that mentions a form of transport. As ever there were worries and complaints about using children's songs from people who weren't there or who don't have a disability themselves, and as ever the whole room loved the music and was more engaged at that point than any other during the day. The only complaint from a delegate was that this year there was no Bob The Builder music!
Its been a brilliant if exhausting week, and I'm in Birmingham for another few days to recover - depending on whether I have to do some radio stuff tomorrow. I'm looking forward to getting home to BendyCat who apparently has absconded to live upstairs with my neighbours and to planning the agenda for party conferences next month. This year we've been a bit more organised and have split the responsibility, so Sue Marsh and Pat's Petition will be covering Labour Conference in Manchester, and I'm off to Conservative Conference in Birmingham. We've got a new Minister for Disabled People now, who also happens to be my constituency MP Esther McVey so it will be good to meet her in Birmingham in her new role and see what comes of that....