ZFS and Ubuntu Home Server howto

A while ago I bought myself a HP Microserver – a cheap, low power box which has four 3.5″ drive bays and an optical drive bay. I bought it to run as a home server which would back up all my data as well as serve up video, music and photos around the house. I had decided before buying that I wanted to store my data using the ZFS filesystem since ZFS was the only filesystem at the time which offered guaranteed data integrity. (It still is the only filesystem of release quality which offers this, although BTRFS is catching up.) I have become almost obsessed with ZFS because of the overwhelming benefits it offers but I won’t go into them here. Instead I recommend watching this talk by the creators of ZFS (Part 1, part 2, part 3) or read through the accompanying slides. [PDF]

HP Microserver - openI meant at the time to write about how I set up my system but never did get around to it, so here is what I did in the end. The server arrived with 2GB of ECC RAM and a 250GB hard disk. I eventually upgraded this to 8GB RAM and added two 2TB hard disks, although I started with one 2TB disk and added the second as a mirror when finances allowed. ZFS checks the integrity of the stored data through checksums and so it can always tell you when there is data corruption but it can only silently heal the problem if it has either a mirror or a RAID-Z/Z2 (Equivalent to RAID 5 or 6.)

ZFS is available as part of FreeNAS, FreeBSD, Solaris, and a number of Solaris derivatives. I initially installed FreeNAS 8. FreeNAS runs from a USB stick which I put in the handy internal USB socket, but while that was great for storing and sharing files it was not so good for running bittorrent on or using SSH to connect from out of the house. I also tried Solaris but I ended up going back to what I know and using Ubuntu Linux 12.04 LTS. Although licensing prevents ZFS from being included with Linux it is trivial to add it yourself.

I have assumed a certain level of knowledge on the reader’s part. If it doesn’t make much sense to you then you might be better off with FreeNAS or an off-the-shelf NAS box.

After installing Ubuntu and fully updating it I did the following:

sudo add-apt-repository ppa:zfs-native/stable

sudo apt-get update

sudo apt-get install ubuntu-zfs

…and that was it. It is a lot more complicated to use ZFS as your root filesystem on Linux, so I don’t.

Update: as of Ubuntu 16.04 ZFS will be supported directly. You will be able to install ZFS with the following rather than adding a third-party repository:

sudo apt-get install zfsutils-linux

Next, I had to set up the ZFS storage pool. The creators of ZFS on Linux recommend that you use disk names starting with /dev/disk/by-id/ rather than /dev/sda, /dev/sdb etc as they are more consistent (particularly the wwn identifier) so look in that folder to see what disk names you have.

ls -l /dev/disk/by-id/

The example pool name given is tank but I strongly recommend that you use something else. To create a single disk storage pool with no mirror:

sudo zpool create tank /dev/disk/by-id/wwn-0x5000c5004f14aa06

To add a mirror to that later you would type:

sudo zpool attach tank /dev/disk/by-id/wwn-0x5000c5004f14aa06 /dev/disk/by-id/wwn-0x5000c500400303dd

Or if starting with two disks to put in a mirror, your initial command would be:

sudo zpool create tank mirror /dev/disk/by-id/wwn-0x5000c5004f14aa06 /dev/disk/by-id/wwn-0x5000c500400303dd

I prefer to use mirrors as they are generally faster, however if you want a RAID5-type setup use:

sudo zpool create tank raidz1 … … … (3 or more disk identifiers)

The system will create your storage pool, create a filesystem of the same name and automatically mount it, in this case under /tank.

“sudo zpool list” will show you that a pool has been created as well as the raw space in the pool and the space available.

“sudo zpool status” will show you the disks that make up the pool.

Screenshot showing output of zpool list and zpool status commandsWhile you can just start storing data in your newly-created filesystem (in /tank in our example) that isn’t the best way to use ZFS. Instead you should create additional filesystems within your storage pool to hold different types of data. This will allow you to do things like set compression, deduplication, quotas and snapshots differently for each set of data or backup an individual filesystem with zfs send. You use the zfs command to create your filesystems. Some examples:

sudo zfs create tank/music

sudo zfs create tank/videos

sudo zfs create tank/backups

The above examples will create filesystems in the pool and will automatically mount them as subfolders of the main filesystem. Note that the name is in the format pool / filesystem name and there is no leading slash on the pool name.

Check that your filesystems have been created:

sudo zfs list

Screenshot showing output of zfs list commandNow we need to share the data, otherwise it’s not much of a server. ZFS will automatically manage sharing through NFS (Unix/Linux) or SMB (Windows) but you must first install the server software. For sharing to Windows clients use:

sudo apt-get install samba

To add NFS use:

sudo apt-get install nfs-kernel-server

You don’t need to configure much because ZFS handles most settings for you, but you might wish to change the workgroup name for Samba in /etc/samba/smb.conf.

To share a ZFS filesystem you change a property using the zfs command. For Windows clients:

sudo zfs set sharesmb=on tank/music

sudo zfs set sharesmb=on tank/videos

For Unix / Linux clients:

sudo zfs set sharenfs=on tank/backups

Or you can share the whole lot at once by sharing the main pool. The sub-filesystems will inherit the sharing property unless you turn them off:

sudo zfs set sharesmb=on tank

sudo zfs set sharesmb=off tank/music

You can check whether your filesystems are shared or not:

sudo zfs get sharesmb,sharenfs

At this point you should be able to see your shares from other computers on the network but you probably won’t have permission to access them. You will need to ensure that the file permissions and owners are set correctly, and you will also have to add an account and set a password for  use when connecting through Samba. If your username is ella then use:

sudo smbpasswd -a ella

to set your Samba password, and make sure that ella has permission to access all the files in your shared folders:

sudo chown -R ella:ella /tank/videos

Other useful features of ZFS that you should look up include snapshots and zfs send/recieve. I hope this short guide has been helpful if you are trying to set up a ZFS server. Let me know in the comments.

Updated 29/02/2016 to remove some personal details, add information about ZFS support in Ubuntu and add some explanations noted in the comments.

PIP Judicial Review given the go ahead

The court gave the go ahead on Friday the 3rd of May for the legal challenge against PIP to proceed to a full judicial review.

justice - lawyersitesThis decision represents a big step in the process as it means that a judge has heard from both my own lawyers and the Department of Work and Pensions and has decided that the case has enough merit to proceed to a full hearing in July.

Although the case was initially brought by three people through two different solicitors (Two people in conjunction with We Are Spartacus and one separately) the DWP have convinced the court to put two of the cases on hold and to proceed with only one case. Our lawyers have agreed that my case is the best one to proceed to a full judicial review. Solicitors for the other two cases will be watching my case and will request to rejoin the proceedings should they have something different to add.

We Are Spartacus: High Court gives green light to PIP legal challenge

A Latent Existence: Why I am suing the government

Tumblr: Why I am suing the government (Quick version)

Why I am suing the government

I receive Disability Living Allowance. DLA provides help for people who are disabled to live a normal life on a more equal footing. DLA provides two components, care and mobility, that pay for carers, cars, wheelchairs, but also taxi fares, pre-prepared food, adaptations for the home, and many more things. I asked people on Twitter what they use their DLA for and you can read their answers on Storify.

The Welfare Reform Act replaces DLA with Personal Independence Payments. Under PIP eligibility for the highest rate of help with mobility has been drastically reduced, from 50 metres to 20 metres and I fall right in the middle of those two. If I do not qualify for the enhanced rate of mobility then the biggest change is that I will no longer be eligible to lease a car from the Motability scheme. That means that I will have to rely on my wheelchair and public transport for every trip to the shops, to the doctor, to the hospital, and that means that every trip will turn into an far longer ordeal of exhaustion and pain that will leave me stuck in bed for hours or days afterwards. It means that I will only go out for the essential trips and will stay isolated the rest of the time and that will affect both my physical and my mental health. DLA is paid to disabled people regardless of whether they work or not, and in fact it enables a lot of people to get to work. If I were ever to return to work then it would be the help from DLA that got me there. Without it, I don’t stand a chance.

I am one of three people, likely to be badly affected by the change, that is taking the government to court and asking for a judicial review to declare the consultation invalid.

Jane Young of wearespartacus.co.uk did a huge amount of work to start the legal action, finding lawyers to take the case pro bono, finding people willing to put themselves in the firing line and put their name to the case. A call for volunteers was made through blogs and social media (Social media being a lifeline for isolated sick and disabled people) and lawyers picked those with the best case from about 50 volunteers. Although I volunteered early on I was not initially involved until one of the other people withdrew for personal reasons. This meant that I was brought in to the process at a late stage and had to rush through the paperwork. Even with a solicitor doing most of the work I had to work with her over the phone to produce my statement and I had to read and sign an awful lot of pages, each of which had to be emailed, printed, signed, scanned and both posted and emailed back because of time constraints. All very draining stuff for a sick person.

Some have criticised us because the legal case focuses on one part of PIP and didn’t cover mental health, among other things. Believe me, if I could have taken the government to task over all the other aspects of PIP I would have done. (Not least because I have mental health problems myself.) As it happens I was in the right place at the right time to take on this particular aspect and so that is what I have done. Unfortunately it isn’t possible to just go to court and tell them that PIP is rubbish, we had to specify exactly how the law was broken and attacking just this one aspect has been a lot of work for the people involved.

If we are successful in the judicial review then the consultation will have to start all over again with the 20 metre limit rather than the 50 metres mentioned in the first consultation. However, given the arrogance of the government I see no reason why they would pay attention to a new consultation any more than they paid attention to the one that they already did. I see this judicial review as a tool to give time to shine a spotlight on the injustice of PIP and bring attention to the arrogance of the government rather than the ultimate goal in itself. I think it will be public pressure that will change this policy, and the judicial review could be instrumental in bringing that about. I believe the best result would be if the government dropped PIP and kept DLA.

My solicitor, Karen Ashton from Public Law Solicitors explained the legal case to BBC West Midlands:

[audio:http://latentexistence.me.uk/media/20130409-Karen_Ashton-PIP-BBCWM.mp3]

For the official press release and contact details for enquiries please see my announcement about the case.

UPDATE: The case was heard on the 9th and 10th of July.

Replacement of disability living allowance headline news for hours

The replacement of DLA with PIP was the main story all morning until cruelly kicked from the headlines before the evening news. Here are some collected clips and links.

Steven Sumpter on Sky News – Video (Main headline all day)

Steven Sumpter on LBC Radio at 08:05

Margo Milne on LBC Radio at 08:15

Sue Marsh on 5 Live at 09:05

Sue Marsh on Radio Leeds at 09:50

Steven Sumpter, Ema, Kaliya Franklin and Sophie Christiansen on 5 Live at 10:35

With Stephen Duckworth of Capita

Rebecca on on BBC WM

The Guardian – Three disabled claimants launch legal action against new mobility tests

The Independent – Ed Miliband attacks ‘nasty’ George Osborne as DWP faces court challenge over benefit reforms

Ed Miliband criticised the government’s welfare policies but still fails to understand what went wrong with the work capability assessment

Sue Marsh has attempted to combat some of the lies the government tell about DLA

I’m one of three people taking legal action against the DWP over the PIP consultation

Announcement: legal action against the DWP over the #PIP consultation

I am one of three people asking for a Judicial Review over the consultation for Personal Independence Payments.

The request for a judicial review is on the basis that the Department for Work and Pensions did not conduct a proper consultation for PIP and if we are successful then they will be ordered to start the consultation again. If a judicial review is granted than it should take place sometime in July.

The initial consultation for PIP used inability to walk 50 metres to define eligibility for the enhanced rate of mobility component. That is, anyone who could not walk 50 metres without the use of a wheelchair would get highest rate of the benefit. After the consultation ended it emerged that the goalposts had been moved, and that the cut-off point for high-rate mobility would be just 20 metres. Those who can walk more than 20 metres but less than 50 metres safely, reliably and repeatedly may qualify for a lower rate of the benefit.

We will be arguing that the DWP were required to consult on such a fundamental change  and that they did not provide adequate information during the consultation that did take place. We will also argue that the DWP failed in their duty under the Equality Act 2010 to assess the impact of the new regulations on disabled people.

This change will affect me personally, albeit probably not until 2015 when those whose DLA has not already run out will be transferred to PIP. Those who receive the high-rate of mobility allowance under DLA are eligible to lease a car from the Motability scheme. If this requirement is kept with PIP then as someone who can usually walk more then 20 metres but not 50 metres without pain pain and exhaustion I will lose the high-rate mobility component and will therefore lose the car that restores much of my freedom and independence.

Public Law Solicitors are taking action on my behalf while Leigh Day are representing the two others involved in this case.

Press are welcome to contact me by email on latentexistence at gmail dot com or through the contact link at the top of this blog.

More information will be at www.wearespartacus.org.uk

Please sign WOWpetition to demand a cumulative impact assessment of welfare reform.


Press release from Public Law Solicitors / Leigh Day 08/04/2013

Lawyers have announced that they are taking legal action against the Government on behalf of three disabled clients who are challenging the decision by Ian Duncan Smith, the Secretary of State for Work and pensions, to bring in more stringent measures to qualify for the higher rate mobility benefit which the Government has estimated will result in 400,000 fewer people being eligible to claim.

The three clients currently receive disability living allowance (DLA) including the higher rate of the mobility component. This non-means-tested cash benefit has been available since 1992 and provides people with assistance towards the costs of an adapted car, powered wheelchair or scooter through the Motability scheme.

Under DLA a person is entitled to the higher rate of the mobility component if they are ‘unable or virtually unable to walk’. Usually claimants are considered to be ‘virtually unable to walk’ if they cannot walk more than around 50 metres.

The new Social Security (Personal Independence Payment) Regulations 2013 (PIP) have reduced this benchmark distance to 20m.

Kim Storr has rheumatoid arthritis and other severe progressive conditions and her mobility is affected by joint swelling and pain. She relies on crutches. She currently receives DLA including the higher rate of the mobility component. Ms Storr needs an adapted vehicle to enable her to go out independently.

Steven Sumpter has ME, which has caused him increasing mobility problems. He can walk short distances with a stick, but is otherwise dependent on a wheelchair.  He was assessed as eligible for the higher rate of the mobility component of DLA last year, which he has used to lease a Motability car.

The third claimant is protected by an anonymity order to protect their identity.

Law firms Leigh Day and Public Law Solicitors argue that a consultation process set up by the Government to reassess the benefit was flawed. The Secretary of State did not consult on the proposal that the limit would be reduced to 20 metres. This suggestion was only introduced after all the consultation stages had passed.

Consultees were therefore denied the opportunity to comment on the proposal or to explain to the Secretary of State how such a restriction to the benefit will affect them and their independence.

The 50 metres distance is widely recognised in relation to other disability benefits and in guidance on the built environment, to represent a minimum functional level of mobility.

Proceedings have been issued against the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Ian Duncan Smith, claiming that the new regulations regarding the PIP payment are flawed and unlawful. They argue the policy-making process failed to properly consider the practical impacts the withdrawal of the benefit will have on people with significant mobility impairments.

Rosa Curling, from the Human Rights team at Leigh Day who is representing two of the disabled clients said:

“We have advised our clients that the consultation undertaken by the Secretary of State was unlawful. People were not properly informed that the limit might be reduced to 20 metres and had no opportunity to provide the Secretary of State with their views on this proposal.

“Removing this vital benefit to disabled people will have a devastating effect on many people’s lives and their ability to access and be part of our communities. The Secretary of State has a legal obligation to consider such impacts before deciding whether to limit access to this benefit.”

Karen Ashton from Public Law Solicitors who represents Mr Sumpter, said:

“What is at the heart of this legal challenge is fairness.  The extra costs of getting out and about for those who have severe mobility problems can be huge. The higher rate mobility benefit can make the difference between being able to do everyday things that everyone else takes for granted  – such as doing your own shopping and visiting friends and relatives  –  and only leaving the house for absolutely essential appointments. But the Government failed to mention the reduction to the 20m threshold in their consultations with disabled people and so those who are potentially affected have not had the chance to explain how devastating the consequences will be.”

ENDS

For further information please contact:

David Standard – Head of Media Relations, Leigh Day 0844 800 4981 or 07540 332717

Karen Ashton –  Public Law Solicitors 0121 256 0327 or  07812 165090

No wheelchair for you!

My old broken power wheelchair
My old broken powerchair

I wrote back in March about the death of the power wheelchair that I had been given and my quest to obtain a new one.  It was old but it served its purpose in letting me go further from home and use public transport without requiring another person to push my wheelchair. Since my ability to walk is fairly limited I do need a wheelchair when I am out of the house. There are four ways that I know of to obtain a manual or powered wheelchair.

  1. The NHS
  2. Lease one from Motability using the mobility component of DLA
  3. Buy one
  4. Get a charity to buy one

It should be obvious that buying one is not really an option for most people living on sickness and disability benefits. Many people who need a high end power wheelchair do lease one from the Motability scheme however that option is not available to those who already use their DLA to lease a car through the scheme, or who do not receive DLA at all. In some circumstances a charity might be willing to foot some or all of the bill for a power wheelchair. Specialist charities for certain diseases or impairments might do this although in practice most do not have this option either. In my case there is a charity that helps people in the area that I live in who might be able to pay for part of the cost of a power wheelchair for me but since charity funds must be carefully looked after they require me to need a wheelchair but be unable to get one from the NHS before they will help. That leads me to the main option, to ask for a wheelchair from the NHS.

Soon after my power wheelchair broke an occupational therapist referred me to Worcestershire Wheelchair Services and I was told that I would get an assessment but that I would have to wait a long time. In the meantime I bought a manual wheelchair using my credit card. I have a bankruptcy in my past because of my illness so that credit is at an interest rate of 34% APR.

I knew when I was referred for a wheelchair assessment that I would not qualify for a power wheelchair because I only need a wheelchair when out of the house but that was OK because once I had an assessment I could turn to my local charity. As I understood then from other doctors and therapists I should qualify for a manual wheelchair, although probably one with small wheels that required an attendant to push it because self-propelling a wheelchair soon hurts my arms as much as walking hurts my legs. (This is why I purchased a self-propel chair, since I would like to be able to turn myself around even if I mostly have someone pushing.)

Then, today, I received this letter from Wheelchair Services. (Click to enlarge.)

Letter from wheelchair services

The letter informed me that I would not receive any wheelchair from the NHS because in Worcestershire they are

“Currently only able to supply wheelchairs to people who meet higher level needs i.e. to those clients who have a permanent mobility problem, who are unable to walk and who require a wheelchair within their own home.”

So, because I can walk or stagger around at home, I will not receive any kind of wheelchair to help outside where I cannot walk more than a few metres or stand up for more than a few seconds – not even a manual wheelchair. They won’t even visit to assess me. There are also many people who need a power wheelchair but are unable to get one from the NHS because they, like me can walk to some extent around their own home. In a lot of these cases they would use a wheelchair inside if only they could fit one in their home, but because they cannot they too are denied any help from wheelchair services. I know of several people who are currently trying to raise funds through donations to purchase their own power wheelchair because of this.

I’m not too worried about this in my own case because I have the manual wheelchair that I bought, and I have my wife to push it much of the time, and I still hope to get help from a local charity. I am far more worried about all the other people who haven’t been so fortunate and have no chance to buy a wheelchair, no charity help, no car and no one to offer lifts. I struggle to understand the justification for the NHS in Worcestershire not giving a wheelchair to people who need one but only when outside. If applied nationally, this policy would trap tens or hundreds of thousands of people in their own homes, unable to go out to medical appointments, to buy food or to visit family and friends. I don’t know how long this policy has been in place in Worcestershire but I hope that it is the only area doing this.

Worcestershire Wheelchair Service informed me that their qualifying criteria have been this way for a number of years due to low funding. Worcestershire is not looking like a good place for a chronically sick or disabled person to live right now; Worcestershire council are planning to remove funding for care at home for a large number of people and send them to live in care homes instead. This is a huge backwards step, a removal of freedom for a lot of people and reverts to the old method of locking those with disabilities away from society. This policy on wheelchairs will ensure that more people are trapped at home and so require care from the local authority, which in turn may put them into a care home.

Are we as a country really so short of money that this is the route we want to take?

Home server project – HP Microserver

HP MicroserverThere are a few computers in our house. I have a PC on my desk. I have another PC connected to the TV which we use for watching and recording TV, films, music, and playing games. I have a netbook in the bedroom for those days when I can’t get out of bed, and an Android phone which I use for music and video too.  My wife has a laptop and an Android tablet computer.Keeping track of our files on all of that can be a bit chaotic and so I have an old PC which works as a file server – a central repository for all of our music and video files which all of the other devices can fetch files from.

That file server consists of an old under-powered PC which runs FreeNAS and has a couple of not-quite-worn-out laptop disks in it because those were all that I had. Since this server isn’t very fast or reliable, Last week I bought a 2TB hard disk to replace the dying disks. I also had an email from ebuyer (my normal source of computer parts) which featured a HP Microserver for £229 with an offer of £100 cashback from HP. A new server capable of running four disks with low power consumption and a warranty all for £129 seemed like a fantastic deal to me, so yesterday I bought one. (It had gone up by £10 though.) The server came with a 250GB hard disk which is a bonus since hard disks are still very expensive after flooding in Thailand destroyed several factories recently.

HP Microserver - open

I intend to use the new server to hold all our music and video as before, plus our photographs. I will store all my files and documents on it, and I will backup the other computers to it. Now that I have my new server I have to work out what operating system I am going to run on it. My old server has FreeNAS installed onto a 2GB USB memory stick, and the hard disks are formatted with ZFS for high file integrity. I could do the same with my new server but since the new server is a bit more powerful (Dual-core CPU, 6GB RAM) I want to also run a couple of Linux virtual machines on it and I can’t easily run virtual machines with FreeNAS as the host operating system. I don’t want to run a file server from a virtual disk either, to avoid any data loss. Oracle Solaris has ZFS so I could run that on the new server and then run VirtualBox on that to host my Linux VMs. Another option is to run a bare metal hypervisor like VMWare ESXi or Citrix Xenserver, and then run Linux and FreeNAS as clients under that. I still wouldn’t want to serve my files from a virtual disk but I could give the FreeNAS virtual machine direct access to the 2TB hard disk. The only question then is where the virtual machines reside. I would prefer not to use the 250GB disk as that would be a welcome upgrade in my Media Centre PC which currently has a horrifically slow IDE disk which struggles to record two programmes at once. I could possibly host the virtual machine for FreeNAS on a USB memory stick too, maybe even the same one as ESXi is installed on although I don’t know if that can be done. I am curious as to whether ESXi could load a second virtual machine through an iSCSI drive served up by another one of it’s clients but that does seem like a recipe for slow operation and data loss.

Comments on which way to go are welcome.

Travelling in a wheelchair – or failing to

I went to Manchester this weekend to attend a conference, and getting there involved travelling by bus and train from my home. Karen was travelling with me but I decided to do the trip in my power wheelchair rather than my manual chair so that I could get around the conference by myself without getting too exhausted.

I booked assistance several weeks ago to provide ramps and get me on an off the trains, but to my surprise I received a phone call from the First travel assistance booking line on Friday morning which informed me that for some unknown reason I could not use the wheelchair space in standard class which I had booked and I would be put in first class instead. That was strange but I wasn’t going to complain.

I got in my fully-charged wheelchair just before eleven and set off to go the short distance to the bus stop. The bus turned up and the driver hopped out and lowered the ramp for me so that I could get on. Once I was on the bus, though, there was a problem. The doors wouldn’t close and the bus barely moved away at a crawl from the bus stop, and then stopped in the middle of a road junction. The driver tried several times to move the bus but it just wouldn’t go into gear. He tried several times to open and close the doors and then phoned the bus depot for advice. He realised that it might be something to do with the ramp and tried moving that a few times to no avail until I pointed out that the space under the ramp was full of mud and little pebbles and that it probably needed cleaning. He got his broom out and spent a few minutes clearing the muck out and the bus started working. Fortunately the 15 minute delay wasn’t a problem for us but several other people on the bus were late. Bus companies: remember to clean under the wheelchair ramp!

A surface drain in front of a dropped kerb
A cleverly placed wheel trap

We walked and rolled the half a mile or so from the bus station to the train station (Dodging the wheel trap on the way – see image on the left.) and reported to the ticket office about twenty minutes before the train was due (We are always told half an hour) and got waved through to wait on the platform. I had been told to go in coach G at the back of the train instead of coach C but when the train arrived coach G was off the end of the platform because Evesham station has short platforms. We were told by a member of staff in coach F that someone would be along to sort it out in a minute. At that point we saw someone in a wheelchair getting out of coach C – the one that I had originally booked. I was quite confused, since it made no sense. She must have got on the train after I received my phone call in the morning, and she couldn’t have booked the space since I already had. Even if she had booked it, I could have had it between Evesham and Worcester.

Still, eventually the train manager brought the ramp up to the rear of the train, but then he realised that he had to go back to the front of the train to unlock the doors of coach F. After another wait he opened the door and let us on to coach F, but then to my horror he told me that I had to go through the whole length of coach G to get to the wheelchair space. It turns out that my power wheelchair is exactly the same width as the aisle between the seats on those trains. I made it through but got stuck several times on the way.

We got into place and the train had moved off when we heard an announcement: the train we were on would no longer go to Worcester Foregate Street where our connection to Birmingham would go from, but would instead stop at Worcester Shrub Hill, three-quarters of a mile away. That caused immediate panic for us, and one of the train staff went off to find out what was going on. About five minutes after that we heard another announcement, this time saying that we would be going to Foregate Street after all.

Another of the train staff came back with first-class perks of free coffee and pastries which sort of made up for some of that chaos. Unfortunately I was still eating and drinking when we arrived at Shrub Hill and waited there for a long time. Suddenly there was someone putting a ramp in place at our carriage and I realised that we were about to leave the train. It turns out that the platform at Foregate Street is also a short platform and I would be unable to leave the coach that I was in, and so I was being being moved to the front of the train. Doh.

At coach C the ramp turned out to be a lot steeper than before, probably because the platform was lower. My powerchair is only capable of safely climbing an 8 degree slope and so it toppled back as I was going up the ramp. Fortunately my chair has small wheels sticking out of the back designed to prevent it from falling over completely but my front wheels were still high off the ground. Suddenly falling back like that makes me flail around painfully and in my flailing I shoved the joystick forward and ended up racing up the ramp, wheels of the ground, arms and legs out, before falling back down with a thump. Needless to say, I wasn’t really very happy at that point. Nevertheless I moved into place for the next bit of the journey.

That’s when things got even worse. We arrived at the station and someone put a ramp into place but when I pressed the power button on my chair it just sat there with all the lights flashing. No movement. I tried desperately to check the connections, and make sure that the motors were engaged but it wasn’t having any of it. It just wouldn’t power on. Something must have been damaged on that last ramp, or by squeezing through the train. A crowd of passengers surrounded me at the point which did not help in the slightest so I disengaged the wheels and persuaded the guy with the ramp to drag my and my chair off the train. That is no easy feat since my powerchair weighs more than me and does not have handles – it isn’t meant to be moved by hand.

Abandoned on the platform with bags and a broken chair, we were panicking. I got out of the chair and started to try to look underneath it which quickly started to exhaust me. Karen tried to lift it up but it was far too heavy. We realised that our train was about to leave from the other platform but getting there would be nearly impossible. Karen went off to talk to station staff and I stayed with the chair. At that point a couple of other passengers came over and offered to help so I let them turn the chair on its side so we could see the motors and wiring but we couldn’t find anything wrong. One of the staff there offered to let me leave the chair in a store room there but we had already missed our train. Instead I got back in the chair and Karen managed to push it outside of the station so that we could find out about getting it repaired. It looked like getting the chair to anyone who could repair it without a car would be impossible though, so Karen phoned my dad and asked him to drive out to us with a manual wheelchair and to take mine to be repaired. We had only got about twenty minutes drive from home so that didn’t take too long. Unfortunately, despite me having a wheelchair to continue the journey with, while we had been waiting all the trains out of that station for our route had been cancelled and we had another hour to wait.

Sign: Wheelchair SpaceAfter an hour at the pub next door we came back and arranged a ramp to get on the train, then went up to the platform. Then the train we were getting was delayed, repeatedly. It eventually turned up twenty minutes later than expected and crowds of passengers rushed on to it. I began to panic again because there was no ramp in sight but eventually someone turned up and let me on to the train. We tried to get to the wheelchair space but someone was sitting in it, staring at us. I commented to Karen at least twice and quite loudly that I had to go in the official wheelchair space, and the guy carried on sitting there staring at us. Eventually I directly told him to move and he got up and wandered off, seemingly in a world of his own.

Sign: Wheelchair Space: Priority by lawFor a while it looked like we would catch a reasonable connection from Birmingham to Manchester but as the journey continued our train got more and more delayed, arriving at Birmingham about ten minutes after our connection. We made our way to the right platform and someone turned up to help us but it was 5pm and the platform was crammed full. When the train arrived it was even worse; it was already standing room only and when we passed the window next to the wheelchair space we could see that it was completely filled with luggage. The lady with the ramp managed to get the space cleared and came back to let us on, but then the corridor had filled up with people too. We shouted at people until they let us through and got to the wheelchair space only to find it full of luggage again. We shoved luggage out of the way and I managed to squeeze into the space, but the wrong way around and with my feet in the way of the door. By this time my blood sugar was low because in all the chaos I hadn’t eaten lunch. Karen went to fetch me a sandwich from the other end of the train. It took her ages because the train was crammed full of passengers standing in the aisles, and she had to wait for other people to leave the train before she could get through. After an hour or so enough people left that Karen found a seat and I was able to throw more cases out of my space so that I could turn around and get my feet out of the way.

We did eventually get to Manchester, and only three hours later than we expected and only an hour late to meet our friends at the pub. It doesn’t end there though. On the Sunday night after the conference we wanted to catch a train from Manchester Picadilly to St Helens. Unfortunately at weekends there are no trains on that route, only a replacement bus service. That bus runs from Manchester Oxford Road but we couldn’t get the train from Picadilly to Oxford Road because Oxford Road is completely impossible to get out of in a wheelchair. It turns out that Oxford Road wasn’t too long a walk though, so Karen pushed me there, carrying our luggage too. We were able to fold up my wheelchair and put it in the boot while we were on the coach but if I had been in my power wheelchair then they would have had to get me a taxi instead.

Then finally in St Helens on Tuesday we wanted to catch a bus to meet someone. The bus turned out to be an old one which not only didn’t have a ramp, it also had a bar dividing the front entrance in half which meant that the wheelchair would only fit on by being folded up first. I would have been completely stuck if I had been on my own or in my power wheelchair.

Folded wheelchair on a bus
The only way it would fit on

Before I finish, here’s an extract from a previous blog post, the end of Invisible Invincible: my day of protest:

When we went to find our pre-booked assistance for boarding half an hour before the train was due to leave the manager told us that Evesham station was unmanned after lunchtime, which we already knew, but he also didn’t think there would be any staff on the train who could place the wheelchair ramp for me instead of station staff. This caused me to panic a bit but the station manager called another manager who called the train driver who thought there might be staff on board after all. I went to board the train, which is where we discovered that the train did not have a wheelchair space at all. I eventually ended up blocking the door area with my wheelchair for the whole journey. I am quite surprised that the assistance booking line were not aware of the situation with the station staff, the train staff or the type of train.

Unfortunately when we arrived the ticket inspector could not unlock the ramp at the station. She had been given the code for the lock but it did not work. My family had come to meet me at the station to drive us home and so I was carried off the train into a manual wheelchair by my brother, mother and wife, apparently dropped near the edge of the platform on the way. (I wasn’t really conscious, being too exhausted.) They also carried my extremely heavy powerchair off the train. Between them my brother and my wife got me into the car and then from the car to my bed, although I was almost completely unable to move.

I know all of that was a long tedious read but I felt it important to write down. These events are not uncommon, they happen to lots of people all the time. Accessibility should be simple and straightforward but we still have a very long way to go.

Inaccessible world

After publishing my film “A short film about pavements” this morning I have already had people suggest that I should not use a wheelchair on those paths because it is not designed for them, that I should rely on family or my local church to take me to where I need to go, that I simply want the government to spend more money that we haven’t got to fix the problem, and that it is bleeding heart socialist to ask for things to be made accessible for everyone.

So what was my point with the video? What do I want?

First of all, accessible buses with low floors. This is a reasonable adaption, and in fact a legal requirement by 2015. Unfortunately it takes time to do, and my local bus companies do not think it a priority to implement on the route that goes through my town.

Secondly, I would like broken pavements to be repaired and grass, mud and hedges to be kept back from the path. I can put up with a rattly bumpy ride, but where there are holes in the ground that necessitate my 86kg wheelchair being lifted out of after getting stuck, it’s quite reasonable to ask for it to be filled in.

Thirdly, I would like dropped kerbs at corners. In three examples in my film there are corners with no dropped kerbs, some quite new. At best this is negligence, possibly incompetence. These ramps should have been built in to start with. They are not a special requirement for wheelchairs, they are also needed for baby buggies, and people that have difficulty walking, and even just skateboards and roller skates. I’m sure there are more examples. Where corners have been built without dropped kerbs, these need to be fixed. It’s not an optional extra.

Why do I want all this? If we have no money, why shouldn’t I settle for being driven to the doctor, the pharmacy, the supermarket etc by volunteers from my local church, or by family members or friends? Big Society in action?

First of all, there is no guarantee of getting a volunteer. When I make an appointment with the doctor, I can’t check if there will be someone free to take me there a week or a month ahead. I can’t be on the phone to the doctor’s receptionist and the local church at once, arranging a mutually convenient time. And I have no idea if my father will be available to drive me during the working day, a month ahead.

Then there is the fact that it should not be necessary! I have a powerchair, there are buses, there is a walking route that goes where I need to go. (And is used by other people.) I should be able to use all these things.

I don’t have a car. I am too ill to ride my motorbike. I can’t afford the taxi fare at £17 for a round trip. I can’t walk to the bus stop and then walk around town afterwards. I need to take my wheelchair with me unless I’m not walking anywhere and not standing when I get there. Admittedly, I am going to apply for Disability Living Allowance which will help towards travel costs, but DLA is to be replaced by the much harder to get Personal Independence Payments, and that is going to withdraw support from many people on the basis that disabled people no longer need so much help because everything is accessible now. Everything is NOT accessible now.

I don’t want charity. I don’t want embarrassing reliance on other people. I don’t want to have to beg for help, or to feel like I am an inconvenience, or that I am causing problems by dragging my family or friends out of work to take me to places. I should be able to go there myself. I can go there myself. If only the council and the bus company did their jobs.

 

Thoughts on my first long powerchair trip

I went on my first long powerchair trip on Friday night. It was a 5 mile round-trip from Badsey to Evesham and back. On reflection, this was never going to be an easy journey. There are two routes that can be taken on foot. Unfortunately due to roadworks, one of those was not an option and so my wife and I were forced to take the other route, along the main road into town. This involved about a mile along a rural road with a 60mph limit, and hedges on both sides. Before leaving I checked through that stretch of road using Google Streetview to make sure that there was a path all of the way along. All seemed OK, so we set off.

Here are my thoughts on that journey.

  • My powerchair goes faster than 4mph. I think it probably manages 8mph. Excellent!
  • It doesn’t go as far as it should. The battery light was blinking after about six miles of use, not 24. Maybe a few charge / discharge cycles will fix that.
  • Using a powerchair requires planning to make sure that route and transport are accessible.
  • According to my wife, I operate a powerchair like I play Mario Kart. I’m choosing to take that as a compliment.
  • You can’t operate a powerchair like you play Mario Kart. It likes to stop before making the next move.

And some more problematic thoughts.

  • Getting to a junction and finding no dropped kerbs and therefore no way to leave the pavement and cross is frustrating.
  • Having to backtrack to the last dropped kerb is also frustrating.
  • Having no matching dropped kerb on the other side and having to take the chair along the road is dangerous.
  • Curved dropped kerbs that go round the corner are a pain. Wheelchairs are supposed to take the kerb at 90 degrees to avoid toppling. Having to turn 45 degrees to do that is irritating, AND the pavement is at odd angles that push the chair to one side.
  • A dropped kerb that crosses the pavement all the way to someone’s driveway makes the chair go down then up again. Having these repeatedly all the way along the street makes the chair go up and down continuously. They can also make the chair swerve into the road unless paying perfect attention and deploying light-speed reflexes.
  • A dropped kerb is supposed to be dropped. That means going down to road level. Not two or three inches above it. When a chair goes over that, it lurches wildly back and forth.
  • When a too-high kerb is combined with a round-the-corner curved dropped kerb that simultaneously goes up a hill on one road and down a hill on the other road, the combined angles plus speed necessary to climb the kerb mean that the chair will topple.
  • Flailing wildly when going over will wrench muscles, twist the back, neck and shoulders, and cause extreme pain and swearing.
  • Finding no way to get from pavement to road to pavement so that you can cross is bloody annoying. Did I already do that one? Well I’m doing it again because it’s BLOODY ANNOYING.
  • Tree roots growing under the path and tearing it up can lift one side of a chair, causing it to tip disturbingly to one side.
  • Cars parked on the pavement deserve to be scratched as I go past.
  • Pavements full of pot holes, cracks, patches and worn away surface are not just a minor irritant, they make the journey a hell full of dragging, rattling, lurching, bumping and worse.
  • A path is supposed to be wide enough to use. Six inches of goat trail with smashed up tarmac surrounded by tall grass and weeds right at the edges on both sides is not acceptable. Grass to within six inches of the road edge is definitely not acceptable.
  • Paths so old that their height varies by several inches NEED FIXING. You can’t leave that.
  • I got stuck on patches of broken pavement so bad that one wheel went in a hole. Not once, but twice. I couldn’t avoid the hole because the grass verge had covered the pavement.
  • I had to negotiate places where the broken, narrow path went through potholes, gravel and old stones at the edge, merged with driveways, with grass covering it at 45 degree angles. I lurched wildly. I nearly went over. And this happened in at least three places.

I’m going to stop there. There are more things, but I have complained enough for people to get the idea. OK, so most of the time I won’t be trying to travel from my village to the town, but I should be able to. It should not be a challenge, it should be a nice smooth ride along tarmac or paving slabs. Not a wild lurch along broken, grass-covered ancient pathway.

Oh, and I did manage to get to town and back, but not before the shops had closed, rendering my trip to buy cheesecake completely meaningless. I enjoyed a coffee at my sister’s house instead.