Dear Badsey Spar, stop discriminating against wheelchairs

The front door at Spar in Badsey
The front door at Spar in Badsey

I use a power wheelchair and every time I visit Spar in Badsey I find that half of the double door is locked and I cannot fit through one side. I always have to send someone else in to find a member of staff with a key and usually have to wait several minutes outside while they locate the key – on some occasions they have not been able to find it at all. At other times I have not had anyone with me to send inside.

Today my wife went inside to find a member of staff but they were serving a long queue of customers and since I was not prepared to wait outside for five or ten minutes in temperatures of 5°C I went home without doing my shopping. This problem would be easily solved by having both doors unlocked  at opening time and by not doing so Spar may be breaking the Disability Discrimination Act.

(I have sent a complaint to Spar via their website today.)

Evesham Observer on A2BForAll and Henshaw’s Coaches

Article in Evesham Observer 6/4/12

I was featured in an article in the Evesham Observer on the 6th of April,  Disabled passenger wants action after bad experiences [Evesham Observer], in relation to the A2BForAll campaign about difficulties that disabled people face in using public transport. I was pleased at how the article highlighted some of the problems that I have experienced but I feel that there was too much focus on one particular incident on a local bus service run by Henshaw’s Executive Travel. In this case there was a problem with the ramp which prevented the bus from moving for about quarter of an hour after I boarded the bus.

In other areas I have often come across buses which lack ramps and wheelchair spaces. I have had far more problems with boarding and leaving trains, with pre-booked assistance not turning up on arrival at train stations such as Birmingham New Street, London Paddington and Manchester Picadilly. This makes boarding a train a gamble as to whether I will be able to get off again at the other end before the train leaves. I have particular problems at Evesham station because it is not manned after 12:30pm and so I must rely on train staff to be able to put the ramp in place – that is, if there are staff on the train to assist at all.

I am actually very pleased with the effort that Henshaw’s have made in making sure that the new routes which they run through Badsey use low-floor buses with ramps for wheelchairs. I am very happy with the service which I receive from Henshaws and their drivers are always polite, helpful and ensure that the experience is a good one. I feel that this incident was an unfortunate accident which will not happen again and I would certainly not want anyone to avoid travelling on this bus route because of one incident.

Legs, wheels and money

My old broken power wheelchair
My old broken powerchair

My electric wheelchair broke a couple of weeks ago after going up a too-steep ramp into a train, toppling backwards and then falling forwards fairly hard. That was quite inconvenient, especially when I discovered that the motors and brakes have burnt out and it will cost about a thousand pounds to fix. Since then I have had to fall back on a manual wheelchair, pushed by my wife. I can move my own wheelchair, just about, but it is still painful and exhausting for me. Fortunately I have just got a new car, so I can drive to most places and then use the wheelchair on arrival. Unfortunately, the manual wheelchair that I was given by family doesn’t fold up enough to fit in the back of my car.

I will qualify for a wheelchair from the NHS, and so I have asked to be referred to the local Wheelchair Services for an assessment. I am slightly stuck though. Walking and standing around result in high levels of pain and fatigue for me, as well as leaving me in danger of losing my balance and falling over. Despite this, I can walk around at home most of the time with only an occasional fall. NHS rules say that I can have a manual wheelchair for use outside, but because I can walk around at home I will not qualify for a powerchair even though I can’t propel myself most of the time. In fact, I probably won’t even get a self-propelled wheelchair since moving it myself can cause some pain and fatigue too, so I will end up with an attendant wheelchair, requiring someone to push me with no option to move myself at all. (See page 16 and 17 of this document for the full rules.)

Because a referral to the wheelchair service will quite likely take a few months, (I won’t be a high priority) and because I will probably get an attendant wheelchair rather than a self-propelled one, I bought a new wheelchair yesterday – a shiny new Karma Wren 2 self propel. The chair cost me £279 from a local shop called Indy Mobility. I could have found it slightly cheaper online but the staff at Indy Mobility were very helpful and put up with me for a couple of hours while I looked at all the options. They also didn’t charge me for the work done so far on my broken powerchair.

Karma Wren 2 wheelchair
My shiny new wheelchair

I was surprised how much easier the new chair is to self-propel than both my old one (and it is old!) and my dad’s one which I borrowed when my power chair broke down. That is partly because the new chair is made from lightweight aluminium but I think also due to it not being worn out. It is light enough that I can lift it into my car myself as long as I am not too tired at the time. It fits nicely in the boot of my car, as you can see in the picture below.

My new wheelchair in the back of my car
My new wheelchair in the back of my car

Wheelchairs are one of those extra expenses that disabled people can have which Disability Living Allowance is supposed to help pay for. While chairs are available from the NHS, it is quite common for them to be inadequate or to take a long time to get, even apart from cases like mine where I won’t qualify for a power chair which would help me the most. The Motability scheme which leases cars to disabled people in return for the mobility allowance from their DLA can also lease high-end powerchairs to them but I can’t do that because I already spend my DLA on a Motability car so I have had to buy my wheelchair with a credit card at very high interest. I think there are quite a few people stuck in this situation including Kaliya (@BendyGirl) who is currently trying to raise funds for a powerchair of her own. She really needs one to get around outside – just see her “deathwalk” video if you need convincing. Kaliya could use a powerchair inside as well, except that her flat does not have enough room for one. You can donate to Kaliya’s powerchair fund by sending money with Paypal to wheelchairforkali@carolineengland.co.uk or visit her blog post about it.

Karma Traveller 2 powerchair
Karma Traveller 2 powerchair

I have a possibility of getting part of the cost of an powerchair paid for by a local charity – the same one which gave me a small grant when I went to university and gave us food money last year when our benefits were screwed up. They require me to have attempted to get one from the NHS first, and so I must wait until I have been assessed before I can do that. I am hoping to take a voucher towards the cost of a wheelchair rather than a wheelchair itself from the NHS so that I can then put that voucher together with a charity grant if I can get one and buy a powerchair. I plan on getting one that is small and light and can come apart to go in my car – my old one weighed 90kg and even healthy people struggled to lift it. Indy Mobility suggested a Karma Traveller 2 which I think costs about £1,700, although I will have to find out what else is available. For now I will just have to rely on my wife to push me.

 

A bus to nowhere

You may recall last summer I made a video highlighting the difficulty that I had in getting between the village where I live and the local town in the electric wheelchair that I had been given by a relative. Following that video I was informed that a new wheelchair-accessible bus service would be starting up between the two places. Fantastic timing. However, since then, I have been quite seriously ill and unable to even go out in my wheelchair and I have been fortunate enough to have my father help drive me to medical appointments. Today I decided to take the new bus in to town for the first time since it started.

The new bus route 552 out of Evesham and it’s accompanying bus 553 which goes around the loop the other way are advertised as running low-floor wheelchair accessible buses on the timetables and when my wife spoke to Henshaws, the bus company the runs the service, she was assured of that fact.

Unfortunately this is what happened when I tried to board the bus today.

Accessible bus fail
Accessible Bus Fail

As you can see, it is in fact rather inaccessible for a person in a wheelchair.

The bus driver was very apologetic and tried to be helpful. She explained that the usual bus for that route was undergoing maintenance and that it had been substituted with an older bus for the day. She told us that the 553 which goes the other way around the loop was the usual accessible bus but would take a long time to arrive, and suggested that we could also try another bus that passes through the village, the 247 run by First Group. We decided to try the 247 but the bus stop for that service is actually at the top of the hill more than half a mile away. The 247 also does not use accessible buses all the time and so it was only a chance that I would be able to get on it.

Fortunately that bus was wheelchair-accessible. The bus driver helpfully told us that only his bus was accessible today and told us when we could get his bus back from the bus station. Here’s me on a wheelchair accessible bus for the first time.

Me on a bus in a wheelchair!

So what should I take from all this? Well obviously things are improving. The introduction of a (normally) accessible bus service proves that people are making an effort, and hopefully by the target of 2015 all bus services will be accessible all of the time. However, at the moment travelling in a wheelchair is thoroughly unpredictable. If a bus needs maintenance, no one thinks anything of swapping in a bus that wheelchair users can’t get on. If there is someone in a wheelchair already on board the bus, then tough, there is no room for another one. Other people have told me about problems with getting people to move out of the wheelchair space on the bus, and in many areas the buses are decidedly not wheelchair accessible.

What is worrying about this is that with the proposed Personal Independence Payments under the Welfare Reform bill, it is assumed that because of accessibility laws there is no problem travelling as a disabled person now, and therefore disabled people do not need the extra money to help with travel that DLA provided.  This is definitely not the case. Now that I receive DLA I have ordered a car through the Motability scheme and using that will get me to where I need to go reliably and on time, without the possibility of not being able to get my wheelchair into it one time out of ten, or suddenly having to wait for a different car. Clearly the world is not yet equal for disabled people and government ministers are deluded if they believe otherwise.

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.

 

A Short Film About Pavements

Two weeks ago I went out to take some photos to illustrate a blog post on accessibility  that I was working on. I took my photos, but then I took some video as well. Quite a lot of video. When I got home, the photos were useless but the video was quite interesting and so I changed my plans. Instead of a blog post with photos, I was going to create a short film.

I needed a few more scenes to create my film, and so my wife and I went out a couple of days later and recorded the rest of what we thought we would need. That night I stayed up selecting scenes and stitching it all together in iMovie on an old iMac that I have.

By the morning I had created several minutes of video that I was quite pleased with. It illustrated my point nicely, and had a nice flow to it. It was great, apart from one thing. It was appallingly bad picture quality. That was because it was all shot using a cheap digital stills camera which could only record video at 320×240, a quarter of the resolution of even low definition TV. In addition, the picture was horribly shaky and blurry.

What could I do about it? I didn’t have a better camera. My phone could also record video, but at exactly the same low quality. All was not lost, however. I was ordering a new phone that very week. By a happy coincidence, the phone that I wanted happened to include a full high definition video camera which had received rave reviews. I ordered the phone and waited in high anticipation of its delivery.

New phone in hand, we set out again to spend an afternoon filming. I had cleverly attached a car windscreen mounting kit to my powerchair and arranged it so that the phone camera had a clear shot from in that holder. We shot hours of video. I recorded pieces to camera many times over until it was right. It was repetitious and tedious. However, we eventually finished and returned home. After a brief rest (I was so worn out I couldn’t stay upright) I reviewed the footage that we had shot. It was AWFUL. Mounted on the powerchair, it was so shaky that watching it made me feel like my head was in a blender. Nevertheless, I grabbed what I could out of it and I made it into a rough approximation of the film that I wanted.

Since then we have been out filming several more times, I have spent many many hours editing the results, and there have been several preview showings. I restarted the editing several times, learnt how to use Openshot in Linux and then Movie Maker in Windows, and eventually spent a mammoth 17 hour session producing the final edit and subsequently crippling myself for two days (and more to come) from the effort.

It has all been worth it though. I have finished. And I present to you:

A Short Film About Pavements

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.