I became a wheelchair user two years ago, and in that time I’ve really had to work through a lot of anxiety and internalised ableism to become comfortable using my chair out in public. It hasn’t been easy and I still have my wobbles, but I’m now at the point where I feel love and gratitude towards my little Hot Wheels, because it enables and empowers me to do more of the things that bring joy to my life.
An important and ongoing part of this journey has been having my eyes opened to the experiences of disabled people in a world built entirely for the able bodied. I know that for any long-time wheelchair or mobility aid users who may be reading this, this will all be Disability 101 preached to the choir. However, these are three lessons that I feel have been important for me to learn, so I’m sharing them in the hopes that it will help abled people to be better allies to their disabled friends and loved ones.
1.The World is Not Built for Disabled People
Hand on heart, I will admit that I had never given that much thought to accessibility and what it really means, until I became a wheelchair user myself. Previously, I have been guilty of thinking that accessibility just meant ramps and lifts. If wheelchair users could physically enter a building, then that means it’s accessible. Box ticked; job done. How woefully wrong I was. My eyes have been well and truly opened now though and let me tell you; we still have a long bloody way to go in making the world accessible to wheelchair users, and disabled people in general.
Since becoming a wheelchair user, I have realised that it is no longer possible to just leave the house and head to my destination. Instead, so many questions must first be asked and answered. Will the street outside be wheelchair friendly? Is there disabled parking available? How far is this disabled parking from the entrance to the building? Will there be steps at the entrance? Will there be a lift? Does that café/restaurant/shop even have space for me to manoeuvre a wheelchair around? The list goes on.
So, with all this in mind I have a little assignment for you. Next time you’re out walking in your area, I’d like you to pay close attention to the following: the quality of the pavements, the number of cars parked on them blocking access, and how many dropped curbs actually have a corresponding dropped curb on the other side. Now imagine trying to navigate all of these issues with a wheelchair, a walker, or a cane. If you stop off at a café for a quick coffee, take a glance around and see if you think there is enough space in between tables to get a wheelchair in? Is the doorway wide enough?
Next time you pop to the supermarket to get some food shopping done, pay attention to how many disabled parking spaces there are compared to the hundreds of regular spaces readily available. Now notice how many people are bold enough to use these already limited spaces without a blue badge. And all that before you’ve even had to navigate the supermarket itself with so many things being out of your reach, cages blocking access and people yelling at you for taking up space in the aisle with your wheelchair.*
Of course, there are some venues that are doing a decent job, with many more beginning to take steps in the right direction, but you truly would be amazed how largely inaccessible the outside world still is and how entirely unwelcoming it can feel to disabled people.
*Yes, this actually happened to me in Lidl! Next time I see that grumpy, ableist bastard I’ll free up some more aisle space by wheeling over his bloody feet.
2. A Ramp Alone Does Not Accessibility Make
Now that we’ve thought about navigating the street outside of your house, and a simple task like getting to a café or the supermarket, let’s think about going to a big event like a concert. So many places believe (as I once naively did) that by having ramps and lifts, that makes them an accessible venue. Yet, before you even get to the venue you are met with roadblocks. Wheelchair users can’t actually book tickets in the same way as everyone else. For a lot of venues, wheelchair users first must check if the venue is even accessible in the first place. Then we have to ring a special number to and try to quickly reserve one of the (again, limited) wheelchair accessible seats.
Once you have managed to reserve one of these limited seats, many venues will now ask you to provide proof of your disability. You know, just in case you’re one of those people who pretends to need a wheelchair for the lols. If, like me, you’d think that presenting your blue badge would be evidence enough, you’d be wrong. This is where many venues will think nothing of asking you to provide personal medical information as proof that you are a 100%, medically approved, bona fide disabled person. And once you have been through all these steps, you can but pray that your seats will actually be accessible. Previously, I attended a gig at a venue which claimed to have a ‘accessible viewing platform’ for wheelchair users. In reality, said platform was little more than about 5 inches off the ground, meaning that all the people standing up at the gig were blocking my view anyway. And the icing on the cake? There was no ramp to get up on to the plinth.
*Insert face palm emoji here*
So hear this, venues of the UK: if disabled people must go through an entirely different, much more time consuming and convoluted process to access tickets to your venue, before then being asked to provide private medical details to complete the sale of their ticket, this does not make you an accessible venue. You can have all the lifts and ramps you like, but if you’re still making disabled people have to work ten times harder just to access something that everybody else can do with a few clicks on a website, you need to rethink what accessibility actually means.
3. Hands Off
We all like our personal space, yes? We would all be a little bit unsettled if a stranger just casually came over and leant on our shoulder or physically shoved us out of their way? We’d be pretty angry if someone just came and hung their coat or our shopping bags over our arm without asking? We’d all think this was inappropriate, and probably feel a little like our space or even our body had been a little bit violated, wouldn’t we? So, riddle me this: why do some people think that these rules don’t apply to wheelchair users?!
One of the most eye-opening lessons for me since I started using my chair, is that the relationship between a person and their mobility aid is often complicated, sometimes fraught but always deeply personal. To wheelchair users for example, our chairs are not simply a functional piece of furniture that gets us from A to B like a car. The connection that we feel to our chair is not merely a material one, it is much deeper than that. Our chair is an extension of our own body. It is our personal space. We feel protective of it like anyone else, and yet so many people think nothing of invading this space when we’re out in public.
I was recently at a Tattoo festival in Scotland with my husband and we had managed to reserve a space close to the front, from where we had a brilliant view of all the proceedings. There were food vans around, and my husband left me alone for about 15 minutes to go and grab us something to eat. In that time, the gathering crowd grew significantly as the event was about to start. At one point, I was just sat watching the world go by, patiently waiting for my pizza when suddenly someone approached me from behind, grabbed the handles of my wheelchair and tried to push me forward. I had both my brakes on, so I kind of just got shunted forward aggressively. When I turned around, a man apologetically told me he was just trying to squeeze past. Since when did ‘squeeze past’ mean physically grab hold of someone from behind, without warning, and attempt to move them without their consent?! It was such an unsettling experience and I wish I could tell you it was rare, but you would be amazed.
In my relatively short time spent using a wheelchair I have had complete strangers lean on my handles, use my arm rests as their own and put their feet next to mine on my footrests. Complete strangers! Can you imagine being sat on the bus and a stranger just nonchalantly resting their legs over yours without saying anything? You’d change seats then keep one eye on them at all times, fearing they were a serial killer. But when people do this to me in my chair I’m stuck, just casually trying not to combust with rage at having my personal space so weirdly invaded.
Not only is this deeply offensive, as it suggests that you are failing to recognise the person actually in the chair, it is also just downright bad manners. Try to remember that just because we’re disabled, we are not saints and we are still capable of much more than you think.
By which I mean we will hurt you and make it look like an accident.