Whether it’s travelling abroad, taking a train or simply walking down the street, it’s easy to take for granted the fact that the world is first and foremost designed for non-wheelchair users.
Public transport was never designed for wheelchair users and accessibility has always been an after thought and we deal with the consequences of that every day. Rail companies state that wheelchair users need to book ramp assistance at least 24 hours in advance specifying which train we plan to travel on and then we need to arrive at least 30 minutes before the train departs. I’ve lost count of the number of arguments I’ve had with rail operators about this, I don’t know how long I will be somewhere for, let alone the fact nobody else has to specify what train they travel on.
As a result of this policy I’ve been refused travel on trains and had to wait long periods of times for subsequent ones. Not all stations are accessible either, take Twickenham as a prime example it is only following it’s extensive refurbishment that I have been able to use it, prior to that I had to go to Richmond, adding an unnecessary hour to my journey home.
If you are fortunate enough to get on the train, then there’s always the worry that there will not be someone at your destination station to get you off. On one occasion I arrived at a station find no platform staff with a ramp, as I waited a group of drunk men decided they would try and help me and despite asking them to go and find the guard they picked up me up in my chair and dropped me on the platform. Whilst they were trying to be helpful the whole experience left me feeling completely vulnerable and incompetent because I couldn’t stop them and to make matters worse my hand got caught in my wheel when I got dropped and caused a rather nasty injury.
But it’s not just trains, buses might refuse to take you because they already have buggies on despite the law prioritising wheelchair users although the ramps don’t always work anyway. Whilst the London Underground network is improving its accessibility it remains largely challenging, often requiring time consuming detours to reach your destination.
Aside from public transport, the urban landscape is plagued by steps, kerbs and uneven pavements all of which provide barriers to day to day life, one wrong push could lead to flipping out of your chair, something I’ve done many a time. You constantly hope and rely on people, who are usually non-disabled, to provide step free access such as ramps and lifts but even when they are provided there’s no guarantee they’ll work.
On a recent trip to Amsterdam, I got off a bus to find myself on an overpass high above the ground where I needed to be. I was relieved to see a lift at the end of the platform but the relief soon turned to despair when after 10 minutes of trying we concluded it was broken. Stuck on the overpass my only option was to crawl down the staircase with my wheelchair and luggage, something I am not unfamiliar with doing having been forced to do it previously here in the UK. It is probably one of the most humiliating things to have to do especially having people walking past and starring whilst you haul yourself up or down a usually dirty staircase.
The Importance of Sport
I became a wheelchair user 18 months ago and almost immediately I was thrown into a world which I didn’t recognise. Suddenly I had to think carefully about everything I did, every move I made and plan all the time from public transport to dropped kerbs in the street and the consequences were huge, I found myself not going out as much and developing anxiety.
Sport has been vital both mentally and physically, it has allowed me to accept my new identity as wheelchair user and develop my confidence again, but it has also improved my upper body strength allowing me to be more independent day to day.
Before I became a wheelchair user I did a lot of running and had signed up for a half marathon and London Marathon, initially I thought I wouldn’t be able to take part because I obviously couldn’t run but I found out I could do it in my wheelchair. When I first got in a wheelchair for the first time, I couldn’t push more than 20 metres without being exhausted but having the goal of the running events gave me motivation, so I started training. I felt myself getting faster and stronger but also more confident in my chair and I started going out more, doing more training and trying new things.
Suddenly I didn’t care what other people thought as much because I was confident in myself, my identity and my abilities in any situation. I have now completed several half marathons and marathons with 4 more planned for this year as well as hoping to become the first female wheelchair user to complete the prestigious Comrades Ultra Marathon (90km) in South Africa.
Racing gives me a sense of freedom, I don’t have to worry about kerbs or steps or any of the other barriers you get in day to day life, it’s closed roads and I can just push as fast as I can. In a world where I often feel incapable, I can demonstrate to myself and others that I am capable and I don’t feel vulnerable, I feel normal.
But being nearly always the only wheelchair user at running events is also quite isolated, you’re always different from everyone else and that brings attention which is sometimes positive but often I just want to blend into the background.
Two years ago, I tried wheelchair rugby for the first time and immediately fell in love with the sport but there weren’t any opportunities locally to participate so when the Harlequins Foundation Wheelchair Rugby Club started I jumped at the chance to play. Being in an environment where everyone has a disability is invaluable because I don’t worry about being different, for 2 hours a week I can relax and just play sport. Equally, there’s no need to explain yourself to others about why something might take you longer or why you can’t do something because everyone understands without even needing to talk about it, you’re just accepted.
For me Wheelchair Rugby offers a unique experience, day to day as a disabled person I’m often wrapped up in cotton wool by those around me, including strangers, whether they mean to or not. People often run to open doors for you even though you can, sometimes help when you didn’t ask for it or need it or for me question that I can do something because “you’re disabled and in a wheelchair”.
This understandably has an impact mentally, but Wheelchair Rugby offers the perfect equaliser to this, an environment where I can (within reason and the rules of the game!) do anything I want, we crash our chairs into each other, push as hard as we can and disability is the last word on anyone’s minds, it’s just sport.