To and fro he lurched, his large electric wheelchair bashing into the enormous space for luggage that complicated his exit route. That he’d got that far was actually quite something. The positioning of the ‘wheelchair space’ (its occupant just an afterthought) was so awkward I was amazed he’d got in there still less out. Behind me I could hear tutting and an exasperated “oh come on”.
The woman he was travelling with was encouraging him with an admirable, but I knew fake, ability to ignore the rising tension around her and outside. It was stubbornness and the swallowing of anger that was getting her past the collective willing of her to just take control and shove him of the bus quickly. This was his chair, his journey. It was not in fact his (quite severe) disability that was the issue. It was the design of the bus. Brand new and yet, as she noted loudly, much harder for people in wheelchairs to access than the old design.
The seats were more comfortable, for the able bodied. Fewer handles and poles, a narrower corridor, all making the space for the able bodied easier to access. A larger and more awkward luggage space favouring those able to carry luggage. But for the elderly and the disabled? Progress, as the saying goes, is unevenly distributed.
As he finally made it to the door he met his biggest challenge. The tight angle made it almost impossible for him to get the right positioning for the ramp. Several attempts finally resulted in near tragedy as the wheels slipped and the chair tipped forward. A woman outside managed to steady it and his companion – alternating between apology and astonishment that people were not leaping to help more quickly, corralled people into action “I need a couple of men, come on! Lift it down!”. At last he was liberated from the bus and we could continue.
A woman behind me muttered to her companion – “I don’t know what this country is coming too.” But her tone told me that the object of her complaint was not the same as mine. My mind wandered back to a visit just before Christmas to a large department store in a recently built building. Looking for the disabled toilets in vain (the signage was very poor) I was finally pointed to a hidden away spot.
The ‘disabled toilet’ was small and the arrangement of the facilities (in common with most disabled toilets I’ve been in) impossible for all but the most physically strong person in the smallest manual wheelchair to get on to. The toilet was right next to a spa treatment room, which probably explained why what little space there was also served as storage space for oils and towels and the other accoutrements of the self-indulgence industry. The irony of the unguents of the pampered well preventing those whose bodies are a constant source of pain and discomfort (that no ‘hot stone therapy’ will ever put right) from going to the toilet was not lost on me.
I wonder if it’s a time for a National Let’s Pretend We’re Disabled Day? A day for all those whose bodies function within ‘normal parameters’ to spend every moment imagining how their environment, how their day, would feel if they had a disability. Would it help? Would we all suddenly feel the sense of rage and anger and shame and sheer bloody exhaustion that so many disabled people feel every day trying to navigate a world that for all our advances still chooses to disable us.
For it is a choice. Choose luggage space, choose storage space, choose more comfort for healthy travellers, choose to spend money on new sofas for your able bodied staff instead of accessible doors for your disabled staff. Or choose equality. Choose equality because one day almost every single able bodied person won’t need to pretend to be disabled. They will be. If disease or illness or accident doesn’t disable you, old age almost certainly will.
Choose equality. For your future self.