Access to life….
For as long as I can remember, the word ‘accessible’ has been such a frequent word in my vocabulary. It’s not the most exciting or tantalising word, but it is a word that I can imagine most people only associate with a primary-school spelling test; ‘is it one S or two?’ Or noticing a sign on a shop door allowing ‘guide dogs only’, regardless of the shop staff’s own awareness of impairments.
The definition of accessible is that something can be reached or attained. How accessible is our society for the majority of people? I’d say pretty accessible – I’m not for a moment suggesting life is easy, but you finish school and go to the same college as your friends, you skip lectures to go to Burger King for lunch instead, and then you catch a bus home and watch MTV all afternoon while your parents think you’re at lectures. Then if you’re lucky, you’ll get good enough grades to go to uni pretty much anywhere in the country, and that means you could pick any course that you qualify for, knowing that the only test of your limitations will be whether you’re too hungover to sit an exam on a Monday morning.
But for someone with a severe physical disability, this isn’t how the stereotype goes. If you’re able to study what you want to in school (see my post about how this might not happen) you might go to college and study what you’re interested in, albeit with tedious roadblocks along the way, like whether the carer that college has provided for you will let you use the iron in textiles class, even though you’re 17 and know that you’re quite capable of not scalding yourself whilst ironing a piece of material. The attitudes aren’t always accessible, and stereotypes mixed with ignorance compliment this. Whilst the other students in your English Language class sit in groups of quickly-made friends, you sit at the edge because it’s the most ‘accessible’ table, as far as positioning a wheelchair goes. As far as feeling equal to your peers and always having someone to chat to about the coursework, sitting nearest the door in every classroom was not the most accessible place. Kids like to huddle in the corner together and laugh about what they’ve drawn on their maths book, they don’t like to be in the place where everyone can see what you’re up to. Uni isn’t always accessible either. Before I started uni, we had to argue with several of the accommodation team that the room wasn’t big enough for me to move my wheelchair around in, and as they had extended a room for another student in a wheelchair, we argued that they could do the same for me. Then at the end of my first year of uni, the porters tried to fine all 6 of us in the apartment for damage to the kitchen involving the fire extinguisher being taken off the wall, and one of the flat-mates climbing in and out of the window for convenience. Didn’t he realise there was a handy door at the front of the building? I of course denied any wrong-doing as far as kitchen windows and extinguishers were concerned, but I secretly quite liked that the uni had the audacity to try and charge me for it. Ironically that was quite inclusive of them. Either that or they just didn’t think and automatically charged us all. I’d like to think it was the former.
Like all teenagers, when uni finishes you have to think about growing up, which involves finding a job. Finding an accessible job is almost impossible for someone like me however, and despite having A-Levels, a degree and a post-grad qualification meaning I can teach early-years, I will always need a lot of help in any job I do. This can include someone to help me go to the toilet – even a so-called accessible toilet isn’t accessible when you can’t do your own jeans button up, and I don’t want to live in tracksuit bottoms when I have no intention of running a half-marathon in the same day. I recognise that this is a specific need that can’t easily be met without someone helping me, but to be asked to schedule your own toilet-trips when the local care-trust are working out how much personal-care you need for *toileting* (one of the most impersonal and ugly words in the world – at what stage of adolescence and disability does going for a wee become ‘toileting’?) is particularly inhumane and soul-destroying. I can’t describe the feeling of being thirsty and wondering if you should have a glass of water or cup of tea or if it’ll make you need to go again too soon, before your PA is scheduled to come back to you again. This is not an accessible way to live.
Neither is wanting desperately to go somewhere with other people who are able-bodied, and knowing that you cannot because the physical structure of the location won’t allow for it. I’ve been to newly built places and wondered how on Earth their accessibility-surveyors signed-off their facilities as meeting criteria. For instance late last year I was shopping with my friend and my newborn baby, and we went to the baby change/feeding room to change his nappy. They had a lovely comfortable and quiet area for breastfeeding mums, and out of curiosity I wheeled myself towards the door to look inside, only to find I could not get into the room. The doorway was unnecessarily narrow and there was no way it was regulation for either the modern or old-school requirement of doorway width. I then got in contact with the store, which is an internationally known brand, and then later met with somebody who tries to ensure their stores are inclusive of people with disabilities – even he couldn’t understand why the doorway was so narrow. This just proved that although the intention might be there from some areas of our world, the promises of being accessible don’t always stretch to something as simple as a breastfeeding room or a changing table that you can reach from a wheelchair. I expect the numbers of breastfeeding mums who also happen to be essential wheelchair users and who shop in that store, are so low it didn’t even enter the consciousness of the people who built the facilities to make them accessible from a wheelchair. However, the store has excelled in their idea of accessibility in other areas. Their accessible toilets are not only more spacious than I’ve usually found, but where possible there’s a choice of two rooms – one with a toilet on the left and one with a toilet on the right. Because guess what, people’s physical capabilities and needs are never the same as the next person with a colostomy bag or a wheelchair. Even something as simple as offering two layouts of toilet facility can make access to normal life, so much more attainable.
I could go on for days and days about accessibility, because it is not just about ramps or extended tap handles or braille on café menus (imagine that) it goes so much deeper, it is so vast and it affects just about everything. I’m lucky that the man I choose to share my life with is pretty strong and when we are faced with somewhere than I can’t easily access in my wheelchair, he will lift me out of my chair and into the restaurant for example, or he’ll lift my chair up so a few steps won’t stop us enjoying being somewhere. But it can’t always work that way and of course he’s not there for everyone else needing his muscular help!
So in order to make our beautiful world open to everyone who needs and wants to experience it, we need to look at what ‘accessible’ really means and who it affects. And then start the small task of making it right.