Thursday, 26 May 2011

Whispers

I am used to whispers following me. Ranging from "Whats wrong with her?" to "How brave."

Today, at school, I wheeled down a corridor full of students. A teacher shouted 'stand aside for the..pause...lady' (awkwardly avoiding 'wheelchair'). The students stood aside obediently and watched me pass and I felt so 'disabled' and 'different'. I could easily have said 'excuse me' and got through no problem. Besides, no-one was in my way to start with.

Then everything changed.

There were no wheelchair whispers. Only a quiet "Did you see her DMs?" Someone had seen beyond the chair. I glanced back over my shoulder and smiled. The group looked embarrassed. I didn't want them to feel they had done wrong so as I went through the exit I turned again, grinned cheekily and gave them a 'thumbs up' sign with both hands.

As the door shut behind me I heard laughter and the beginnings of a loud and happy discussion on footwear and fashion.

Little did they realise how beautiful their whispers were.

How refreshing for someone to see past the disability in a 10 second glimpse.

And how bright a future they paint for acceptance of those who are different.

It wasn't exactly a 'teacherish' thing to do but I am delightfully unrepentant. Even if their teacher now has a lively class that won't shut up about DM boots.

I was teaching: They now know that complimentary comments on someone's footwear are a good and happy thing.

And that disabled people are just people too.


Friday, 20 May 2011

Gates, Wheels, and a new perspective!

In checking the final details re my flat purchase I discover the impending arrival of 'Gated Access' - a 'poser' feature that insurance might like, but isn't needed.

And? so what?

I've had a proper dose of 'wow my perspective has changed since becoming a wheelie!' I wouldn't have thought twice about it before.

But...

*wails* I don't know if I'll be able to open the gate from wheels!

Part of me thinks 'Oh don't be daft, it'll be fine'.

Part of me thinks 'What if my bendy hands can't open the side gate? what if I can't use the main gate?'

At least I have established that the main gate is electric and in case of electronic failure will stay open. But I still don't know what the trigger/key will be for the main gate.

I plan to get fitter and hope to be able to do 'race for life' or similar next year, so I need to be able to leave the flats in my wheelchair, without my car. But the agent thought the pedestrian gate would be key operated. Urgh. Dislocate-y and uncoordinated hands really don't like the sound of that.

But the agent could be wrong. It may all be OK really.

And I can't go check because they haven't finished installing it.

I can't spend thousands and thousands of pounds on a flat that I will 'probably' be able to get to. Or even a flat I will 'almost certainly' be able to get to.

I've asked the agent to get me the spec. I pray it all turns out to be fine. But I can't sign final papers on hope or a promise.

I am so excited about the flat itself, but now I have to deal with the gate. Part of me is panicking that I won't be able to get the flat after all. Because of a stupid gate. Who would have thought that a gate installed purely to look posh could crush my dreams of independence? Yes, I know It will probably be fine, but until I know for certain I have to live with the fear. I have to plan, research, discover, negotiate and educate. But that method didn't keep me my job, so why should it keep me my flat.

Of course, under the DDA reasonable adjustments must be made and there will be solutions, even cheap solutions to any problems the gate might cause. But I don't believe in the DDA.

I am not an 'equal'. If I can loose my job and health for the want of £300 worth of adaptions in a refurbishment costing 100's of thousands -by a government organisation, why should a relatively small, private company make any allowances at all?

Wobble over. Time to ignore the past and listen only to the assertive, decisive parts of me.
I will find out what they are installing,
I will make sure it is suitable,
I will request adjustments if needed,
I will demand adjustments if requesting fails,
I will make my dream of living independently a reality.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Stairlifts and Signs


Today is a Good Day.

There is something special about receiving a parcel of your very own published work - so special that the postman who rang the doorbell at 07:43 this morning got a massive grin, a thank you (albeit a bed-headed, blurry eyed one) and instant forgiveness.

My 4th book. Childishly, I still find myself funny. I've read it twice already. Inspired by Emma and her faulty stairlift saga (see my earlier blog entry), I suppose it is very 'me'. Taking the absolute reality of something that sucks and opening the eyes to the giggle factors while pointing out the suck-y-ness to those who mightn't otherwise understand.

"Emma's Incarceration: You know you've been stuck upstairs too long when..." is now: Available online!

But not only that, my long awaited 'wheelchair signs' are now available too! Born of the wish that people would use their common sense when talking to me when I'm out and about, I've turned some of my cartoons into signs for wheelchairs.


Disability awareness in motion - you can wheel around safe in the knowledge that you are doing your bit to educate the world. And of course, as they stick using velcro you can swap them to suit the occasion. So if you will be meeting that really annoying person who thinks that disability means you have no life and can't achieve - wear the blue one! or someone of the 'does she take sugar?' variety - wear the yellow one.

Or if you are supposed to be being mature and sensible and somber, you can temporarily hide them and pretend you are indeed mature, sensible and somber.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Meanderings of my creative mind

For once, I'm not writing with any particular theme in mind! I'm just having a day when, for once, I have lot of mental energy = good thing, get lots done.

Unfortuately my unstable pelvis keeps yelling at me for pulling ligaments or summat which means my 'getting lots done' is...erm...somewhat 'probably not' in terms of packing for a house move.

However, thinking about pain= more pain. I don't like more pain. I avoid more pain whenever I can. It isn't very friendly. So bring on distraction!
I'm getting lots done online and by phone.
Checked emails.
sent an invoice.
Confirmed printing of wheelchair signs (should get them today! - that'll be a new blog entry :D )
Called estate agent.
Plotted some stickmen.

Posting "I am a genius" on twitter probably doesn't count. But hey, it made me chuckle.

Twitter generally does count as constructive though, I get to make other people tell more people that I draw funny pictures. Besides, Fran Williamson just tweeted that she my website is worth a look. My head seems somewhat larger than before for some reason.

Oh oh oh! good side effect of wonky pelvis! My posture is practically perfect! Ok, so it might be the only way to stop being bitten by pelvic bones free-lancing as elbows, but still, everybody aims for perfect posture, and I reckon I'm pretty close to having it :D (dashed hard work tho, and means I can't slouch over stickman doodles)

Perhaps I'm suffering from stickman-drawing-withdrawal symptoms. The nonsense I am currently inflicting on you is part 'feeling creative but stickmen aren't a possibility' and part distraction technique.




Tuesday, 10 May 2011

You couldn't make it up!

There are many absurdities which are completely normal when you are on wheels - from accessible toilets reachable only via steps, to shops with aisles 30cm wide.

But yesterday, for the first time since becoming a wheelie, access issues left me speechless.

I arrived for work (at a school), parked in the allocated disabled bays and wheeled off to class. The general accessibility is good and I whizzed round, made a few minor adjustments to my classroom layout so it suited me better, and started teaching. All was going well.

The head of department popped her head in "Is this your car registration number?" "yes?" (has it been broken into? did I leave my lights on?) "You are blocking in a delivery lorry, could you move your car?" "I doubt it, I'm parked in the disabled bays, could you check it is my car that needs moving!"

Obviously I wasn't blocking anyone in as I was in one of the only 2 disabled parking spaces, located next to each other, and not in anyones way. The foolish 'problem parker' would be correctly identified and I would continue my lesson.

2 minutes later the head of department was back. "erm....Hannah, it is your car." (very embarrassed pause)


"Yeah right! I'm parked in the crip space for goodness sake! like that could possibly be in the way! - have you got a directionally challenged carpark or something?"
"erm...the delivery lorries drive down the section of pavement through the disabled bays..."
"......"
"I can move the car for you if you like"
"......"
Off she went to move my car.

I looked at my student. My mouth opening and closing without words.
And she looked back. Trying to convince ourselves that yes, this was the real world, and yes, this had really happened.

She spoke first:

"That's just stupid"

If only architects and project planners had the common sense of my 14 yr old student.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Blogging against disabilism.

I don't often blog entirely on a disabled theme, but today, for "Blogging against disablism day" I will.

As I read through other peoples blog entries I realised something.

I do not to expect equality.

Yes, in law, under the DDA there is a foundation for equality for disabled people. But in society there is so much attitude that is, simply put, extremely prejudice.

I used to work for local government. When I got my job I appeared to be an average 22yr old, but 2 years later I was wheelchair reliant with multiple complex medical issues.

For example, at work I experienced the Good, the Bad, and the downright Ugly.

The Good

From my direct colleagues I experienced a phenomenal level of real equality. I was just 'one of the team'. When someone offered to get me a drink it was on the same casual level that they offered to make one for my neighbors. When I needed specific help (like assistance relocating a dislocated wrist) I could ask and help would be given without fuss, without any debt being placed on my shoulders.

Over half of my direct colleagues had close personal experience of disability. And the rest of the office followed their lead. I was first and foremost a team member. Secondly, slightly mouthy. Thirdly, a great shot with rubber bands....and somewhere at the end of the list of my contributions to office life would be "wheelchair user" and "disabled". Unless it came to a flight of stairs - then I would be "A colleague who is jolly well going to get to this meeting, so facilities team, pull your finger out." - And the facilities staff in general were marvelous at helping without leaving me 'in their debt'.

So I had a circle of safety. Of respect. Of equality.

But this circle was small. Very small.

The Bad

For almost a year our office was 2nd floor in an old building. One destined for demolition. My direct colleagues remained the same, but suddenly I was reliant on the corporate body to allow me equality. I don't think the 'corporate body' ever saw me as a colleague, valued team member, or someone who got achieved a lot. Only as an annoyance.

The lift kept breaking. Somedays it would not go at all and I would be unable to reach my desk - and have to return home. Other times I'd be stranded upstairs, praying it would be fixed before night-time. Usually it would stop an inch or 2 above or below the ground floor so that I could not exit on my wheels without dislocating my shoulder or wrists, so I had to have someone help me out of the office every day.

The DDA talks about 'reasonable adjustments' - the building was going to be knocked down so it was unreasonable to demand they spend £100K on a new one. So I accepted the corporate refusal to do anything, and was grateful for the fact that I was still employed.

I had trouble opening many of the internal fire doors. I even had to telephone a colleague to open the bathroom door for me as I got stuck inside. There were raised door thresholds for me to contend with, and the kitchen layout meant I think I tried using it twice during the entire year. Access to the staff canteen was up a ridiculously steep ramp which deftly took my independence. But as I said, the building was going to be knocked down so it was unreasonable to ask for any changes at all.

It was only when I broke down in tears when talking to my union rep about how tough I was finding it having no independence that minor changes started to be made - and my colleagues fought the system and got some of these cheaper issues sorted. One colleague even fitted an air-con unit for me himself because repeated requests to the powers that be had got nothing but promises.

I no longer expected equality. I expected ignorance. I expected complaints that my requests would inconvenience others, or cost money that would be better used elsewhere. I felt guilty that by asking for easy and safe access to a toilet, my line manager had lost several thousand pounds of an already tight budget. She never told me this, but I was frequently reminded by HR and certain members of the facilities team (i.e. the ones not mentioned earlier).

And above all I had learnt that if I wanted to keep my job, then it was me who would need to compromise. That if I asked for changes, I would make my team - who's work I was proud of and who I hold in great regard - suffer.

When I tell this to people, I am still surprised at them being shocked.

The Ugly

A year was spent planning the move to my final office. It had been specially refurbished, costing hundreds of thousands of pounds. I put in my disability related requirements as soon as I could - approx 7 months in advance. I asked for wheelchair access, and for a cool working environment with air conditioning (a cool environment was medically necessary)

There were meetings, discussions, floor plan drafts and re-drafts. Access issues were raised in disability forums, the health and safety working group and senior management team meetings. Including a meeting in public - THE MAIN RECEPTION AREA - to discuss my personal disability issues. I repeatedly gave the same information only to receive plans that made no allowance for it, or to be told that I couldn't expect the move to be planned around me. There were promises that the temperature 'would be fine' ' would be sorted' and a point blank refusal to allow me to see a member of the occupational health team - the very people qualified to come up with practical solutions to the barriers I faced, and part of the same organisation.

I was repeatedly told I was being unreasonable and that I shouldn't use the office move issues as a political thing. Political? I just wanted to continue in the job I love, and not loose what health I have over an office move. One week I spent most of my working hours in tears as I received email after email denying me equality, independence, and creating a scenario which I knew could take away my job and my health.

And what did I get out of it?

I had got them to change the thick, wheelchair-halting entrance lobby carpet so I could get into and out of the office on my own.

But:

I had no access to the kitchen - they couldn't change the door "just for me", and "She couldn't use it anyway because it is narrow."

I couldn't access the canteen because "It would cost too much to replace the carpet on the upstairs landing". Even though there was an accessible service lift that would have been perfect - they only needed to tell me it existed and let me use it!

According to Human Resourses management, I was "being unreasonable to ask for access to a kitchen". And Health and Safety informed me that I was "Not allowed to eat hot food at my desk, or have a kettle I could reach nearby because there couldn't be one rule for me and one for everyone else."

They hadn't even serviced the air conditioning, let alone fixed it. The only chance I had was to move my desk to a small, isolated office at the far end of the building, which had a semi-functioning cooling system. I couldn't open the door to it and worked in there alone. Most days, every time I left my box I put my health at risk due to the warmth in the general office - to use the bathroom or see another human face. Sometimes even my box got to warm and I would end sat in the cold outside for an hour before recovering enough to drive home safely.

Eventually I got to see Occupational Health. They had cheap, workable solutions for practically everything. But it was too late. The constant strain that my faulty autonomic system had gone through with the temperature issues (and the stress) had taken its toll. I collapsed. Thoroughly. Unable to lift my head or speak coherently I went 'off sick'.

To add insult to injury, Facilities Management proceeded to install the air con unit that I had been asking for since day 1 of planning the move, at a cost of a few hundred pounds.

But it was too late.

I am now medically retired. And my direct manger and line manager almost lost their jobs because they championed my cause and fought for my right to work in a safe environment.

And yet the other day someone effectively told me "but you don't get discriminated against like gays do". Really? Is the above equality?

On paper I may be equal, but in reality when faced with large organisations and ignorant individuals, society says I am not. I did not even have the right to be safe. Let alone employed.

I have my small circle of respect. Of equality.

Please use your attitude to expand this circle, and do not take it from me.