Sometimes, looking at things from a sideways angle is helpful...

Monday, 30 January 2012

#ncafc - the journey home

I've just gotten back from the NCAFC conference. I'll try to do a proper post later, but (in brief), accessibility there was awful, there was a lot of infighting, and towards the end it got very nasty indeed.
I left the conference, unhappy, depressed, feeling like I had nothing to offer to the wider movement, and generally uncomfortable. I also left feeling absolutely exhausted physically (and by that, I mean that I was really very unwell). However, I had to get from Liverpool back to Egham. I was travelling with a group of incredible comrades.

At Liverpool station, there was a steep ramp. I didn't have to ask, someone just came and offered to help push my wheelchair up it. Obviously one of my comrades - I'd have been a bit freaked out otherwise.
I then had to request a ramp, which took ages. Completely uncomplainingly, a different comrade waited with me. It took so long that there were no seats for the rest of our group (we were seven) together, so he sat with me for the entire journey, again uncomplainingly.

When we got to Euston, I'd been forgotten. Happens all the time, to be honest. They didn't have the ramp. Which meant my comrade had to wait for me, again. He asked if I could step down, but my knee was completely spasmed into position, that wouldn't have worked. He went to find someone. A couple of other comrades appeared. We reached a consensus that we'd just appropriate the ramp and use it ourselves, leaving it in place afterwards, in a pointed fashion. By that time I'd been stuck on the train for about 20 minutes. This allowed me to get off, and we rolled merrily down the platform. Until we got stopped, by the guard, who was furious. He's not allowed to touch the ramp, you see. Health and safety. Means people who use wheelchairs have to remain on the train for hours, if they get forgotten, and if they're not with anyone, well, tough luck.Not sure how long it'd have taken for me to be noticed.

That was the first time I had done anything empowering - we took it upon ourselves to get off the train our way, and my comrades supported me in it. I felt like I mattered to them, and my access needs mattered to them, and after conference, I needed that. The furious guard, however, didn't see it that way, and my comrades got a lecture (I didn't, because I was in a wheelchair and people don't talk to people in wheelchairs). Eventually, the ramp was put back, and we left the platform. I got offered help up the ramp, said no, and that was fine as well. At that point I was angry with myself for being so needy and demanding and putting my comrades out. I'd also started to spasm, and was in a lot of pain. I apologised to comrades, maybe a little (or a lot) too much, but what they said really made me feel better - that it didn't matter to them. That they were happy to do this.

Then we had to get the underground. There was a lift down, then a gate, then an escalator (and no lift), then stairs.Somehow, we managed this. I say "we" because everyone chipped in, carrying stuff, supporting me on the escalator, holding me upright, half carrying me down the stairs whilst I did my best to walk. I normally hate accepting help, but it was about "solidarity not sympathy" and god knows they're incredible comrades. We got the tube, then back up at Waterloo. Stairs, and no signed lift. I got carried up the stairs. Again, something I'd normally object to, but I had comrades who were willing. They prioritised access for me, and did their utmost.

An escalator. I can go up escalators fine, in my chair, if someone stands behind me. When we got to the top, my comrade got a lecture on health and safety and me using the escalator not being allowed. I'm becoming a bit of a bolshy cripple quite frankly, and we pointed out if they signed the lift we'd have used it. We then deliberately took the next escalator, to make a point. Meanwhile, my comrades carried all my stuff.

By this point, I was starting to feel less like a weighty burden, and more like a valued member of a group. My comrades cared enough to help me get home, and to be angry when services were fucked up. I don't normally get angry. I normally resign myself to this being my fault for using a wheelchair, rather than getting frustrated. They were angry on my behalf.

The trains home had been replaced by buses from half way. I got onto the train, then off, and the bus wasn't accessible. My comrades argued this and TFL ordered a taxi, which me and one person could use. I had a number of offers, but chose to go with someone physically strong, the comrade who had carried me earlier. Comrades were angry that it had come to this, I was resigned, but relieved by their anger, because at least I felt supported.

The station asked my friends for my name and number to book the taxi, I didn't speak to a single person, however hard I tried. They weren't interested in listening to me.The taxi came, and it wasn't accessible. After all that, it wasn't accessible. I got helped in, and the driver was the first non-comrade who seemed to care, as he took me home rather than to the station (equidistant), allowing me and my comrade to crash out with tea and conversation. He also made me a very generous offer about some future plans.

And maybe I shouldn't overdo it, and place this burden on people, but you know what? I wanted to participate, and I did, and my comrades enabled me to do that, and they didn't make me feel like a burden at all, I felt genuinely liked, which, is very rare for me. I got to participate almost fully in a very inaccessible event, because I knew that my comrades would ensure that I could return home safely.

Reflections on this include that the people I travelled home with align with various different groups, and have differing politics to some extent. And that didn't matter. We were comrades, pure and simple. That's what the NCAFC needs to be thinking and doing. Okay, so our challenge as NCAFC is fighting fees and cuts, not getting a tired wheelchair user home, but it's the same thing - we need to put our differences aside and work together towards a common goal.

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