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

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Travelling (while disabled)

I like travelling. I’m the kind of person that never wants to have to stay in one place for too long, that needs to keep moving, and yet I’m also terrified to travel in a wheelchair – so much can go wrong so easily, and it’s difficult to navigate and manage everything I want to do, whilst being careful of my health as well. Health tends to take a bit of a backseat, and I make choices whilst travelling that in retrospect, when tied to my bed for a week, barely dragging myself out to get to the toilet, or make essential appointments, I tend to question. However, there are some barriers I can’t push myself over. I can’t stand or walk, or even crawl. I am wheelchair bound. I can’t self-propel far.


With those in mind, I recently travelled to Barcelona, a city I know and love, but hadn’t visited in a while. With five nights booked, I felt like I was free to really enjoy and appreciate the city, whilst resting as well. I booked, with my partner, cheap flights to and from the city, and a local hotel with adapted rooms (according to lastminute.com), something they confirmed when they reserved me one after I called them to make sure of this. I contacted the airline and ascertained that they knew I couldn’t walk, sorted my packing and medication, and the plans were afoot.


The first crisis was an error of mine in timing that meant we had to leave about three hours earlier than planned, so we rushed the end of the packing and got a taxi to the station. This meant that we had no trains booked, but without any difficulty we found the guard and asked for a ramp. The ramp was in place, and I had the awkward moment at the top of it where I looked at the people in the seats in the wheelchair space until a couple of them moved. Later another wheelchair user arrived, and with the sense of solidarity wheelchair users tend to share in public, we chatted – myself conscious of his strong upper body, self-propulsion, and no need for a wheelchair space or brakes. Miracle of miracles, we were met at Clapham Junction, and got on the next train to Gatwick. There we checked in, arranged to meet our assistance to get me to my seat on the plane at the desk, and wandered around the departure lounge buying last-minute suncream, and lunch. On getting to the gate, I was told that I needed to have let the assistance folk know that I’d made it through security, a note that being told “meet them at the gate” didn’t quite convey in my mind, but after a series of lucky events I made it onto the plane first* after all.


At the other end, assistance were running on Spanish time, and Spanish routes, and it seemed to take hours, but we made it onto a bus (Barcelona buses are excellent, they all have two wheelchair spaces with seatbelts and ramp call buttons, a ramp that goes to and from the street that you can request from inside or outside, and usually have a decent incline into the bus) packed full with suitcases into the city centre (I carried my partner’s suitcase on my lap, he wore my backpack). We checked in at the hotel and I was reminded that the Spanish version of adapted is different to the British version as I squeezed my wheelchair between the beds, tried to navigate close enough to transfer to the toilet (at least it had transfer rails), glared at the shower over a short bath with no seat in frustration, and looked hopefully at the bidet. Still, the hotel was comfortable and in a good area, I was pleased to be back in Barcelona, where much of it is a planned city, with very good dropped kerbs, and we had plenty we wanted to do.


The Sagrada Familia is wonderful for access, with an adapted toilet, and lots of ramps and flat access (as well as the option to skip the queue). The same can be said for the cable car up Montjuic (although you do hit cobbles at the top).


The zoo requires a bit more of a mention. We got in very cheaply and got front row seats with no queueing for the dolphin show, but almost all the barriers between me and the animals were exactly at the height of a five foot seven guy in a helium with a jay basic cushion (or in other words, a wheelchair user’s face). It was incredibly frustrating that I couldn’t see well – the height was obviously designed so small children couldn’t jump over the fences but their parents could lift them to show them the animals without too much effort – but was certainly frustrating for me. A couple of the areas also required special entrances, and to see the lizards I had to move in the opposite direction to the crowd – difficult, slow and frustrating. Whilst it was fun, at the end of the day I was glad that I’d gotten in so cheaply given what I could see.


The old city is a pain in the chair, with lots of cobbles and slopes and things, but was beautiful and well worth a look. Whilst in it, we went to a cathedral whose name I’ve forgotten, and although I had to go in a back door, it was absolutely lovely. I do dislike being sent in back doors though – I feel like it represents a wider attitude to disability, in which we should be kept back, kept hidden, expected to enter through back doors, out of sight, out of mind. I can’t complain too much in Barcelona in general though, and accept that this was an ancient cathedral in the old part of the city.


As well as buses, and dropped kerbs, another thing Barcelona does much better than London is the metro. I used list of accessible stations on the Barcelona metro, and apart from one nightmare of a trip in Plaza Catalunya (watch out, there’s more than one lift, but only one leads to an accessible route to all the platforms (and I didn’t get in that one, meaning dragging myself on my arse up a flight of stairs)) it was invaluable. With it, I could freely travel by metro, and I was given at a tourist information office a map of Barcelona with all the buses and bus routes on, meaning that I had amazing access to public transport. I saved all the money I’d budgeted for taxis, as rather than needing several trips per day, I used a taxi twice in the entire trip, once at night and once when I was completely exhausted. It was lovely though, to be exploring a city and to be able to use public transport.


On our trip back to England we had to leave early because our flight information didn’t tell us what airport terminal we needed – and we were lucky that when we got on the bus we saw a woman who worked for the airline we were travelling with, so simply followed her and got to the right terminal. Our flight was fine, access again worked brilliantly, but at the other end they didn’t unload my wheelchair to the aeroplane door meaning I had to go in an assistance wheelchair (thankfully on my cushion) to the baggage pickup where my wheelchair ended up. I then had to transfer wheelchair whilst sitting on the cushion I needed to also move across. The chair was undamaged, and assistance was easy to get from Gatwick to Clapham Junction.


However, despite telling the staff at Clapham Junction that we were travelling on to a smaller and unstaffed station, there was nobody on the platform for our final train. No station staff waved the train before it off, only the guard, then our train pulled in, and there were still no staff. However, the guard looked down and saw me in my wheelchair obviously trying to get on. “Phew”, I thought in relief, but he walked back inside the train and ignored me. My partner and I got our stuff on, I transferred onto the floor of the carriage, then, with difficulty, back into my chair. The guard didn’t walk down the train, so at our stop I had to get off as well, still with no ramp assistance. The guard called something to us from the end of the train but I wasn’t feeling charitable so I ignored him. This kind of attempt to travel by dragging equipment is frustratingly standard for British trains, and I found myself missing how wonderful Spanish ones were – either the metro, or the intercity trains (which I had used before, and for which assistance was excellent). Still, with something going wrong I knew I was back on home soil.


It’s now been over a week since I got back and I still feel like I’ve been running marathons. I’m paying for this quite incredibly in terms of health, but I also had a wonderful time.


I think London has a lot to learn from compared to Barcelona, before it dares call itself anything but a nightmare for wheelchair users.


*being dragged onto the plane last in an aisle chair is something I find humiliating and uncomfortable, as I lie in the aisle waiting for people to sort their bags out in a fumbling embarrassed fashion








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