The Disabled Traveller

Dis Trav I have been meaning to write about the challenges faced by the disabled traveller but as often happens life gets in the way; irritatingly somehow expanding to fill the limited productive time available. Cruella is rather busy at the moment; to the extent I have had to pragmatically take some time out from my freelance work. In this flat economic environment this has ironically been the impetus for people to approach me! Bugger but I’m not about to commit to things I may not be able to deliver; integrity is important to me even if it has at times worked against when naively mistakenly trusting that other people share my world view. Wisdom comes with age apparently with the Women’s Hour Power List announced today having an average age of 53 (of the 100 women on the list). Interesting debate on power versus influence; where I wonder are those invisible facilitators…

The disabled traveller has two broad limitations to work within: the physical/mental and (too frequently) the financial. The recent changes to Disability Living Allowance (DLA) have been a gift to those members of society seeking to point the finger at those perceived as being ‘undeserving’. Don’t kid yourself that you don’t have some in-built prejudices; we are all products of our upbringing. The key thing is to be aware of them and challenge yourself before pronouncing ill-informed judgements. Most instructive was the number of award-winning disabled Olympic athletes who said how DLA had enabled them to get to training sessions; the key word is enable.

Some time I wrote about how my DLA enabled me to work and to pay taxes; in those days I paid more tax than I received in DLA. More recently, in the context of less work being available, this year I had the dubious pleasure of applying to HMRC to pay nil tax as I had earnt less than the single persons allowance. So how you may ask am I able to, occasionally, travel first class on the train? A perfectly reasonable question which I am more than happy to answer. Although addressing the challenges of the disabled traveller there are tips for anyone travelling!

A couple of months ago the conversation in the changing room at the leisure centre where I swim was how best to communicate your access needs to an airline. A fellow swimmer was taking her disabled son to Spain for a month. Her brother lives on the caravan site near Cardiff Airport and one of the conditions is that you have to get off the site for 6 weeks of the year. So her brother and his wife go to the same place in Spain – somewhere near Malaga where lots of English speaking expats live and others go in search of sun. Her mother had died recently enabling her to go on holiday for the first time in decades; and my god does she deserves a break given the challenges life throws at her on a daily basis.

The woman was clear she had given the airline (and travel company managing the apartments where they would be staying) all the information they needed. Aware that she needed to be specific she was confident there would be no problems. A year or so ago she had gone to Centre Parks with other family members and the accessible chalet failed on pretty much every level. OK her disabled son could get through the front door but that was where it ended. His (over sized) wheelchair couldn’t fit through the bedroom door or more significantly through the bathroom door! At least they were only there 4 days so she just strip washed her son in the living room where he also had to sleep. Pragmatism might as well be the woman’s middle name but what about her son’s right to privacy or his dignity?

And guess what she faced the same problems in Spain only made worse by his wheelchair not fitting into the lift in the apartment block. Somehow his wheelchair was damaged in transit and a replacement had to be found. She is a dab hand with hand tools and managed to dismantle various bits of the replacement wheelchair enabling him to get into the lift. But the bathroom was still unavailable – she text me to say it was either put up with it or come home. To add insult to injury the promised free WiFi wasn’t free at all and by she and her son do love their ipads!

The slight glimmer of something nice was her hilarious text saying the drinks were cheap. When I said ‘but you don’t drink?’ she responded after one vodka and free orange juice she giggled all the way back to the apartment!

How exactly is the disabled traveller supposed to get an equally accessible travel experience? Accessibility policies may meet the broad need of the majority of disabled people but as in all aspects of life there are a variety of access needs; not all disabled people have generic needs easily (and conveniently) met by the provider. The thing that struck me most was that the disabled traveller has to become an expert planner. For me as I am eligible for the higher rate of mobility on the assessment of my walking challenges; since Cruella has been busy it’s even more challenging with at least one (and usually two by the end of the day) crutches need in the house. God knows its tedious enough for me and I know it tries the patience of anyone accompanying me!

An amusing anecdote comes to mind when I was walking recently with someone used to striding forth confidently able to negotiate other pedestrians as well as other more physical obstacles. At the outset we were in conversation as we were within hearing distance; as the walk continued the conversation did likewise except I wasn’t actually participating. Why so I hear you ask? Well that would be because I could no longer hear what my companion was saying (most animatedly at one point)! Imagine the scene one person apparently talking to themselves and one person walking at a snail’s pace with a broad grin on their face as they wonder at what point the other person would realise why their companion wasn’t responding!!

Oh we did laugh and commit to finding a mutually acceptable way to walk together but as someone who used to do everything as if on an urgent mission I suspect my companion will find it hard to slow down!

So on account of my being awarded the higher rate of mobility I am eligible for a Disabled Persons Railcard giving a discount on train tickets. Add to this a skill I have acquired at finding cheap train tickets when booking in advance  I am occasionally able to afford to travel First Class. When travelling in London the tube is out of the question on account of its poor accessibility; there are few stations with lifts and walking a very long way in the tunnels full of fitter passengers makes it any journey tortuous not to mention hazardous for me. Pushing me out of the way risks provoking an unintentional domino effect as I’m likely to loose my balance!

So taxi’s are the only option, I could try buses but then I encounter the same problems relating to walking distance to my destination and less than sympathetic passengers! An amusing addition to taxi travel is the knowledge the drivers are keen to impart; no not the knowledge of the Capitals road network. The knowledge of my condition; everyone knows someone with MS and feels the need to share their experience as acquired from said friend/acquaintance with MS. My favourite story was the person who was cure by eating potatoes!

As a disabled traveller you have to be a canny planner; the impulse journey is fraught with problems unless you have someone with you. I’ve had to grit my teeth and accept the help on offer no matter how it might be delivered; you learn to smile and be grateful for whatever is offered. So I’m sorry to have to tell you I might sound like a ‘posh’ trust fund gal from a privileged family background but sadly I am none of those things. My dictation and delivery comes from going to a British Council school as a child; I’ve never lost my accent which is a double-edged sword especially problematic when people seek to locate the box in which to place me! My mission in life seems to be disappointing others!

Train travel is not without its problems as fellow passengers determined to get on the train with a vast quantity of luggage happily close their eyes and manoeuvre me out of the way!  Large rucksacks are my particular favourite as the owner can conveniently hide behind them; students returning the academic institutions on a Sunday evening carry an unfeasibly large number of packages – how much does one person need for heaven sake!

Pain is my close friend – actually the current manifestations would better be described as a cohort of chums – and it hurts when I get squashed and knocked with packages. And Cruella has a short term memory problem; she doesn’t forget easily so if you bump into me I can feel your inflicted pain for some considerable time after you have left the scene of the crime! So that’s why I sometimes travel First Class especially on a Sunday evening; its pragmatic pain control rather than privileged self indulgence although it does of course have the benefit of sophistication…

Guess who lives here?

Guess who lives here?

But whilst I might smile and downplay the challenges of a Disabled Traveller whose dignity is regularly ignored I confess I’d happily pay full price for my train travel if I could miraculously be cured; but I live in the real world. OK there are some financial compensations to my disability: disabled persons rail card, free tax on the car and a designated parking space (with associated blue sign) outside my house. That would be the space I waited 3.5 years for. A disabled friend annoyed at people parking in disabled spaces when they didn’t have a blue badge had laminated cards she used to put on the offending vehicles. The card said ‘thank you for taking my space perhaps you’d like my disability too’! That eloquently said it all!

And I am rapidly coming round to the theory of karma; my career peaked early and I was able to help out friend’s who needed it. Now the tables are turned I am fortunate to be the recipient of largesse in return – recent trips to St Ives and London are examples of this. So my advice would be take care of young friends as they will hopefully return the love later on! Young women in particular have been a rather good investment as the dividends are proving to be most pleasing; and its not all about money for me – spending a day in my shoes maybe illuminating as well as trying the patience of the most calm individual!

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