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Sunday, 22 March 2015

Access isn't just about getting in a building, it is also attitudes!

The issue of Access is often a contentious one, if you talk to someone with a disability then there is always problems with not enough being done, yet if you talk to people in authority there are always excuses as to why more can not be done. I appreciate that there are times when it is not possible for there to be access to something be it the physical limitations of the person themselves (e.g. rock climbing) or through buildings being so old that they can't be adjusted enough to be fully accessible.

Although this is the case, organisations will often hide behind 'reasonable adjustment', expecting disabled people to just accept that as much is being done as possible. As mentioned above, I appreciate there are some limitations with buildings that are really old and that I will not be able to get everywhere that I may want to, but I still feel that often more can be done than is currently being done so. Companies should want to do as much as they can to include everyone (at the end of the day my money is as good as the next persons) Why do companies wait till they're forced to make changes? For example new trains are designed to be just like the old ones, but the old ones aren't practical, to make transport links more accessible changes need to be made, so why not start making those changes to the new trains that are being produced. Small steps but a big difference to someone in a wheelchair in the long term (that would mean one more train that I could get on without having to ask for help).

Attitudes to disability can be as limiting to access as much as the physical limitations of access. Previously when I went to France for a holiday and before I even got to France I was feeling positive about the experience. I got to the Eurostar terminal at St Pancras and instantly there was a higher level of service than I regularly experience in the UK. An example of this was getting to a lift which was manned, I was given priority for the lift rather than having to wait for all the passengers who couldn't be bothered to use the travelator (which is something that seems to be a sad but regular experience for me). I understand that there are people with hidden disabilities who can't walk far etc, but the amount of people that I regularly see waiting at lifts tells me that they haven't all got disabilities and are abusing something that is there to help people with limited mobility.

On one occasion when I went to a concert, people had crammed a lift to literally breaking point. The lift cut out and my husband had to climb up a flight of stairs to find someone to sort it out. On this occasion it was going to be unlikely that I was going to be on my own, but I may of been with a number of people unable to climb the stairs, then what would I have done? It is people who abuse systems in place that make it more difficult for those with a genuine need. People who aren't disabled see people abusing the system and so assume that everyone who is disabled is the same. This is just not true, disabled people need understanding and support and attitudes to change before they are able to really feel part of the society. Only then will access not be seen as a problem.

At times I see wonderful attitudes as mentioned above the journey to France started well and it continued in the same vain. I got to the platform for the Eurostar Train and before I was anywhere near the carriage I was being asked what assistance I needed and they were onto it immediately. When I arrived in Lille I was a little nervous, as my experience of UK special assistance is patchy to say the least BUT I was pleasantly surprised. There was someone there straight away who ensured that we were okay. We had some time in Lille so we went off before finding out what was needed for special assistance, but again we were pleased with what we saw. Someone was coming out to meet us before we were even going into the office, they helped us on to the train, and we were amazed at what we were greeted with on the train (it was obviously one of the newest because as we found out later they are not all as good) I had a choice of sitting in my wheelchair or sitting in a normal seat, this seat wasn't just a plain static seat that we get in the UK no, it swivelled round to make it easier for me to get on and reclined like all the other seats in carriage did also. I was amazed at the level of detail that had gone into this train but it weren't just that it was the attitude towards me as a customer like anyone else.

While in France we went to a theme park called Futuroscope, it is a theme park that is modelled on the future, using amazing technology for all the attractions. There was a number of attractions I could do without any problem at all, often missing out on lots of queuing etc because the only accessible entrance was different to everyone else (which I am definitely not complaining about!). There was a small number which I was unsure of the suitability, and so members of staff were asked. They were always really friendly and would let me look and decide for myself whether I felt they were suitable rather than being told they weren't. It was nice to have that control, because I am able to make my own decisions and although I would love to do everything I know that there are times when its just not possible and I accept that.

What I do not feel I should accept any more is the restrictions that society places on me that prevents me from aspiring to have a better life. As mentioned in other posts, I have been disabled from birth, and have had to learn to grow up in a mainstream world, this has not always been easy as there have been a number of times when I have perhaps not had the same access to opportunities as my peers have. When at school I was always keen on sport and my teachers always did their best to get me involved, unfortunately looking back I am able to see fault in their attempts as the outcome always led to feeling like I had to make do as they had done the best that they can.

When trying to get involved in sport outside of school this was an even bigger challenge. I would be pushed from pillar to post being told to speak with this person or that person. Rather than being embraced as a positive move towards inclusion I was always made to feel a problem where this and many other things in my life are concerned. I have been involved in a number of different disabled sport camps as a child but when I wanted something more regular it just wasn't there. I was an enthusiastic young person who was seeing role models like Tanni Grey Thompson succeed at what I aspired to be, this enthusiasm was sadly not embraced and I learnt very early on that what you wanted and what you got were often two completely different things.

As a result of this negative experience, I gave up feeling like I was ever going to be involved in sport and learnt following my dreams was a waste of time. I finished school and had no direction in my life as up to now all my dreams and aspirations were mistreated so what was the point of aspiring to be anything?

Thankfully things are changing for disabled children and there are more opportunities for them to get involved if they so wish. At this point in my life I have to accept what I have and move forward making the best of my life. I have had successes in my life including a marriage to a wonderful man who is my soul mate, we now own our own home which we are very happy with (it was a long time coming with more ups and downs that I care to think about) and although my place of work has its faults it is a rewarding job. This does not stop me from aspiring for more, but should I or should I just accept what I have, moving on from the past?

Some of the most positive experiences with sport has came as an adult, initially when I decided that I wanted to have a go at tennis, so I contacted a local tennis centre and was happy to see the response provided. They admitted that they had no one in a wheelchair at the centre, but that they were happy to learn and give it a try. It is that 'can do' attitude towards something that can make all the difference and it definitely did on this occasion. I regularly attended lessons for a while as well as went to a couple of tennis camps which I really enjoyed. Unfortunately this never led to what I hoped it would and so I started to become a little disheartened by this experience. At least I was getting some exercise though and  I enjoyed it while it lasted.

Wheelchair Basketball is an area that I can definitely say I have experienced both ends of the scale in terms of positive and negative experiences. As a child I tried to get into Wheelchair Basketball and so found out about a session locally. I attended these sessions for a number of years, but found myself losing interest as I was never encouraged and could not see the point of pursuing something that had no future. The sessions were very much an excuse for some players who were in teams to have a mess about and no attention was given to new players who might want to learn how to play and improve.

I am pleased to say that as an adult I have been given the opportunity to get involved in Wheelchair Basketball again. This time being shown what a proper training session was meant to involve and being given hope that I have potential to become a better player and get involved with a team of some amazing people. This opportunity came due to attending a one off event in Bedford and has led to me now attending regular training sessions in Northampton and becoming part of a third division team. It does still mean that there is not anything locally as I would like but I am so glad that I attended this event as it has given me opportunities that I never dreamt possible. It has let me dream and aspire for more and given me a purpose that I was beginning to feel like I was lacking.

Disability sport doesn't always have a positive outcome like this as mentioned above as a child it was very difficult to join in, but things are improving slowly. Unfortunately I feel they are improving slower than they should, for example if you live in Holland and are in a wheelchair you are encouraged to try a sport, so much so that they will provide you with a wheelchair on a trial period.

Time, money and energy are needed for the improvements to be made, but it is needed. Disability Sport is getting big all over the world, with sportsmen and women becoming role models and recognised as much as their able bodied counterparts but in this country you are lucky if five minutes of disability sport is shown in a programme that is 2-3 hours long. I understand that they are seen wrongly as minority sports, but my argument to that is how are attitudes going to change if this view isn't challenged. The media has the power to raise the profile of disability sport, yet they don't/won't. As long as the media does enough they don't care about the bigger picture.

Looking at the bigger picture is also a contentious issue, recently as part of the development of Wheelchair Basketball in the area myself and my coach were put in contact with a representative from the local sports development team to discuss opportunities that were arising. As part of this I was given the opportunity to go on a level 1 Wheelchair Basketball Coaching course in the first step towards me being able to support a club if there was the opportunity for one locally. Everyone has been very keen for this to happen and it has been a refreshing change from the experiences as a child to see that this was being taken seriously. On a side issue my coach found out about an opportunity to coach some sessions at the local university which was all sounding very positive. Unfortunately things have changed very quickly and it has shown that there is very little understanding of disability and the issues disabled people face on a daily basis.

When we raised a couple of concerns about the facilities and other questions we had about future plans it became evident that they had put little thought into our concerns and did very little to reassure me that they were keen to prevent these issues stopping this opportunity for myself from going ahead.

This recent experience backs up previous feelings about disability sport not being important and that provision for disabled people often becomes about ticking a box rather than wanting to have a true positive impact on disabled peoples lives. If our concerns were taken seriously they would have taken the time to realise why we were saying what we were, was not just to be awkward but because they are genuine issues that disabled people face on a daily basis. If the time was taken why would they purposely go about making a disabled persons life more challenging?

One of the issues raised was that of the flooring used in the sports hall. The sports hall is very new and has had to adhere to certain guidelines including automatic wide doors, disabled toilets and wide corridors. Unfortunately that is the last point in which the architects have thought about the suitability for disabled people. The flooring used is unsuitable for a fast game of Wheelchair Basketball because to push on it you have to push twice as hard to get the same distance as a standard surface. This was one issue that we raised, which we were told 'to get on with it'. If a disabled person 'just gets on with it' on this surface it could have lasting psychological and physical effects on the individual so I do not see why we were wrong to raise this issue so that we could work together to problem solve. The thought gone into the sports hall is very much a long the lines of its alright as a disabled person can come in and watch others play. Why would they want to join in with their peers anyway? It's okay they can watch in the segregated seating as they can't get up to the raised seating that has been put in for everyone else.

For attitudes and access to improve people need to work together to make it happen, it wont happen over night and the coalition government and media aren't making it any better for disabled people, as we are one of the most vulnerable groups of people in society and should be being helped not pushed deeper into poverty and segregation which can only lead towards second class living.

The coalition government has sunk to new lows, making it hard for some disabled people to survive financially let alone have any kind of life worth living. The welfare reforms are just another way for the government to cut money and the proposed changes will mean that most disabled people wont have enough money to survive,  particularly as many disabled people have increased cost as a result of their disability,  the increase cost is rarely predictable and so how can the government propose changes which are based on predictable care needs?

Living with a disability isn't just about the amount of benefits that can be received. Many people with disabilities would like to do some kind of work, but for a number of reasons are unable to do so. These reasons may be for health reasons but they may also be for societal reasons, as it is often much harder for a disabled person to get a job than it is for an able bodied person because the employer will see the disability first and will ignore the 'ability' of that person. This means disabled people are often more reliant on help from the state because whether they want to or not they can't get the work to be able to support themselves. This then becomes a vicious circle where a person with a disability cannot go out and spend money. Many activities that disabled people participate in are also more expensive especially when thinking about sport, it is not just a case of buying some trainers, specialist equipment costs money.

Even disabled people who are in work, often don't get a good deal, finding work that they are over qualified and under paid for with very little career progression. Just because I am a wheelchair user doesn't mean that I don't have aspirations for more than I have got. In the meantime we have to continue as we are, with the hope that someone can see past my wheelchair and give me the opportunity for better employment prospects so that I feel able to aspire to be more than I am and have more than I currently do. Although most couples have one person who earns more than the other, I feel that I am being unfairly constricted by my wheelchair. Is it really that wrong to want to be an equal partner in a marriage in this day and age?

So as you can see I don't just see access as physical problem, a lot of it is to do with the attitudes towards disabled people. I want opportunities as much as the next person, but need people and organisation willing to put the effort in to make it possible. I want to aspire for greater things but how can I when it is so hard and I don't want to have to fight every step of the way.

The Lake District in a wheelchair

Recently I visited the Lake District for the second time and decided I would share my experience to help others who may like to visit this beautiful part of the country. Both occasions that we have visited the Lake District we have stayed in a Premier Inn. I would much rather feel like I was giving money to a local B&B but sadly too few are accessible enough for myself to stay comfortably in. With a Premier Inn hotel you know what you are getting and many are newer buildings which means they have to adhere to certain guidelines which gives the person staying peace of mind that their needs will be met. The staff were very friendly and helpful, speaking to me rather than my husband who I was with. This made me feel welcome and safe that I had made the right decision about staying here again.

Although Kendal is not in the heart of the lakes the hotel was positioned well, near to key amenities and as we had our own car we were able to freely drive around. We did not go too far a field at night and found ourselves spending time in the local Wetherspoons. I have the same feelings about this as I do the Premier Inn that we stayed in. I feel happier when we are providing local business with trade but unfortunately I get drawn to chains because I know that what they have to offer is standardised providing me with the facilities that I needed. When speaking about facilities I refer mainly to level access, as well as access to a disabled toilet and a lift if needed. Many individual businesses especially those in old buildings do not have these facilities as 'reasonable adjustment is not enforced if it is seen too difficult to implement. In Wetherspoons the disabled toilet is on the ground floor however they have installed a lift so wheelchair users can get up to the second floor where most of the seating is. The lift doubles up for staff use to collect glasses but if they know you will need the lift they are pretty good at keeping it clear.

One thing we found really useful when in the lakes was a publication by the Lake District National Park Authority called "Miles without Stiles" an online link is here. It details over 40 walks around the National Park and tells you the surface, and gradients of the routes so you can plan ahead. There may be gates on the routes but, as the title suggests, there are no styles. It is not only handy for wheelchair users but also those bringing small children in buggies. One route we did was around Tarn Hows (route 13), we did the circular walk which it says is a "route for many", the route for all is a very short walk to a view point and back again (no thank you). The circular walk is well worth doing and there is some beautiful scenery around there however if you are a manual wheelchair user you will likely struggle to do this route on your own. This is mainly due to the surface of the path, the guide describes it as " smooth, compact stone and dust, and provides a smooth ride for wheelchair and pushchair users" the "smooth compact stone" isn't that smooth and often your wheels dig into the path and you find yourself sliding a lot especially when going downhill and then going uphill you struggle to get enough grip to push yourself properly up the hill. If you were in an electric chair this is unlikely to be a problem but I needed my husband to give me a hand to get around. There are loose stones which your front casters can get caught on so be careful! It would be unreasonable to expect it to be tarmacked as it wouldn't be in character but just be aware. Parking is across the road and you do have to pay as a Blue Badge holder, the National trust advertise a separate disabled car park but this is for the "route for all" and not for the walk around the Tarn. I understand the National Trust now has an all terrain mobility scooter that can be hired (see here) but we did not use this facility. It is well worth a visit but just be aware that it isn't quite as easy as they make out!

Down the valley into the Village of Coniston, a very picturesque Lake District village with the main attraction being Coniston Water. We parked in the village car park outside Tourist Information and made our own way down to the lake, however there is a car park with disabled bays (I can't remember if charges apply or not). Conniston Boating Centre have a Wheelchair accessible electric motor boat which can be driven by a wheelchair user or an able bodied person. They describe it as perfect for the Wheelchair Angler however we didn't do any fishing just cruising around the lake. Details of the boat can be found here, it isn't cheap (£20 an hour ,£90 for the day) however it is well worth it. The faster you go the more battery you use up but we managed to get to the far shore of the lake, back to the other shore and back to the jetty with battery life to spare (we weren't always going that slowly!). The details say it can accommodate up to 3 wheelchair users, it was just my husband and I (so one wheelchair) and there was plenty of space. I can fully recommend this.

We visited the Beatrix Potter Experience which is a must see if you are a fan. All of the experience was accessible apart from a small part of garden. It is good value for money as the carer get in free (my husband on this occasion). There is only a small amount of disabled parking and so they ask that you ring in advance to ensure a space is reserved. There is a fairly steep slope down to the entrance with a handle rail for those with mobility issues to steady themselves. If you are using a manual wheelchair like myself than the I would advise that you get someone to hold onto you as you go down the slope.

We also visited Dove Cottage, due to the nature of this being an old building there are limitations of what can be done to make it accessible. There was free parking and so no problems with getting to the cottage. The lower ground was fully accessible and to ensure that wheelchair users were able to experience the upstairs as much as possible there was a very detailed virtual tour that I could access. A carer gets in free and is able to access the whole of the cottage while I go through the virtual tour, which by all accounts I would say was more detailed than some of the information that my husband received!

We went to a lovely Chinese meal in a local restaurant in Kendal called the Silver Fortune. The access was good with a level entrance but unfortunately there was no disabled toilet. The service was good and the food was really good. In all a lovely meal out and would highly recommend the Chinese Restaurant.

We also went for a meal at Paulo Gianni's Italian Restaurant. When we first arrived there was a level of what I feel was unnecessary panic as it became apparent that not all tables were accessible and they did not have a disabled toilet. Once we reassured them that it was alright that there wasn't a disabled toilet and they found us a suitable table to sit at the evening was very good. The food was really nice and all staff were friendly and helpful. I would highly recommend the restaurant, but would suggest mentioning your requirements in advance to to prevent any unnecessary embarrassment for both yourself and them.

All in all the experience in the Lake District was a good one, with people being helpful ensuring we had an enjoyable visit. It is definitely someone that I would like to visit again and do some more exploring. Next time it would be nice to do some more walks from the 'Miles without Stiles' pack as there is definitely much more to see.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Coping with Depression

This post will discuss my own experience of depression and what helped me to get through the tough time I was experiencing.  I decided to write this post on depression because writing has helped me in the past to release my thoughts and feelings about subjects that would normally eat me up inside and so I hope reading will also help in some way.

When the subject of depression and on this occasion suicide is discussed in the media, I find myself having very mixed emotions. Firstly I am sad for the individual and their families, looking back over your life and how they have touched your lives even though you did not know them personally. I have also found due to my own problems with depression it brings back memories of when I was at my lowest. On a bit more of a positive note I find myself being relieved that for a short period of time as individuals will feel more able to talk about their experiences. I also feel it helps to  raise awareness of what a debilitating illness depression can be and how sometimes people find that there is just no way out.

I find the memories that it brings back the hardest aspect to deal with, as I have learnt to cope with my depression but I know it is there and always will be. My mental health will always be fragile and I know that I will always have to work at keeping my mood stable, not allowing it to drop below a 'manageable' level which can be tiring and is when anyone with depression can be at their most vulnerable.

At my darkest hour I had suicidal thoughts, it is difficult to put down in words what this was like for me and unless you have been this low I don't think anyone can understand what it is like. Your ability to reason goes out the window and I can imagine those individuals who do take their own lives in the end have lost the final bit of reasoning that I was fortunate to have. This is only my opinion and my way of making sense of the process I went through because something stopped me from taking that final step, be it my ability to reason with myself or be it something else it is difficult to understand. When I was at this point in my life I could not see how anything could improve, the pain I was feeling and the pain that in my opinion people around me were going through because of how things were was enough for me to think it was time to end the suffering I was causing. One statement that gets thrown around is that those that do it were being selfish, I don't see it like this. People who get to this point are not thinking straight, thoughts are skewed and I felt I was being selfless as those around me were suffering because of how I was and I wanted to end it for them.

 When depression is part of  a persons life it can be difficult on everyone not just the person that is suffering directly. I am thankful for the support I received from those closest to me at the time. I have always found it difficult to accept help of the physical or emotional kind and so the support I was given was not always taken with open arms. I learnt to hide how I was feeling and did not feel able to talk to my husband or anyone else close to me for the concern that I would upset them and would be a burden. As a result of this it took a lot to swallow my pride and ask for help, after a lot of support already given by those closest to me.

Depression is something that I was unable to hide from everyone but I still feel unable to talk to many of my family about it as I feel there lack of understanding and misguided opinions on this matter would make it worse. Depression is still something many people will not talk about and have misconstrued ideas about what depression is and how it can be managed. At the beginning of this post I spoke about feeling relieved because it meant that people would feel more able to talk about this issue a bit more openly for a short period of time. Over the past few days I have noticed an increase in people feeling more able to talk about this issue. I continue to not feel able to talk to my family directly about the issues I face but perhaps maybe there are people out there whom feel more able now than they once did, preventing them from reaching the point that people like Robin Williams and many others before him have done.  

As mentioned above, my illness is more stable now and I feel more able to cope. Cope is the main point here, I have learnt coping strategies to deal with my depression and know if I don't do something that helps with this then I am opening myself up to experiencing lows like I have done before.

 Being able to look back on my own experiences has meant that I have learnt how to help others who may be struggling through life. Helping others can actually be more difficult at times because you feel helpless to know what to do. At this point I try to remind myself what they did for me and it can be as simple as just being in their lives as much as possible to show that they are not alone. If you know or suspect someone of having depression quite simply show that you are there, don't push them to talk or tell them to snap out of it. It can be as simple as sending a text showing you care.

 The support of those closest to me definitely helped me to feel less alone and more able to fight the illness. If you are the one going through it yourself, try and find someone to confide in, if you don't feel like this is possible there are other places to find support including the Samaritans and the charity Mind. When I was at my lowest one thing that helped was using a set of books by Matthew Johnstone titled ' I had a black dog' . These books were suggested by a friend and there are a number of them in the series looking at different parts of living with depression. I found they helped illustrate how I was feeling and they will still be used at times now to help explain what I am going through.

Depression is an evil illness which is more difficult to explain than a broken bone, it can not be seen but it doesn't make it any less real. There is evidence that it is a chemical imbalance in the brain and so has medical background rather than 'just being an emotion'. Some people will be more likely to suffer than others but the first step to ending the stigma is for everyone to learn more about the debilitating illness so that if you know someone that is suffering they can receive the help that they need rather than feeling that their only option is to suffer in silence. We need to keep talking about this issue to help those that feel they can't talk about it and to stop that feeling of being alone that so many people who suffer from depression will feel in their lives.

I hope this post is the start of people feeling able to talk about this subject more freely and so helping others to not suffer as I did in silence for so long.

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Tuesday, 18 February 2014

The truth behind First Capital Connect “Special Assistance”

The UK is one of the richest countries in the world; we live in a society where we have freedom of speech, where we are “free” to travel where we like when we like. Many people in 21st Century Britain commute on the train and nearly everyone at some point will have travelled by train. The ease, the simplicity of hopping on a train whilst it takes you to your destination when you hop off again enjoy your destination for as long as you like before deciding which train to take home. That is, of course, unless you are disabled when the situation is very different. 

This blog post will focus on First Capital Connect as that is who I use most frequently but it could easily apply to any other rail company as the situation is the same across the rail network. 

What they tell you about special assistance

They rail companies (in this instance First Capital Connect) tell you to ring their special assistance booking line 24 hours in advance and you will be guaranteed special assistance on your journey . The proviso is that you “make yourself known to a member of staff at the station when you arrive”.  The special assistance booking line will take your name, phone number and details of how you intend to arrive at your destination station and leave at your arrival station. They tell you that if you book special assistance you are guaranteed special assistance.

In an ideal world what should happen

You arrive at the train station and as you approach the barrier someone says “oh hello, you must be *Insert name* and you’re off to *insert destination*, your train is going from platform x do you need a hand getting over or can you manage to this yourself” *Insert reply* “Ok, I’ll meet you over there and I’ll have the ramp ready for you”. The member of staff will stay with you until your train arrives and ensure that you are waiting in the correct place on the platform to line up with the wheelchair space on the train. When the train arrives the member of staff will ensure that the designated space is free from obstruction, luggage and/or ignorant passengers, put the ramp down for and help you on. They will then say “don’t worry about the other end *Insert station* know you are coming and they were will be someone to help you off.” On the train if it is a Class 377 train (the more modern trains) the disabled call button will be opened up so if there is an emergency the passenger can contact the driver.

The reality is very different.

The Special assistance phone line:
I have been genuinely shocked by this service in the past especially what they can’t tell you. All this service does is put your details onto a central system so that “control” know you are travelling and a record is kept for statistical purposes. They do not tell individual stations any of your details, stations are just told that there is a disabled passenger coming on that day and this is rarely filtered down to platform staff. They cannot tell you whether the lifts are working at a particular station, they cannot tell you what platform a certain train is likely to be travelling from, and they also cannot tell you what classification of train it is i.e. whether or not the train will have a disabled toilet. These are all details disabled people may need to know before travelling on a train. In the past I have asked them to ring a particular station to ensure they know of an arrival but they cannot contact platform staff only the ticket office.  

On arrival at the station:
I have found out on various journeys (and by talking to staff members) that stations are not informed that a disabled person is coming and travelling through their station. You have to “make yourself known to a staff member” because once you get to the station you then have to request special assistance.  Platform staff also has no idea where you are going, so you have to tell them and they will then ring your destination so they know you are coming (they won’t have been told either).  A lot of staff don’t take the time to put passengers in the correct space on the train, especially with the 319 class (older trains) as it is not immediately obvious where the space is so they either put you behind the driver or in the nearest space to where they are standing. I will say not all staff members do this; there are some who genuinely take the time to do it properly. First Capital Connect say that platform staff are trained in how to board disabled passengers, going by many experiences, this is either not true or the training isn’t very good.  Platform staff then rings your destination station to let them know you are on the train, and again this doesn’t always happen. 

On the train:
Class 377 trains (the newer ones) are far better for disabled people as they have a proper area and a disabled toilet but sadly they are prioritised for commuters and rarely used off peak and at weekends. The picture below is of a covered emergency call button, platform staff are supposed to unlock this so it forms a table and an emergency call button. I have spoken with several disabled people about this and most didn’t even know what it was, First Capital Connect will tell you that it is opened for disabled people, it isn’t and I have never seen that happen. 

 On the older trains (class 319) there is a smaller space with folding bench seats, this area does not always have signs to indicate that this is an area for disabled people. Disabled passengers are often put “behind the driver” (even if this is not the suitable location) for safety, I have queried this and been told that in an emergency a member of staff needs to help the disabled passenger hence being behind the driver. When you raise the question of the disabled area being in the middle of the train in newer 377 trains, they mention the call button (see above). 

Getting off the train 

The idea of “special assistance” is that once you have been boarded onto a train there should be someone to meet you at the other end, anyone who is disabled and has travelled by train will tell you that this is a lottery. There is not always someone to meet you at the other end, social media is awash with stories of disabled passengers having to crawl off trains with their wheelchair, or being found by cleaners as they have just been left on a train. Personally if I have to travel on my own I choose a train that  has its final destination as my destination so I won’t end up at another station, if I can’t travel on such a train I ensure I am travelling with someone else who is able bodied.

Why book special assistance?

First Capital Connect say to guarantee special assistance you have to book. I have to admit I don’t always book 24 hours in advance, this is because I don’t always know what time I will be returning. If I am going out for a day trip somewhere or a meal out in an evening, it is impossible to predict how much fun I will have (or not) and I may want to stay later or come back earlier (as anyone would). As I have already said, booking special assistance doesn’t actually “book” anything it just creates a record, and it makes no difference to your journey, in the evenings many stations only have one platform assistant working even at stations that serve international airports (Luton Airport Parkway) and booking special assistance does not increase staffing levels. So why book Special Assistance? So you have grounds to complain, it is in fact a pointless service. 

Why blog about this? 

I am sick of it happening to me and to other disabled people, when you complain to First Capital Connect nothing happens. In the past I have complained to my MP, in reply I received a letter of apology from First Capital Connect and was given free travel on the journey of my choice.  I don’t want free travel, I don’t want an apology, what I want (and what every disabled passenger wants) is for the system to work properly and the changes to be made so it does work properly. When I tweet First Capital Connect they refer me back to the Special Assistance helpline which, as already discussed, is useless. Some people may see this as an opportunity to attack the rail unions, to be clear on this issue I know for a fact that the RMT campaigns on increased access across the railways and would like an end to Driver Only Franchises (of which First Capital Connect is one) so there is a member of staff on board every train to help.  I have spoken to many staff (usually the ones wearing an RMT pin badge) and they blame the system, many of the staff are hardworking, considerate and would agree with me about the system not working. Without them talking to me I would not have the information I need for this blog. It is time we opened up access to the railways so disabled people can travel as easily as able bodied people. 

I would welcome the opportunity to discuss this with First Capital Connect the issues raised but this has never been offered and in fact I am told that I am wrong and politely sent on my way.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Barriers to Education

Before I start with this post I would like to bring your attention to Blogging Against Disablism Day. For more information on what this is and why it is important here is a link for you to follow

It is important to think about what the phrase 'barriers to education' means before I go on to talk about my own experience of education. According to the Open University article: Barriers to Learning, barriers can be attitudinal, organisational or practical, although it is important to remember that sometimes there is no way to do this due to the nature of the disability and the problems that are experienced. As a result each individual should be treated differently and their needs addressed in the same way. The article I refer to also identifies that -

"The barriers to learning faced by students with disabilities are many and complex, and differ from student to student and often from day to day."
As such I will be only writing about my own experiences and understand that this may be very different to what others may have experienced.

"The article refers to the 4 A's when wanting to remove or lower the barriers to education, they are -

Access means physical access as well as access to the curriculum
Awareness of the needs of disabled people and the barriers they may experience
Acceptance that you may need to do things differently
Appreciation of the effects of hidden difficulties, such as pain, tiredness and emotional stress"

My experience of education has been very mixed, with some of my experiences and decisions that I have made being directly affected by my disability and the limitations that this brings. I started my education at a special needs school and continued on this road until I was 9 years old. All the experience that I have had through my education in both a special needs school and in mainstream education has influenced my life and the person that I have become now. The time in special needs education allowed me to become more independent and have much more access to services like Physiotherapy, Occupational Therapy and Speech and Language Therapy sessions than if I had been in mainstream education from the start. Unfortunately the main limitation for special needs education for me was that it did not challenge me at an academic level and if I had continued along this route I would not have had the same opportunities that I have had throughout my life so far. This is not the experience of everyone and there are many people who need that higher level of support that a special needs school is able to offer.

Thirty years ago, children were regularly put into Special Needs School because the provision was there and this view was not questioned, because it was commonly believed that disabled people did not need to be educated because they wouldn't be able to work anyway. The individual was not seen, it wasn't until this was challenged that children with disabilities are now encouraged to attend mainstream schools. This is quite a recent change in my thirty years of life and thankfully more disabled people are able to experience mainstream education and are provided with more opportunities because of this, although there is still a long way to go and still many disabled people do not have the same chances that their able bodied colleagues have through education and employment.

I also have concerns over the plans of the current coalition government including the proposals of the SEN and Disability Green Paper which on first skim reading sound like the government has an understanding of the needs of disability children for example it states-

"give parents a real choice of school, either a mainstream or special school. We will remove the bias towards inclusion and propose to strengthen parental choice by improving the range and diversity of schools from which parents can choose, making sure they are aware of the options available to them and by changing statutory guidance for local authorities. Parents of children with statements of SEN will be able to express a preference for any state-funded school – including special schools, Academies and Free Schools"

Its not until you read further and review some of the language used that it is apparent that the proposals will be bad for disabled children giving them less chances of a mainstream education than they currently do and in turn will increase the barriers to education -

"and have their preference met unless it would not meet the needs of the child, be incompatible with the efficient education of other children, or be an inefficient use of resources. We will also prevent the unnecessary closure of special schools by giving parents and community groups the power to take them over"

The above mentioned sections shows how the truth can be hidden in what they are saying. This above wording allows decisions to be made about a disabled child and what provision they should be provided, finding reasons for disabled children not go into a mainstream school just because the special needs school around the corner meets the needs of the child. I feel this will lead to the over use of special needs schools as it was when I was a child.

My parents were always keen to get me into Mainstream Education and were prepared to fight but knew they had to be realistic about my needs and the red tape that they would have to cut through. So they bided their time until my health improved and they felt I would be able to cope in Mainstream Education.

After a while my parents started the long process of trying to get me into Mainstream School. This took quite a while from what I gather and there was lots of compromising along the way because there was always a school 'more suitable for my needs' than perhaps was the one that my parents wanted me to attend. My parents wanted me to go to the local Lower School but due to there being another school with better access in another village it was agreed that this would be the school that I would attend.

To ensure that I coped I was phased into the school, initially attending once a week, then twice etc. This was in Year 4 of Lower School. I coped well with this and I would say this was a positive way for myself. After a year of phased attendance it was agreed that I would attend the same school for a full year, rather than go up to Middle School with the pupils of my year. I am glad this happened at this point in my education rather than later on because I adjusted to the idea quite quickly. For the rest of my education I was always a year behind but more often than not this wasn't noticeable.

Adjusting to Mainstream schooling was not always easy, I suddenly wasn't the top at everything and had to work at being middle of the class. My teacher for the first full year at Lower School was what I needed. He did not put barriers in my way, he enabled me to be part of education road ahead. I was encouraged to get my literacy and numeracy up to the same level as other people in the class and by the time this year had finished my literacy and numeracy skills had increased immensely and in most areas I was achieving average and above results. When attending the Special Needs School, these weren't seen as important as independence and mobility which meant that at the beginning of the year I was at a disadvantage to many in the class. If you haven't got an education and qualifications to back up the independence and can do attitude that I was encouraged to have then what is the point. The main reason for schooling and education is to prepare and give children opportunities that they might not have if they are not provided with a good education. This year meant I was academically set up for my future schooling and lowered some of the barriers that had been put in place previously.

Although my first year of full time Mainstream schooling was a success academically, there were some tough times. I was quite obviously different to the children who attended the school and although I gained friendships there were still a number of occasions that I fell foul to the children who didn't understand me or my disability which led to times of bullying. This was hard as all I wanted was to be the same as everyone else and be liked by everyone. Thankfully there was little bullying at this time, but it did prepare me for what it could be like. Throughout the rest of my education there were plenty more occasions I would learn what it is like to be at the end of a bullies harsh words.The children I went to school with were part of what provided me with a barrier to full education. I was regularly bullied to the point that I would not want to attend school and would pull a sickie just to avoid putting myself through it. Although I was always good at doing my work and I was able to get reasonable results it made me wary to attend and marred much of my experience of the education I received and limited some of my opportunities.

Before this year was out my parents spent much time discussing what was best for me and the future education that I was going to receive. Another hard decision had to be made by my parents and although they wanted me to go to the same school as my peers, it was agreed that there was another school in a different village which could cater for my needs better. This meant I had to make new friend all over again, I tried to keep in contact with some but this became more difficult the more time that passed. This led to a disjointed education again and provided me with challenges that most children would never have to think about let alone experience. The experience I am describing here is how things are going to be for all disabled children if the guidelines of the SEN and disability Green Paper are followed, with barriers to education increasing rather than decreasing.

The experience was much the same through out the rest of my education, with having parents fighting for the right for me to have the education I deserved and having students who misunderstood me and my disability leading to me being treated differently often due to my disability. 

Once I left school I did not go onto college or university straight away, partly for average reasons like not wanting to and not knowing what I wanted to do but also because it was much more of a challenge for me as I have to think about access issues rather than just what university has the best social scene. A number of years later I decided to improve my prospects through education by completing an Open University Degree. This is something that I have just completed and I am proud of my achievement as it was a very long road. The question of whether this will actually make a difference to my prospects is still unsure but at least I can say I tried and have given myself as much chance to progress in life and get out of a job that has no prospects. 

Many barriers to education I experienced could have been changed to positive experiences if there had been some simple changes in the way my education and my disability was approached. Referring back to the 4 As that I mentioned earlier, to achieve this individuals and organisations need to think about these and through education of adults and children barriers to education no longer need to be an issue. We need to challenge the current disabling attitudes and practices. As a society we need to give ALL our children the opportunities that they deserve not the select few that current government policy is currently giving an advantage to.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

No we can't or yes we can, what response would you prefer?

I am currently in Torquay with my husband who is a teacher for the annual conference for the National Union of Teachers. Although everything seems calmer now that is not how my experience of this weekend started. It started before the weekend when I did some research into the hotel we were staying at (the room was through a block booking and so did not have the same control). I decided to look into it for my own peace of mind and glad I did. The hotel we are staying at is the Rainbow International and all information I found on-line did not fill me with confidence that it would be suitable. As a result my husband contacted the hotel for me on my behalf to ensure that it was suitable for my needs. When he rang up, he was reassured that we were to get the fully accessible room and that we would not be moved. This room was designed around a specific person and although this is the case we were guaranteed to be getting this room due to my specific needs and being more physically impaired than the individual that the room was specifically meant for even though the other individual was expecting it. So what was the reality...

We arrived, booked in and went up to our room, I should explain now what level of disability I have so that you can fully understand the unsuitability of the room. I am a full time wheelchair user who when transferring needs to do a straight transfer. When we went up to the room it didn't take long to realise we had been given incorrect information and that they had gone back on their word. I could not even get into the bathroom let alone go to the toilet or use a shower which was a shower cubicle. There was no room in the bedroom for me to get around and so would have been incapable of being in the room on my own. When we went to reception to complain, there seemed a lack of understanding what was wrong and they were seeming incapable of fixing the problem that they had caused. The managers attitude was in fact ' no we can't' and denied we had been promised this room. This led to very angry people and a lot of shouting, this was made worse by the fact that no one was listening to me, the person who it was actually affecting. This arguing all took place in the reception area with people shouting over me and not involving me in the discussion. By this point I was finding the who situation quite distressing and was ready just to head home as up to this point the weekend was turning into a disaster.

Thankfully someone recognised what was happening and the inappropriateness of the situation and took me away from it, they then took charge which was the beginning of things changing for the better. When everyone met with me again people started to talk to me, not at me or above me and we finally started to resolve the problem that had occurred. This person admit herself that it wasn't until becoming involved in union based activity around disability that she began to truly take on board the difficulties that disabled people face. Although this is the case she is the kind of person who is able to use her own common sense and I am sure that she would have never have let this situation become as much of a challenge as it did. All it takes is an element of common courtesy and the time to truly understand individual needs.

Things shouldn't have been blown out of proportion like that in the first place though and hopefully the hotel have learnt from the experience. When they started really listening to me they started to understand my needs more and realised that they had a room that was suitable for my needs. They conceded that there experience of disability was limited and that their main experience of disability had been elderly people who have some mobility problems and so they felt that everyone's needs were the same. Once things were sorted out, we spoke calmly about what needs to be done and how to improve things for disabled people.  To make up for all the initial stress caused they have offered us one more night for free, in return I have agreed to talk about what they can do to improve their service. So this problem was sorted in the end, but then I go over to the conference centre...

Initially I ask where I need to go including where the lifts are and where the disabled seating is. I found a lovely young girl however she was unable to answer my questions which I feel should have been in her basic knowledge but she went to find the information out so I couldn't complain at this point. I went up to the floor to the "observers area" only to find that she had given me incorrect information and that once I arrived their using the lift there I found there was steps up to the seating. So I go and find someone else to ask. They call someone and then I wait some more (at this point the conference had started and people I was with were missing the start as well). We finally come across the accessible seating but because I didn't have the right pass (I have observer status not voting status) they wouldn't let me in even though they could see that this was my only entrance into the conference. This finally gets sorted and the solution is to get a different pass later on. That issue was sorted but then something else happens .... nature calls so I go to find a disabled loo. This was easier said then done. I found the ladies which I was able to get into but it really wasn't a disabled loo so I go in search of a disabled loo again. I finally found a very helpful maintenance person who showed me where to go but then I came across a loo that was locked. He went and got someone to unlock this and so hopefully when I go back today I will find an unlocked toilet.

I have told you this scenario in detail because it raises many questions about the misconception about disabled people and their needs. Some simple education of different needs could solve all the problems that I experienced. Disabled people do not want to be treated differently but we do have different needs to our able-bodied counterparts and this is something that we cannot avoid. There are a number of different disabilities and these people have varying difficulties but one aspect that can be addressed and is the main thing that I feel went wrong is able bodied people opening their eyes and think about what they are saying and how they treat disabled people. Going back to the scenario of the hotel. If they had listened and asked the questions in the first place then there would not have been the problem in the first place. I do not expect people to know the solutions from the start but if you don't know something just ask, don't assume as the assumption is what made it go wrong in the first place.  

Everything that went wrong here has gone right somewhere else and so in my opinion this shows me that if an organisation tries to work with disabled people that can get it right. Most disabled people are not unreasonable and if someone is honest and says they don't know what I need then that is better than them getting it wrong. Recently we went to look around hotels in Brighton for the National Conference in 2014. Some hotels were better than others but generally all had tried to make their hotel accessible and suitable for the needs of disabled people. One in particular due to its age had limitations but they had really tried to make it better for varying needs. This is all I ask for with a bit of honesty thrown in for good measure.

The fact that the reason for being put into these situation is due to a trade union conference is quite worrying itself. Trade unions pride themselves on equality and the rights of their workers but in reality through this conference I have experienced very little equality and equal rights by the organisation as generalisation. Although many of the issues are not directly related to the Union it is a Trade Union conference and everything reflects on the Union directly or indirectly. In saying this I would like to take time to thank those that have made the effort to understand me and understand the issues of disabled people as a whole because without them I would have given up the fight long ago. Trade Unions shouldn't just assume that because a venue is accessible the staff members in the venue know how to deal with different equality groups. The should also ensure that hotels in the area should have suitable accessible accommodation to cater for varying needs of delegates. I'm sure delegates with specific requirements wouldn't mind booking through the National Union if they could guarantee suitable accommodation. To date my experience of residential conferences is through my husbands union and I accompany him, it does concern me that if I become active in my own Union, UNISON, will I experience similar problems?

I'm not seeking a revolution just a bit of common sense.