Moaner. That's the image I am getting lumbered with. A middle-aged man constantly prattling on about lack of disability care and the image this brilliant community often gets lumbered with by politicians and papers. One day I'll lighten up, honest, it's just that until that day I will huff and stomp around like someone constantly looking for the exit in a comedy club run by Jeremy Vine.
My biggest and most personal "highlight" of the last few weeks concerning disability care, was when we, as a family boarded a Virgin Atlantic flight to NY to host and champion a disability led comic con called, "Crip-con" (the name was christened by the disabled students with a fantastic sense of irony.) We arrived at Heathrow and Virgin quickly showed how utterly, breathtakingly marvelous and inclusive they were, as Emily (my daughter) and her wheelchair were treated to care usually I assumed given to royalty.
This was Emily's first flight, and we took to the skies comforted and cared for better by an airline company than if we were still on the ground. One thing I detest is false concern and fixed grins, if I want that I'll go backstage at the Oscars, but Virgin and its flight crew were beyond utterly wonderful, they were honestly magnificent and diligent. Print that Richard Branson and frame it because your staff and company are pioneers in comfort, smiles and disability care.
Flight underway, we settled into our flight, thinking we had discovered an inclusive utopia, 20,000 feet in the air that would continue onward into our journey into America, JFK airport, and down to Syracuse where we would be working.
Awake, landed, and last off the plane so Emily wouldn't feel claustrophobic in her aisle chair, we were treated to looking in the cockpit, greeting the pilots and Emily donned the captain's hat. To say we felt cared for and included was an understatement, we were so deliriously happy that if the writers of Geordie Shore had walked in we would have given them the BAFTA award for best factual documentary.
To our surprise, we were met off the plane by another Virgin representative who guided us through border control, endless corridors which the makers of Doctor Who would be proud of and right up to the section of the airport where the atmosphere vacuum of security roamed, suited and glaring just like any upper-class person does when visiting relatives in Slough.
Stupidly, we left our good mood switched on, but thankfully the team at the security gate managed to switch if off, in case we overheated on happiness and manners. I know security must remain vigilant and have an intense job to do, but when confronted by a child in a wheelchair who is slightly apprehensive and feeling overwhelmed, a tiny upward turning of the lips and eye contact would alleviate any apprehension on her part. Emily did her best as she was searched, padded, even swabbed and made to feel like she was Dr Evil intent on seizing power from The Government (which in comedic hindsight was possibly not the worst idea of all). For my part I could only look on as I was ordered into a giant scanning machine which resembled the world's worst built, intense photocopier. I assumed all the copies of me would be distributed worldwide, with a tagline saying: "Be warned, this man will champion disability and its rights! Governments issue travel bans, and god, look at that hair."
Frisking by the writers of comedy gold EastEnders over, we sat, refreshed and Emily piped up to proclaim she needed the loo. Now, I write and talk a lot about the state of disability toileting here in the UK, some good, some on a level with a medieval torture chamber, and just as clean, and I assumed here, in JFK and its vast commercial shopping palace so big it crosses time zones, that we would stroll into hundreds of toilets. We began our next stage of the journey with smiles hanging on in there, and scanned the endless corridors and signs for one resembling a wheelchair. The first one we discovered was signposted but shut, and the attendant on duty gleefully told us of many others by saying nothing when asked, and continuing to mumble to a fellow employee about her day and how exciting matching lanyards could be.
JFK was starting to pull down at our smiles, in much the same way as when someone in a rugby shirt starts talking to you about yachts. Our meandering journey was getting irksome and Emily desperate, where the hell where were the accessible loos? We found staff member after staff member glared at us like we some unidentifiable species, simply ignored our questions or walked away when we asked such daring, rude questions, such as "Excuse me, we are looking for a disabled loo, can you help us please?" I was beginning to fear that upon our exit from security we had entered a parallel universe where either disability didn't exist or where we were top of the FBI's most wanted list for crimes unimaginable. Ladies and Gents, toilets were signposted aplenty, so were pet relief stations where you could wash your beach chicken at your leisure, and upon seeing these, I assumed JFK was being ironic, or disability care languished near the bottom of the care chart about the same place as a Black Lace reunion.
If this were a film, it would be Dawn of the Dead, but replace zombies with staff (or don't) and you get the general idea... Virgin felt like another time, another place. Hot and stressed and feeling as worthwhile as the winner of the voice, we began to despair until Aimee, my wife, put all those years of frustration with society to use and shoulder barged open an unmarked cupboard door to reveal a disabled changing place, gleaming and smelling as clean as the same way that farms don't. This stopover point was feeling as honest, sincere and welcoming as a guest spot on the Jeremy Kyle show, and just as tense and disbelieving. Do they have disabled people in the USA?
After this gem of a life moment, we walked the next four light years to our connecting flight, as the golf buggies designed to assist people with trouble walking were out of commission. As I crawled to the flight desk, equally drenched in sweat, despair and brimming sarcasm, I started to start afresh, anticipating the pre-booked aisle chair and a calming sit down. NO! haha! Got you reader! Ha! No booked chair, but this time apologies ushered out of faces that looked like were set to one emoji, utter joyless misery, this and coupled with the fact eye contact was off the menu, I resigned myself to letting my smile fall and preparing a massive English sigh.
Now, HuffPost, as wonderful as they are, have a maximum word count, and I have hit that wall. Sadly, the humorous story of our return to the carnival of souls will have to wait, but I will tease you with these words, asthma attack, lost luggage, lost hope, tears, and care of Emily so exceptionally awful that we hope to take up permanent residence aboard a Virgin airbus.