In the last few months, I have made many trips across London, alone, using different mobility aids. All have been unnecessarily eventful, and have benefitted from the kindness of total strangers, who I am pretty sure I would have given up, wept, injured myself, or would still be stuck on a train. On some occasions I have felt unsafe, and recently I had to make the brave decision not to pack a bottle of beer in my bag, as it would likely have ended up smashed. (I was right. My bag threw itself on the Jubilee Line tube).
Generally, Londoners and visitors to the city are amazing. As I waited for the ramp on one train today, three separate individuals asked if I needed any help, within 1 minute. When the small step up onto the tube at Waterloo for the Jubilee Line proved too much for my heavily laden chair, and everything went flying, two people quietly grabbed my things, helped me on the train, and returned to their seats, with no comment or awkward conversation afterwards. When there are problems with the transport, it is the kindness of strangers that gets me to my destination.
People seem keen to help, but not sure how to, and so I thought I'd make some suggestions. I am still new to a lot about travelling with a disability, but as a result, I know how it is to travel without having to consider the issues disabled travellers face.
1) Mind The Gang
You're having a night out, or the family are down. You're all excited to see each other, and that's great. Go have a drink for me. But when you're all strolling along, in a big gang, down that slight slope, I'm behind you. I have a heavy bag on my lap, which combined with the slope and the smooth flooring, is dragging me towards you quickly. I'm gripping my wheels tightly to stop myself flying into you (I go through LOTS of gloves, and have blisters on my blisters). I don't have a problem with you or your ankles, but it's not always easy to stay slow enough to stop myself careering into you. So if you're walking more slowly than the average London commuter, please don't dawdle 3 or 4 abreast, so I can't get round. I will ask you to let me past, but I'm sat down, and you may well not hear that behind you (again, understandably). But for the sake of my hands, stick to pairs, please! (Oh, and the middle of wide corridors? I am claiming those. I'm faster than you and my wheels light up. Chase me and argue.)
2) Mind The Pushchair
Much has been written about the ongoing battle between pushchair and wheelchair, especially regarding buses. I do NOT have a problem with pushchairs. I have a problem with buses that are so poorly designed that we are pushed into this wheeled face off, and with drivers who refuse to ask parents to fold down their child's buggy so I can board (generally, when alerted to me needing to get on the bus, most parents are lovely, and only too happy to help). It's easier to put a child on a lap than it is for me to wait in the rain for the next bus when I'm meant to have priority.
When using the few lifts we have on the Underground system, it would make my life quicker and easier if I'm only negotiating the toes and ankles of one or two parents with each buggy. When a group of five adults all take the lift with one pushchair, I either can't get in (and I don't, unlike most of them, have the option of taking the escalator), and have to wait, or I end up rolling into someone because they've dived in round me and I can't move. Meet at the bottom, or on the station, please!
3) Mind The Stick
I have a taste for a colourful cane. If I have to use them, they can go with my outfit, and I refuse to be embarrassed by needing them. So they're spotty, or bubbly, and pretty damn unmissable. People may use sticks for life, or just for a week. Regardless, they need a bit more space, and will fall over if you push into them or kick their stick. I had to get across London in rush hour the other day (something I try to avoid). Despite being right at the train door as it pulled up, I was barged into, pushed out of the way and at one point, battered by a pushchair coming off because I had nowhere to go in the crowds around me. I still have bruises. I was pushed out of the way of getting onto 2 trains, and only made the third by trekking the length of the platform (harder for me than others). I avoid rush hour, because with my stick I feel unsafe in the crowds, and in my chair, there is little space or time for me to get on.
4) Mind The Seat
I would often benefit from a seat. I hate having to ask. Many don't have a problem with it, but I haven't got that confident yet. Please offer, particularly if you're sat in a priority seat. Glance up from your phone and around you briefly at each stop. If I'm wonky, older, or pregnant, I may need that seat. Last week, two women offered to get me a seat, despite them both being stood themselves. I was so grateful not to have to ask, thank you.
Please don't be offended if someone turns a seat down - sometimes if I'm getting off the train in one stop, it's less painful to balance on good leg than sit down and get back up. It's nothing personal. I just don't need it!
5) Mind The Kids
I love children. Really, I often prefer them to grown ups, and not just because I don't have to look up to speak to them. They just make more sense to me. I REALLY want one of those micro scooters. I have no desire to wrap myself and my chair around one though, and it's got close a few times. Scooting on platforms, you would think a bad idea, but apparently not for many small people. Please don't let them scoot around the Tube network. It's terrifying for me, knowing that I can't always control my chair completely on slopes/spillages/getting off trains.
If your kid is staring at the lady in the light up chair, or asking you about her (totally awesome) stick - that's TOTALLY FINE. I'd rather they can ask, and see that I'm not scary; hopefully they then won't feel awkward around people with disabilities in the future. If they want to ask me questions or chat (and I've had my morning coffee), I'm happy to say hello. I believe the children are our future. Whitney said so.
There's no doubt more I could add. Want to know more about travelling as a disabled person in London? Check out Transport For All, who work to improve the travel experiences of disabled people across the capital. For actual travel examples from an interesting chap on wheels, I highly recommend Alan's 'Never a Dull Journey' blogs - I learn a lot about where to avoid and where to go.
As ever, comment below - we're all still learning!