Last weekend I paid a trip to the seaside, to Brighton to take part in a literary event called Sea Changers. What struck me from the moment I arrived was how hard it was to get around in my wheelchair. In my youth I spent a great deal of time visiting Brighton. Most summers were spent staying in the digs of the polytechnic in Lewes, and many weekends and bank holidays involved jumping on the train for a few days by the sea. I was there so often at one point that in 1989 a local TV station asked me to take part in an item on the access for disabled people in the then town. If you watch the clip you will see that things were not easy sailing for a wheelchair user like me, but back then most places were pretty awkward and Brighton had a really friendly helpful atmosphere. There was also a real desire to see things improve.
For a while Brighton did get better. The bus system was one of the first in the UK to become accessible, and still uses a design of bus that prevent the current debate about who has priority for the one space on the bus, pushchairs or wheelchair. Many of the attractions were made accessible as were the hotels. However gradually these advances slowed, and eventually stopped. My wife and I decided to stop visiting Brighton a couple of years ago, after an awful experience where we were turned away from a restaurant due to me being a wheelchair user. Instead we stick to visiting either Southend, which is amazingly accessible with even the beach having wheelchair access, or our current all round favourite, Margate. But if work requires you to go somewhere, off you go.
However bad past experiences have been in Brighton, nothing prepared us for this visit. It started with trying to park. It took over an hour to finally find a blue badge bay that was available, and this was a long up hill trek from our hotel. As my wife and I battled our way up the steep hills of Brighton I was shocked at the terrible state of repair of the paving. I was being thrown around like a rag doll in my chair as the pavements rose and dipped under me. I also noticed that many shops still had steps up to them. Eventually we reached the summit near our hotel and booked in, and quickly left for the night's event. After a wonderful evening of art and discussion, a small group of us ventured out to find a watering hole. We found a pub nearby, up two steps with no accessible loo, but it had a fun atmosphere. After a couple of drinks, my wife and I left to grab some chips and to battle our way back up the hill. While the night had not been a massive success around accessibility, it was nothing compared to the following morning.
We booked out of our hotel and went in search of a coffee shop. It quickly became clear just how inaccessible Brighton really is. The pavements were so bad I soon pulled a muscle in my shoulder, and I lost count of the dog mess and vomit covering both the pavement and roads. I prefer not to wheel through either, for obvious reasons - I don't like getting my hands covered in either vomit or dog poo! But it wasn't just getting around that proved a challenge. Time after time my way was barred due to one or two steps. Even a new build development had a coffee shop down three steps. It became other worldly, as I could not remember the last time finding a coffee was so hard. Finally we found somewhere I could wheel into, with a loo! Halleujah! We purchased out coffee and cake and waited for some comfy seats that another couple were about to vacate. However, one member of this couple seemed to be taking a rather long time to leave. Then she turned to the table next to all of us and offered them the seats. There is no way she could have missed us, so this was an act of pure discrimination. As a couple we do occasionally get treated differently as we do still dress alternatively, but this was Brighton, home of the creative and different. We both knew it was the wheelchair.
We finished our breakfast and ventured out to get some sea air. We began to notice that people would not get out of my way as I wheeled along. I had to keep stopping or jumping sideways to avoid oncoming people who were clearly not going to change direction, not one bit. This came to a head as we wandered through the winter gardens. The paths are fairly narrow, enough room for my wheelchair and a person either side at most. Diane and I were coming in one direction, and a woman walking her dog and a young couple the other. Did anyone stop or even slow? No. Instead I had to grab my brakes and screech to a stop to prevent the dog being crushed under my wheels. Did anyone say thank you? Again no. So we gave up and went home.
Sadly Brighton is a mirror to many places in the UK. Disabled people are barred for being able to live like non-disabled people both by the built environment and the attitude of the locals. We don't expect to rip a place apart in the name of access, but it must be an ongoing thing, otherwise disabled people become less visible. Thus we become seen as a problem and not part of the community. Luckily I don't live there, but I really pity the disabled people who do. Shame on you Brighton, you used to be so cool.
Photographs by permission of Diane Scarlet Wallace
Video from Channel Scarlet - Cleared for use.