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Painfully Ableist: Manual Wheelchair

Being on a wheelchair does not make me half of a person. It just means my needs are different from yours.

Being on a wheelchair does not make me half of a person. It just means my needs are different from yours. I have not started this series to complain, or nag the general public, but to enlighten everyone about the issues that arise in the lives of people who are disabled – both visible and otherwise. It is no shock that the world we live in is very ableist. Despite the increase in support our community receives, it is still not enough. Do not pity us, just take our experiences into account and use it to create a safer and more comfortable environment for people with disabilities. 

This series will start with a discussion about those who rely on wheelchairs – probably the most noticeable disability ever. For me, this is personal as I have lived most of my life with either crutches or a wheelchair. But, it won’t just be me you will hear about in this collection. 

Basic Travel

You would assume public transport would be made more accessible for people with mobility issues. However, travel by public transport is extremely hard whether it is by bus or train. Most stations are not step-free which means they have steps and no other alternative such as a lift. This makes travelling by wheelchair practically impossible. London is the worst place for step-free access with only 44% of stations having the facilities to deal with wheelchair users – despite having such a high population and being one of the main cities in England. Only 61% of train stations in Great Britain are step-free. This makes access to work, studies and social life extremely difficult. The only other alternative available to us are the excruciatingly and troublesome long bus journeys  

For many people, travel exacerbates their conditions to deteriorate. I cannot handle the journey of a small car much less a big vehicle on a rocky road with long travel hours. Buses also do not have space for a wheelchair often. Either people have crammed around and taken over the area meant for wheelchairs or there are two prams in the way. Getting into a wheelchair takes up to five minutes and is embarrassing as people wait for you to get your stuff together. Most of the time, I just avoid going out then.

I have a foldable wheelchair so it is small, yet even something that tiny feels like a hassle when I am trying to find space on a bus. Taxis are a definite no unless I am made of money. Unfortunately, I’m not. Can you imagine what happens when I want to go out with friends or family? Socialising outside of the house or my immediate area is so difficult, especially when there is no car available for me to use. It is less hassle just to meet a friend and grab a drink. I know what you’ll say ‘just ignore others and get on the bus’ or ‘if you really wanted to go you would’. I do want to go, but I shouldn’t have to go through all this trouble every time. It’s not practical, and honestly, it just drains me. Physically or mentally – I don’t know – I’ll tell you when I find out. 

Picture by Joya

With all this, we have to take into account the distance between the transport and the platform or pavement. There are also accessible ticket machines, ticket offices, toilets, and more we have to take into account. Here is a graph for disability provisions at train stations in Great Britain. https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/table-1-1.png We just want some lifts or even a ramp, it isn’t that hard. For me when neither is available, my family or friends carry the heavy wheelchair up a flight of stairs. Something that is dangerous and very hard to do. 

Work or no work

“It is against the law to treat someone less favourably than someone else because of a personal characteristic, such as being disabled.” Yet, it feels like there is always this prejudice surrounding potential disabled employees. There are people who refuse to provide the ‘space’ for a wheelchair. Employers who refuse to understand ‘sick leaves’. Hell, some people do not even want to provide a readable font or a five-minute break for some people to have their medicines. Can someone swap my chair for something comfortable – nope. Allow extra time for the interviews? Nope. These are all basic and easy things that someone in a wheelchair requires, yet, it is somehow difficult to provide. “Around half of disabled people aged 16 to 64 years (52.1%) in the UK were in employment compared with around 8 in 10 (81.3%) for non-disabled people (July to September 2020); disabled people with autism were among those disabled people with the lowest employment rate.” Remember to consider in this working-age, disability applies to all disabilities: both mental and physical impairments. Think about it, when you go out – how many people do you see in a wheelchair working in a retail store, working in an office, working in an educational facility. It is basically impossible to find a wheelchair user in a high position. 

Currently, remote work is best for me. As shitty as it sounds, the lockdowns have helped me with work. I am able to work with all my medical needs met at home. My specialised chair and leg rest is there. My medicines are right next to me and I do not need to travel often. Yet, working from home did not give me any joy. I missed interacting face-to-face with my students and I cannot have normal conversations. Even my physiotherapist, who only deals with my exercise, was worried about my working from home. The lack of contact from society, sun and even just basic movements were things that were mentioned. I try to leave the house in fear of being told off – do not tell him I have become laxed with my exercises please. 

Most workplaces have stairs, like my workplace for the last three years. I got lucky, my employers are willing to bring my wheelchair to the first floor for safekeeping and I am able to walk to the second floor to complete my classes. I however am unable to work for long hours, even if I am sitting down. I cannot travel to work daily or often. I will always only be able to work on a part-time basis. Not a lot of viable options when it comes to this. You don’t need graphs or percentages to know how much of a disadvantage the work-life has for people with disabilities. The fear of being jobless or entering a work-field that I will never be satisfied in is always looming over me. I do not want to settle for who will ‘accept me’.

 My goal is to be able to work in something I really enjoy, the field of psychology or journalism. A medium of helping people address an issue and learn how to move forward with it. Both these jobs require experience and lots of energy and vigour. My soul may have vigour, but my body does not – and you know what – that’s okay. I am not any less able to do the work. I do not need to be super fit to do either of these. I just need employment fields to accept that and accommodate me and the rest of the disabled community. Just be less ableist, be more compassionate and supporting. 

In fear of sounding like a cliché, all of this is just the tip of the iceberg. 

But, it won’t just be me you will hear about in this collection. If anyone would like me to interview them to be a part of this series please contact me using my email j.choudhury@hss19.qmul.ac.uk.

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