It took me some time to consider using a wheelchair. It didn’t occur to me that I was just as entitled to use those chairs at the front of the shop, as anyone else who needed to. I instead hobbled around, my pain levels ever increasing – until I collapsed back in the car, in agony and exhausted. I decided to give one a go in Asda, when I was with my mum. We whizzed about, and it was amazing! I could spend time looking at what I wanted, with no pain clock ticking over me. I picked which shops I went into based on whether they had a wheelchair available for use.
It isn’t always easy using a wheelchair though. For start, if you are unable to push yourself like I am, you have to give all of your independence over to the person pushing you. It’s hard to explain what this is like as a 23 year old that has been making her own decisions for years. They have the power to decide where you go, which way, what you will do. It’s a very difficult thing to get used to and you have to give all your trust over them.
It’s also an exhausting job for the person pushing you. It’s one thing in to push the chair in the shop, where there is a shiny flat floor. Outdoors there are hills, pot holes, curbs and people and so I feel an enormous sense of guilt over it.
General inaccessibility is another big concern. Many shops, particular older ones, have narrow doors or steps to get up to them. Shops put advertising boards and other objects out on the pavement, so it’s a struggle to get around it. There is a lack of dropped curbs, and many aren’t flush with the road, so it’s a case of whacking against them and hoping for the best. You have to remember they aren’t like prams that you can tilt back – they’re solid and difficult to turn.
Shops love to have large displays you can’t get around, or terrible layouts that require impossibly tight turns. Other shops have fixed chip and pin machines, so you can’t pay for your own items. Many places do not have lifts, and won’t offer service to you if you can’t reach them (despite it being against the law). I’ve been turned away from the dentist I have used all my life, as he refused to treat me in the (available!) downstairs room when I could no longer manage the stairs.
Then I discovered mobility scooters, by joining Shopmobility which gave me access to mobility scooters for a small fee. Suddenly the town centre opened up to me again. I used them to do my Christmas shopping, to meet friends and to go to appointments. I will admit I find them embarrassing to use – people associate them with older people, and particularly because I’m overweight – I worry people think I’m just lazy. Jokes about them on shows like Benidorm, where they call them ‘Crip Mobiles’ and encourage able-bodied people to use them don’t help.
The great points about them were that I no longer had to exhaust someone by pushing me; had somewhere to put my shopping; I could decide where I wanted to go, and cover longer distances. The downsides were the greater size meant even more shops became impossible to get into. We even rented one to take on holiday, that broke up into pieces to fit in the car. It was fantastic, as long as I have someone there to get it in and out the car and set it up. I even explored some caves, using one. The biggest downside is their cost – completely out of my league.
I have also had some horrible experiences using one. Before Christmas I rented one to do my Christmas shopping. It was the first time I had been alone using one and I hadn’t realised how much I had been relying on the other person. I found doors that opened outwards, so I had to sit and wait in the freezing snow for someone kind enough to open it for me. I got stuck in shop displays, and people stepped out in front of me, even on the lowest speed possible and me calling out to them. It was like I was invisible. As my shopping piled up in the basket, I could no longer leave the scooter outside while I went in shops, as I couldn’t carry it all.
I went into WH Smith. First of all I couldn’t get to the part of the shop I wanted to due to the layout of the displays. A customer kindly fetched the item for me. I then attempted to queue, but the layout of the tills was so awful and tight, I banged into the barrier, and all of my shopping fell off – breaking some items. I hobbled off and tried to pick it all up, when it happened again. I was exhausted and tired, but had already entered the queuing system so I couldn’t back out again. Someone stepped over me while I was trying to pick my items up to queue in front of me like I wasn’t even there.
A customer saw my difficulty and pointed it out to three members of staff, who ignored me. In order to manoeuvre round the barriers, I had to crash multiple times into their displays, causing everyone to look at me and probably mumble about scooter drivers being a danger to society. But there was no other choice in order to get out, as it was too tight.
I finally reached the till, and a member of staff walked over and said, “Can I help?” I wanted to throw my broken items at her, but didn’t want to spend Christmas in prison for assault.
I wrote a letter to WH Smith in December detailing the issues, and suggested that due to their till layout, they have a till right at the end for wheelchair and scooter uses, as well as anyone with another disability that would find it difficult to use the queuing system.
They didn’t bother to acknowledge my letter, until the local access group got involved for me. I found them such a help I then joined, and became a committee member. They agreed to make changes, but sadly at this date this haven’t done so.
I now have my own manual wheelchair from the NHS, which is great, but I still long for the day I can get an electric wheelchair and have some independence.