So today I attempted to go shopping for an outfit for my daughter's forthcoming christening.
A simple enough task one would think, despite the three month old child strapped to my person and having to contend with the inaccessible London transport system with a wheelchair. Today however, thanks to a monster nap and helpful drivers x2, those issues could be easily overcome.
Sadly, the same could not be said for the simple matter of shopping, due to an issue that is the bane of my life at even the best of times, but becomes infinitely worse at this time of year.
The issue would be that of stores ridiculously over-filling their shelves; whilst also adding shelves where there isn't any room for shelves; and deciding that floors are also indeed shelves and subsequently stacking books, chocolate tins and festive displays on corner of aisles and even in the centre of narrow aisles- all in their desperate attempts to seduce us with sparkly, expensive crap that none of us actually need, whilst generally making it impossible to negotiate one's way around their premises for those of us in wheelchairs, with sight problems, who have mobility problems, or simply want to push their offspring around in a pram or buggy.
Now, taking a lighter path down this road, I could amuse you all greatly with the tale of how I once took out a whole 8ft display of Christmas crackers in my local Robert Dyas to great amusement/ embarrassment of the friend that I was shopping with!
I could even tell you about the time I rammed myself and my 100kg wheelchair into a cylindrical display of 100 plus bottles of champagne in my local M & S. Don't worry, in this instance they didn't smash- which considering my track record for clumsiness is frankly a bloody miracle!
(Those of you who know me of old will be familiar with the tale of how pre-accident I once stabbed myself in the leg demonstrating how I almost stabbed myself in the leg by accident!)
Yep, I am clumsy; their is simply no escaping that one! In fact, if my closest family and friends were truly honest with themselves, I think many would even say (even though my car crash wasn't my fault I'd like to add. Quick nod to my post accident legal case!), that they were even surprised that I made it to the grand old age of twenty three before I was in a wheelchair.
Others may add that at least in a wheelchair I'm less likely to damage myself further.
I am an accident prone nightmare; but even my husband, (the greatest advocate of this sentiment), would say that I can manoeuvre my wheelchair better than anyone he has ever seen.
Champagne and crackers incidents aside!
It's true that he has had to maintain this praise ever since he once drove my wheelchair into a sofa in a hotel lobby; and when a fellow pilot friend of ours drove it into a palm tree on holiday- (I won't mention the airline that he flies for but perhaps "Don't... Fly Emirates!')- this respect for my chair driving went up even further!
I really am pretty capable of manoeuvring my beast around tight spots. When you have to use it everyday with golden retriever and/ or baby in tow, or even just to use public transport- you kind of have to be. But I challenge even the greatest of chair drivers or self propellers to negotiate some of the shocking displays of thoughtlessness that I witnessed today.
Usually negotiating my local high street where said dog and baby are well known (see fig. 1- how could you miss us?!), I am still all too often faced with the problem of not being able to get to at least half of a store due to poor thought in terms of displaying goods or even the lack of an in store lift.
(I once asked in the Bath branch of a certain popular fashion store for both men and women how I get to the women's section upstairs- I was told- "you don't" before the member of staff turned her back to return to helping customers who in her little mind better fitted the image of those of should be shopping in said store than the 24 year old wheelchair user that was me at the time).
That in mind, I thought I would catch the bus (a mission in itself when you're in a chair), to one of Europe's biggest shopping centres, where there would be a nice wide concourse to drive down between shops and much greater amounts of space than the high street shops that have to contend with planning restriction and/or very old buildings that were built before any thought to accessibility.
Said HUGE shopping centre was built just a handful of years ago when we all should have been aware of the need to make our businesses accessible, and to be fair to them, in past visits most stores within it have lived up to requirements: but as with almost all stores at this time of year, these shops that were previously accessible enough, were now completely off limits due to their need to cram every last inch of floor space with festive decorations or additional stock.
The result of this was far from what these businesses no doubt intended- to make me, the consumer walk off with more bags of goodies. Instead, I re boarded my bus after a two hour trip with a grand total of zero bags!
None of the shops where I could buy what I was looking for were accessible enough for me to get around in, and that's before I even begin to start on whether any of them had 'truly' accessible changing rooms!
Those of you who use a chair or push a buggy will be familiar with the concept of 'accessible' changing rooms that are all to often yes, larger than the average to accommodate a small wheelchair, but usually positioned in some inaccessible location in the store thanks to either poor planning or a later thought to add 'just one more' shelf or rail.
After much recent sadness and events in my life to make me appreciate that which I do have, I don't want to let this get me down.
I may not have been able to fulfil my task for the day, but I will return to the truly accessible, (yet not exactly ideal option) of online shopping.
What I do want is to make these companies big and small aware that they are unfairly excluding so many to their stores or facilities by simply not thinking.
Please be kind this Christmas and think... "is there space?"
Trust me, trying to keep up with life is hard enough with an illness or disability and is made all the more difficult in the festive period as we try to keep up with the rat race that we can't keep up with at the easiest of times- the last thing we need is additional obstacles- LITERALLY!