Life is wheely hard

This has happened to me more than once: a cisgender person would mention to me how some website or registration form has a non-binary gender option, but when I come to use it and I actually pick the Mx option for title the whole app crashes!

Status quo design choices are invisible to the people it’s designed for. White cis straight-size average-height able-bodied people never think twice about things like how high ceilings are or how to fit their names into first and last name fields. So much so that anything that isn’t specifically tailored to them sticks out so much they conclude that X group must be getting so much special treatment things must be really good for them. But then I come to use it and I immediately see that yes there is a wheelchair ramp as you noticed, but it’s actually dangerously steep, and you have to ask for someone to set up the ramp and it takes 10 minutes instead of 2 seconds if you were walking etc etc.

I am reminded of Sara Ahmed’s writing about heternormativity: “we tend to feel norms most acutely when we do not quite inhabit them” How many people would know if their local tube station has lift access or not? And how big is the gap between the train and the platform, or even how far away the benches are from the escalator?

Incidentally, I’ve also been getting a lot of youtube recommendations for urban planning nerd videos about car-centric urban design. I’d never really considered things like how overhead crossings inconvenience pedestrians in favour of cars, and these are design choices that may be invisible until pointed out, but materially make your life harder or more dangerous because they’re not designed for you.

As I’ve become more disabled I’ve been moving through the world in a different way. My interactions with people, infrastructure and services are all different in ways I hadn’t even imagined.

I’ve noticed that having a visible disability or difference removes the anonymity I am used to in public spaces. People are often looking out for you to try to be helpful, which is nice! Much better than people that ignore and don’t make room for you when you need it. With my wheelchair or rollator, I suddenly take up much more space than before, and there are suddenly places I cannot get to without help, whether reaching a high shelf or getting out a ramp. Going places and doing things I took for granted like getting on and off the bus suddenly requires people to “go out of their way” to do things they wouldn’t for the “average” able-bodied person.

I’ve had a few heated discussions with people who seem to think that accessibility features are a bonus favour that we do for disabled people out of kindness of our heart rather than the baseline expectation for equal access. Disabled people should be grateful if we use our limited public transit budget to make one station accessible, rather than angry that none of the other ones are accessible. It is shocking to me that only a third of London tube stations have step-free access, and even of those you have to board at specific spots and sometimes there is still a terrifyingly big step between train and platform. You would not, in 2022, build a tube station that only white people could use!

I am quite pleased with how much I’ve built up my confidence around using mobility equipment. I remember when using a walking stick was a big thing and being unsure about whether it’s okay to use it and people are looking at me etc etc! By now with my wheelchair I’m perfectly happy to take up space and not apologise, get up from my chair when I like, foot-propel, whatever. It absolutely has not been a problem.

It was really helpful that I got used to using a rollator before trying to use a wheelchair. Thanks to Rolly Freezer I’d already got over the shock of realising how horrible and uneven the pavements here are. Level access really isn’t something you notice until you’ve put some wheels on you. That was also when I adjusted to how much more space I suddenly need, which was also very weird at first. When around strangers, there is an instinctual amount of personal space that you get that adjusts based on how crowded a place is. It doesn’t naturally adjust for mobility equipment, and I’ve had to be quite vocal to get anywhere.

I was surprised to learn that using a wheelchair is not just like walking but on wheels. It actually can be much slower and take much more effort. The terrain around my house is very similar to what Gem shows in this video:

Life is full of trials and tribulations!

  • Most people are aware of kerb cuts, but may not realise that even when there is a kerb cut, they sometimes have a little lip or texture or are just badly maintained, and the little slope up and down is also a problem. Some places have a kerb cut for every driveway, which is horrible
  • Rough gravelly surfaces cause a lot of vibrations that are very fatiguing and uncomfortable
  • CAMBER is when a pavement tilts slightly sideways. This isn’t noticeable to bipeds but makes wheeling exponentially harder because where normally momentum would take you forwards you’re instead constantly fighting it to not fall into the road, and have to manually push forwards every little bit
  • Even very slight slopes are noticeable, on the bright side downhills are super fun! wheeeee. Those overhead pedestrian bridges with really long ramps for “wheelchair access” are actually are big problem
  • If a ramp or slope is too steep you might not be strong enough to get up, but also you might fall backwards!!
  • Crossing the street especially outside of a traffic light crossing, but even then, is suddenly scarier because you’re shorter and less visible, go more slowly, might get stuck if the road slopes upwards in the middle, and might get stuck on the other side if there isn’t a good dropped kerb!
  • Extremely close crowds are just impossible to navigate. I didn’t realise this and tried to go in a shop on a weekend and just had to leave because nobody can see you and you can’t see where you’re going and you can’t push past people as you would if standing!
  • In theory the national rail is mostly accessible unless the station isn’t accessible; you have to request they bring out ramps for you to get on and off, and if they mess up letting you off you’re meant to pull the emergency lever to prevent the train bringing you on a mystery journey!! Terrifying!!
  • Not every carriage of the trains here has wheelchair space, and so where you’re meant to get on isn’t clear before the train arrives, so there’s a panicked scramble to work it out
Got stuck on this tiny step! Also notice the horrible cobbled-together pavement and the things blocking the pavement further down. This bit is also very slightly uphill
Life is wheely hard

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