Since we’re not getting to go away on holiday this year, we took a few runs up to Town this week. Eldest wanted to visit the Imperial War Museum and Grenouille fancied the Nat. Hist., so we made all the detailed arrangements and set off on a ten o’clock train each day. G can walk, but only for so long; a whole day of Shanks’ pony on pavements is not possible. We had to take the wheelchair with us.
I was not looking forward to it. The London I remembered from my undergraduate and early working days was a grimy, sharp-elbowed, every-man-for-himself place. As delightful as our neighbours were, keeping a kindly eye out for us and never giving us grief over our stupider antics, people in the mass, in public spaces, seemed to live in a permanent state of hurry and shove. They shouldered you on public transport, cut across you as you walked down the pavement, were scarily pushy as drivers. In the early 2000’s, when Eldest was a toddler, I travelled across Town to visit friends a few times and do not have good memories of negotiating the Tube’s tunnels and escalators with a small person of limited mobility while lugging the inevitable backpack plus an umbrella-fold buggy. In fact, on more than one occasion, we were treated to expletive-laden castigation from other passengers for being slow and in the way. The beautifully-spoken young man in the Crombie overcoat who turned back at London Bridge station to help me get the pushchair up a flight of steps was such an exception to the rule that I have never forgotten him.
However, the Underground system now is significantly cleaner and pleasanter than I remember it being. In fact the whole of London seems cleaner than I recollect it, perhaps for being less crowded owing to the congestion charge; and I was bowled over by how helpful people were – busy and businesslike, but courteous with it.
Underground staff opened the wide gates for us when they saw that the ticket-slots in the barriers were a bit of a stretch from behind the chair-handles. Passengers offered to help carry the chair down flights of steps and nobody barged or tutted as G slowly took stairs one step at a time, while clinging on to the rail on one side and Eldest’s arm on the other, even though, between them, my offspring were taking up the whole width of the stair. On the trains, people leapt out of the priority seats so that G and I could sit down; and when we got up, other people damned the officious warning notices and stuck suitcases in the doors so that they couldn’t close before G had time to get off. Standing in lengthy queues for admission to the museums, we found ourselves pulled out by staff and escorted straight in without having to wait. Other visitors opened doors, held lifts, warned people to hang back so that G could take pictures from the chair without being photobombed. Drivers stopped at Zebra crossings while we were still on the pavement.
The kindness was not reserved just for G. At a self-service café with a terrace, I watched a young staff-member find a table for a middle-aged wheelchair-user; move chairs so he could access it; bring him a menu and offer to make his purchases for him so that he did not have to squeeze through the door to the counter; bring him food, drink, condiments, crockery, cutlery, change, receipt (“please check I have the prices correct, sir”) and – spontaneous finishing touch to perfect service – a full napkin-dispenser.
Now, I don’t know how Londoners are with people who have invisible disabilities. I know the wheelchair is like a handy flag that proclaims ‘Here is someone who needs extra consideration.’ Maybe we were particularly lucky, what with it being the holidays, and lovely sunny days at that. But I felt a distinct difference in the general atmosphere and attitudes. Perhaps this new, unexpected helpfulness is the lasting Games (and Last Leg?) legacy. Long may it continue.
When the ordinary Londoner can be so considerate, when half of voters are willing to pay more tax to support valued services like the NHS, why on earth is the UK facing the first ever UN enquiry into ‘grave and systemic’ violations of disabled people’s rights? How can this have been got so wrong? Why does the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions refuse to accept his own Department’s assessment of the adverse effects of benefit changes on disabled people? Why is the latest post-Winterbourne initiative already shaping up to be even more of a retrogressive shambles than the collapsed Winterbourne View Joint Improvement Programme?
It is, of course, for the same reason that LB was left to die: care-less-ness at the highest levels. It has to stop. The LB Bill needs to become law, for the sake of all people with disabilities, whether or not they use a wheelchair.
Please, take a look at what needs to be done. Pick an action that you can manage, follow it through and let #LBBill know what you have done so that they can keep track.