Monday, 16 January 2012

Sitting comfortably?

I had to give in to using a wheelchair a long time ago and we found that the cobbled streets and pedestrian areas here were not very wheelchair friendly.

A lovely medieval town near us has many cobbled areas and my husband has no option but to push the chair over them. The wheels get stuck between the cobbles, I nearly end up falling out and I tell him often he chooses to push me over them on purpose! Of course he pleads that is not true, uuumm! It is very uncomfortable too as the constant jigging about causes pain in my back. It isn't any better with a walking cane either as the end can also end up between the cobbles causing one to trip.

We took a trip to Dijon, the capitol of Burgundy, to see how user friendly it was. The answer is not very.

The main problem is dropped kerbs. The distinct lack of them is evident to people with wheelchairs and pushchairs. We actually found a road with dropped kerbs one side and not the other; very strange and obviously not thought through. Some kerbs are incredibly high and then having to either get the chair up them or down them is hindered by the cobbles; again.

We arrived at a disabled parking space one day to see an ambulance at a doctor's surgery. In France the ambulance system is quite unlike that of the UK. You can book an ambulance or ambulance car to take you to appointments. We watched as two ambulance people lifted an elderly man from the ambulance in a wheelchair and then had to lift the chair with the man in it up a flight of steps to the doctor's office. I am sorry to say that this is not a rare occurance.

We were looking for a bank. It was frustrating to find that so many banks do not have disabled access. It is not restricted to banks. Post offices are also in many instances inaccessible, the one in our nearest town is a point in question and I have to send my husband with a detailed list if I need anything from there or sent. The most annoying and frustrating place was the Tax office. We submit our tax form every year and we would go to the office to make sure the form was correctly completed. But it was a nightmare to get into and because the building was leased they couldn't add a slope or any other entrance. The inside is beautiful as it is a very old house which has been converted. The stone stairs have carvings and ornate bannisters. I, however, have to wait until someone is free to come and see me downstairs in front of everyone else.

Difficulty in access isn't restricted to public buildings. Restaurants are notorious for having bad access. On holiday one year in the Alsace we stopped at a restaurant where I asked if I could get into the restaurant. I was assured that there was no problem; the restaurant was upstairs but no lift! I have had very helpful restauranteurs who have made space for me but I have found it very hard too which does spoil an evening out.

Concert halls are just as problematic. I saw that a favourite band of mine was coming to a big arena near us. I tried to book seats as soon as we knew but they were not going to make it easy for me. I couldn't have the wheelchair as there was no room and I would have to sit on a chair. This is extremely uncomfortable for me but also I actually had to get to the seats in the chair and what would happen to the chair after I had transferred? I couldn't get to the refreshments in the interval and then I had to get out at the end; not at all satisfactory.

Access to shops and shopping is a bone of contention for me. Some shops are so cluttered with stock that there is no room to manoeuvre the chair. Invariably I end uptaking half the stock with me on the chair. There is no room to wheel between aisles due to end stands which protrude into the aisle.

Supermarkets with trollies that fit the chair are very few and far between which means me having a basket on my knees causing a great deal of pain and discomfort. And the checkout! Unlike the UK where all checkouts are the same size here in France the checkouts are all too narrow for the manual chair let alone an electric one. There are one or two checkouts wide enough for my chair but often they are marked for disabled people, ten items or under and for expectant mothers. If you ask if the person if front of you needs a designated disabled checkout they will say that they didn't realise it was a disabled one even if there is a huge great sign there! The checkout cashiers don't help as they will not tell people they can't use them and you arrive with a basket of shopping and they serve someone with a trolley load and give you an appologetic smile. I said to one that it was her job to serve just those deserving of using a designated checkout but she just shrugged.

I have said before that the disabled people themselves don't see this as serious. They just accept that things are the way they are. L'Association des Paralysés de France is set up to support and assist disabled people and their families. However they don't fight for these basic rights that we can access places the same as anyone else, do more that buy a few basic items at one time in a supermarket, go and enjoy a concert, access a restaurant or even submit a tax form. Disabled people are as entitled everyone else to live a normal life. I don't want to change the quaint, medieval towns and resurface them but dropped kerbs is not a great ask. I would like shops to rethink their displays to allow people, like me and you, to shop normally without hinderance. I am not asking for much just understanding and respect. I give people respect if they earn it but I cannot give respect to those who treat me as though my money isn't as good as anyone elses.

I had an experience in hospital that in many ways was quite encouraging. I was admitted with a herniated cervical disc and at first I had to stay in bed because the armchair they supplied was quite unsuitable. It had a low seat and back and couldn't support me. I asked if my husband could bring in my electric wheelchair and they agreed. The difference was amazing, I could get out of bed and sit in the chair giving me a different perspective on the view outside and the room. I was then transferred to a hospital near home to have what was called rest and recuperation. Again I asked for my electric chair and again they said yes. My husband placed it by the bed and I could easily transfer from the bed to the chair, no problem.

One day I was in bed when a lady came in to clean and I was astounded as she tried to lift the chair to clean around it! It won't move she cried. No, it is very heavy because it is electric and has a motor on the back! So she put her hand on the control and pressed the button whereby the chair shot forward into her. Luckily she wasn't hurt but she left the chair alone after that. Sometimes you just wonder where they find people!

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