You may remember that this past Sunday I shared an article written for the Daily Mail by Sophie Morgan. Sophie had planned a night out at the famous Ritz hotel but there was just one problem. Sophie is a wheelchair user and was therefore unable to ascend the stairs at the front of the hotel. No dobut someone asked her, as they often ask me, whether or not she can walk at all. This is the standard question of any assisting staff when they learn that you can't walk and that you would like their help. You can't walk? Not at all? Preposterous. Everybody can walk a bit, can't they? No. Sophie got in to the Ritz, but only through the back door via a grubby sounding alley lined with black bins.
Anyway, this got me thinking about a few things. And we all know how dangerous that is. Firstly I thought about how amazed I was that the Daily Mail should carry a story championing the rights of anyone who is not a middle class, white, able bodied person, but also I thought about my own experiences of access problems complicating my social life down the years.
Not that it is just a problem when you want to go out for a meal and/or a few drinks. Earlier on today I tried to leave the building which shall remain nameless for my lunch, only to find that someone had parked a big white van as close to the exit door by the disabled car park as they could without actually driving through the building. I had to go all the way back and through to the other side of the building to exit through the main entrance/exit, and then go back on myself to get to where I wanted to be. I could have especially done without this extra journey today as I am not feeling very well at all. On Friday, just three days after avoiding dialysis by the width of the gap left for me by the white van driver, I hit the ale very hard indeed. I've had a variety of problems since. Bladder pains, kidney pains, nausea, dehydration. You name it, I have had it this week.
All of which is especially worrying with Christmas coming up. I recognise now more than ever the need to look after what is left of my ravaged organs, but I'm frankly quite buggered if I am going to hang around for another 20 or 30 years grimly drinking coke and 'getting the crisps in' like the old mizzo from Early Doors. It hasn't helped that in order to reinforce my belief that everything is alright and I'll be able to celebrate Christmas properly, I've had to get up and go to work. Some would argue that the sensible thing to do would have been to phone in sick and relax, try and get myself right for Christmas, but I'm troubled by the thought of justifying going out on Friday night if I haven't turned up to work through the week.
Back to the plot and Sophie's little predicament. The fate of all wheelchair users to some extent. Undoubtedly the biggest problems arise when you, as a wheelchair user, have the temerity to want to mix it socially with the rest of society. We all know the tale of how my dearly departed friend Paul and I were ousted from a club at which we were the most regular customers for being a 'Fire Hazard'. In so doing, and although we didn't know it then, we gave this column its name. Sophie comments in her piece that some of the access problems she has faced have prompted her to want to just stay in and share a bottle of wine with her friends. That's Sophie's Choice. But that approach is not for me, I must say. It's letting them win. If I want to go, I go and bugger the consequences. The only difference between now and when I was first embarking on my journey of drunken debauchery at about 19 is that now I'm less inclined to want to go anywhere if it is going to cause me more problems than it is worth. But rather than stay in like Sophie, I'd probably just go somewhere else.
I had no such decision to make when I was a teenager. I remember a few months after splitting up with my ex-girlfriend we had found out that she was in Crystals nightclub in town. Crystals was the most putrid, granny-grabbing dive in the town, up against some pretty stiff competition I can assure you. It was what Obi Wan Kenobi might have called a wretched hive of scum and villainy. I had always known it wasn't very accessible and never had the inclination to go, but at that particular time I was going through a transitional period. I'd been dumped and I wanted to know why.
So I climbed the stairs.
Ignoring the queue I headed straight for the entrance door, bailed out of my chair (wildly assuming that some disapproving bouncer would carry it up the stairs for me, which amazingly they did), and proceeded to climb up the stairs on my arse. Step by step. Like a toddler. I hadn't decided what I was going to do when I got in to see my ex. I was either going to beg her to come back or I was going to smack her over the head with a fire extinguisher. I wasn't sure which. In the event, and after all that hard work and the absolute mortification of my friend who tried in vain to pull me back from this madness, my ex wasn't even there. I can't even remember whether my friend bothered to come in with me (he'd have had to be lifted in as he also uses a wheelchair) or whether I just toddled back down from whence I had came. My actions were extreme and ridiculous, yet they stand now as a shining example of how not to let access issues beat you down. So long as you don't mind the fact that everyone thinks you are certifiably insane. I did something similar at Lineker's Bar in Blackpool with no real motivation that I can think of other than to not let the bastards win. I was out with some university friends who suggested going in. I gave it a go, I got in.
Another great display of bonkers barrier-breaking was provided by the aforementioned Paul who, some years later, found a novel and splendidly stupid way to overcome the fact that the lift in Nexus nightclub was not working one night. Well, that's what they told us. The old 'the lift is not working' has been offered as a stock excuse for not letting the crips into nightclubs since Stephen Hawking was a rampaging, 17-year-old lager lout. Well he might have been. Anyway, Paul had spotted the fact that a group of Saints players had chosen to frequent Nexus that night. The question of why would you go there when you are on the money they were on is one of life's imponderables, but there they were. Presumably unsatisfield with the company on the ground floor, Paul persuaded one or all of the Saints players to help carry him up the stairs to the second floor. Maybe he wanted a change of scenery, maybe he just wanted to see the view from the balcony, I don't know. But like me, if he wanted to do something there was little point in trying to persuade him not to. It took me several hours to find him once he'd gone up there. I wouldn't mind but he didn't even support Saints. Hated them. Their every victory was a dagger through his very soul. Not that there were that many of them to worry about in those days.
With that in mind he would not have enjoyed the Saints end-of-season bash that my other friend Paul and I (all of my friends are called Paul, it keeps it simple for me) managed to crash into after one of our Super League Grand Final wins some years later. They all went to the Sin Bin, formerly Appleby's. I had never been to Appleby's previously, partly because of it's pitiful attempts at accessibility, but mostly due to the fact that its hey-day was well in advance of the time when I took to the bottle. I missed that particular boat. In latter years the Sin Bin was called Imperial, a bar known only for the fact that it was the location at which Saints' star Sia Soliola was beaten up by a group of rotweillers. I mean bouncers.
Back when we went (and probably still to this day) the only way in for wheelchair users was to be physically lifted up the stairs by anyone willing. Fortunately Paul and I were drunk enough to allow this to happen. We're not really the heaviest of men, so none of the Saints players seemed to blink too much at the prospect of hauling us up a few stairs. It wasn't until we got inside and had a drink or two, however, that I remembered that we would need disabled toilets. Which they didn't have. Of course not. They were never going to. So I did what any disabled person possessed of a penis might do in an emergency and took a bottle into the kitchen. Whereupon I found a certain Saints player of old in a compromising position with a star-struck young lady. The sights we have seen. But when you've got to go, you've got to go.
Notable mentions in the category of apalling and lazy attempts at access also go to the Yorvik Centre in York, where you have to book three days in advance if you are a wheelchair user because they can only have one inside the buidling at any one time, several castles which allow only access to the ground floor and justify this by charging you less, and quite a lot of Spanish and European bars which are ok to get into, but should you try and empty your bladder you will find the toilets behind a door of the kind which Alice In Wonderland needed a magic potion to negotiate. And who could forget the Chinese Buffet in town, whose policy it was to leave a note on their lift informing potential users that it was out of order. Why? To stop the people who shouldn't be using it from using it. But doesn't that stop the people who should be using it from using it too? Well, yes.
So the moral of the story seems to be that if you have a disability which general consensus suggests prevents you from doing a certain something, while you are still young enough not to care bloody well do it anyway. Even if it does make you loook ridiculous.