Archive for the ‘ birmingham ’ Category

Some Positive News Regarding the Christmas Market

Last December you may remember I had a rather rough time at Birmingham’s annual Frankfurt Christmas market.

I wrote to the people I have been informed are in charge of the market and I have heard back. The initial email I sent included some quotes of the abuse I received, so the council computer system quarantined it which caused a delay in replies.

I heard from Steve Hollingworth (Assistant Director of Sport & Events) first and shortly afterwards I received a letter from Cllr Paul Tilsley (Deputy Leader of the Council). Steve Hollingworth has offered to meet with me to discuss the issues surrounding disability, access and the annual market. You can read the letter from Cllr Tilsley here.

Hopefully I will be able to impress on him the importance of access and making reasonable adjustments.

Wish me luck!

The Search For Housing

As you probably know, I became disabled back in 2009. Today I’m still living in the same privately rented house I was then.

My current house is pretty decent on paper; it’s in a nice area, it’s close to good bus and rail links, it’s got a nice garden, a good kitchen and it’s plenty big enough for my partner & myself and our housemate. Sadly for me, it has stairs & steps galore. A set of stairs leads to our upstairs (and only) bathroom, steps lead down to our front door and steps lead out from the back. As we have a shower over a bathtub there is even a big step to be covered if you want to wash. I can’t really manage steps, lifting my leg up to go up a step (especially my right leg) pulls on my damaged abdomen and that causes severe pain. I’m sure you can see why this is an issue.

Back in 2009, when we first discovered my condition was permanent we started asking ourselves how we could go about moving to somewhere that wouldn’t leave me unable to wash without assistance as well as stranded upstairs on bad days and trapped in the house (as the wheelchair won’t climb steps itself) most days. I was, as I still am, unable to work and my partner had taken on a very low paid part time job with Royal Mail so he could balance his need to support me and his need to earn. We were not getting any ESA or DLA because of appeals and alike and we were only getting a tiny bit of housing benefit because of the way Birmingham City Council deals with couples (we sorted it after a 20 months of arguing).

Naturally we started looking at privately rented properties online to begin with. We just wanted somewhere which;

  • was on the ground floor or could guarantee working lifts – because there was no point moving to somewhere with stairs.
  • had level access – so I could get my wheelchair out front door and onto the street.
  • had a level access shower – I can’t bathe without a lot of help and it always causes extra pain so a walk-in shower would be ideal.
  • was in range of my GP, both of the hospitals I attend, my psychotherapist and my psychiatrist
  • had somewhere we could store my wheelchair – be it a garden we could put a secured shed in, a garage, a large cupboard in the house or a decent sized hallway.
  • ideally had a second bedroom so my partner could sleep when I was up all night with pain – but we were also aware how that would be a luxury a couple on less than £7k a year would ever be able to afford.

Of course we found nothing. Purpose built flats or expensive re-purposed buildings were the only ones with level access. Most of the ‘flats’ in our price range were a couple of converted rooms in a HMO (houses in multiple occupation) with steps all over and no where to store mobility equipment and more often than not no shower, let alone a walk in one. Any places which had walk-in showers described them as ‘wet-rooms’ which added an extra large price tag to the property. We quickly began to realise that accessible meant; spacious, purpose built apartment with storage space and a wet room and all of those things are pretty desirable to able bodied folk too. It didn’t talk too long to realise we were never going to find a 1 bedroom accessible home privately for less than £650pcm in Birmingham – which I assure you is pretty much double what we could have ever thought of affording at that point. Nowadays it’s about 1/3rd more than we could safely afford.

We spoke to someone from the council who explained that if we wanted to go on the council housing register we’d have no hope unless we applied at the same time to be on the disabled persons housing register. They also explained that we’d have no hope of being accepted onto that without being in receipt of DLA. So until my DLA came through we were stuck where we were.

The next step was calling Social Services and arranging for an Occupational Therapist to assess us so we could get some adaptations in our home.They kindly fitted us with grab rails in the bathroom, a toilet seat raiser, a extra banister on the stairs and a railing to help with the steps in the front garden. All of which made getting around the house a bit easier and have reduced the number of falls I have quite a bit but none deal with the problem of the severe pain caused by using stairs. Because we are in a privately rented property and I can walk (albeit with a lot of pain) we couldn’t have a stairlift put in so the worst of the problems with the house were left unresolved.

Eventually, in 2011 my DLA was awarded and we got onto applying for council housing. A fortnight ago (Jan 2012) we were awarded points and placed on the disabled persons housing register. Hurrah! Last week we got a call inviting us to go see an adapted property that would suit our needs and we naturally jumped at the chance to go see it.

It took three buses to get there and we soon discovered that it was in another area where whoever built it clearly thought lowered kerbs were optional extra they could do with out. The property was in a nice little cul-de-sac with a lovely community feel to it hidden away in a slightly rough bit of Birmingham. Looking at the building we could see it was two storey, but we assumed we were either a downstairs flat or that the building had a lift. The rep turned up and opened the front door and we were immediately greeted with this sight;

Needless to say it wasn’t quite what we expected from a level access home suitable for a wheelchair user… I stayed outside in my chair whilst my partner went to have a look around (because if it was really good we thought we could contact social services and ask about getting a stair/wheelchair lift put in). Where we need a walk-in shower this place only had a bath tub. Where we need wheelchair storage this place had none. It also was missing white goods and most of the sideboards in the kitchen too. You might not be surprised to hear that we turned it down. The housing rep who was with us was mortified to realise that we’d been sent to this property so kindly phoned the people responsible and gave them both barrels on our behalf.

The search is still on and I’ll keep you informed of anymore hilarious housing mishaps along the way.

 

Christmas Market Follow Up

I’ve spent a couple of days ringing around the council to try and speak to someone with regards the abuse I’ve been getting when I pass through the local Frankfurt Market in my wheelchair. Clearly the combination of alcohol + no room to manoeuvre a svelte gymnast + hundreds of people combines to turn people into prats. Ranging from those the Internet would call concern trolls “I’m advising this for your own good, don’t come into this part of the city…” to those who clearly think they are being funny whilst showing their own internalised prejudice “Sponger coming through!”.

I’ve been passed onto more numbers which are ‘no longer in use’ than I can count and passed around between departments as no one seems to be sure who deals with this kind of complaint, let alone what the phone number is for them. One thing people keep coming back to is the issue of anti-social behaviour. Eventually, well this morning, I caved and phoned the local police force to ask for advice.

They passed me onto the City Centre team who were really lovely. They listened to what had been happening and told me I was right to talk to them about it. Of course a big part of it’s the councils responsibility but abusing someone trying to get from A-B simply because they are in a wheelchair is also not on. They thanked me for sharing my experiences and said they’d get someone to give me a call back about it.

I’m not expecting anything to change because of this one complaint. I am hoping it gets passed onto the relevant planners though, if only so that next year they perhaps put a little more thought into disability issues.

Birmingham’s Frankfurt Christmas Market 2011 In A Wheelchair

Every year for the last decade Birmingham has played host to a huge Frankfurt Christmas Market, to celebrate the twinning of the two cities. It takes place over the months of November and December. The one of the main shopping streets gets a sweet line of wooden stalls laid down the centre, the main thoroughfare between the shopping streets and the library, art gallery, the ICC, the Symphony Hall, the main ‘drinking & partying’ street and the council houses also gets stuffed with lovely little stalls.

Every year I see it as the only way to get from my bus stop to the Birmingham City Centre shops is to pass through it. There are some other routes which avoid some of it but to use them I’d have to be able to get my wheelchair up and down a flight of stairs – which is something I cannot do. On the whole there is a really lovely atmosphere. Everything is fun and festive and it makes me feel great to be a part of it. Sadly, those feelings are beginning to dissipate.

You see, on a normal day New Street is busy but that’s fine. It’s a really wide, pedestrianised street. Folks browsing walk slowly near the shops and those in more of a rush move down the middle. It’s brilliant. The market stalls (which sit back to back) halve the amount of space on the street instantly. Victoria Square has even more room taken by the twisting labyrinth of stalls. This would be slightly annoying on a boring Tuesday in May. On a Saturday in early December it became horrific. The regular shoppers/workers were mixed with all the extra Christmas shoppers and those tourists visiting the Frankfurt Market. It was yesterday (a Saturday) that I decided to visit the market with a small group of friends as it was the only day we were all free.

Trying to navigate it all on foot is taxing enough, trying to move an electric wheelchair through the crowd (let alone trying to get it to any of the stalls) was nigh impossible. It was too noisy for my horn, people couldn’t hear me shouting excuse me and ignored me tapping them on the arm if they didn’t respond to my verbal requests. It often took my companions shouting and holding people back to allow me to safely move. I don’t like to think about what it would have been like on my own. There was no way to turn around in my chair given how dense the crowd was, my turning circle is quite small, but still too large for that environment. Sitting just below eye-height also made life difficult as people tried to stand in me or push into the area I was occupying with my chair. No apologies were forthcoming, just glares for being in the way. I hope the pictures used above help illustrate just how busy the place gets.

I’d be miffed if that was simply it though; just some poor civic planning that is very hard to avoid if you are a wheelchair-user. Especially one wanting to access Birmingham city centre with minimal stress and discomfort.

Unfortunately, I neglected to mention that into the melting pot of the Frankfurt Christmas Market a generous helping of mulled wine, cider and other alcholoic beverages had been stirred. Most patrons of the numerous stalls selling warming festive alcohol were very pleasant but a number of others lost there ability to control their rather anti-disability internal monologues. The stalls selling alcohol are all over the market and are very popular. Especially on an extremity freezing winter afternoon. The numerous patrons, ever fearful of loosing their £3 deposit paid for the mug the hot-booze came in, densely pack around the bars and often fill the thoroughfares too. When trying to ask these people to ‘excuse me’ or to ‘just move a little to the right’ things got nastier. Here’s a selection of the less than helpful replies I got:

“Why on Earth would you come here?”
“Tsk. This is no place for wheelchairs.”
“Harharhar, ‘Wide-load’! Harhar!”
“Try walking next time sweetheart.”
“Tsk, lazy.”
“Sponger coming through”
“How stupid to come here with a wheelchair! What were you thinking?”

I just love being made to feel unwelcome in my home city. There is no feeling like it. My friends were wonderful and challenged the comments they heard but still, they shouldn’t have had too and I shouldn’t have had to hear that abuse. They may as well put up a sign that says “Disabled people only welcome when the market is very quiet”. I plan to complain to the Leisure and Culture department at Birmingham City Council with regards to this. It’s really not fair that people should be put in a position where they are subject to drunken abuse for simply trying to get from A to B. Actually, it’s not right that people should ever be subject to abuse. ‘Nuff said.

Hate crime directed against those with disabilities in on the rise in the UK and little things like poor planning can make it far worse than it already is.

Meeting With Cllr MacKay

Today I had the pleasure of meeting with Cllr James MacKay as referenced in this earlier post.

He came over to our house where we had a talk (or more he had to listen to me talking) about what it was like becoming disabled back in 2009 and how one by one all my assumptions about things like the ease of getting help or the amount of accessible buildings were slowly stripped away. Things like the struggles with applying for ESA, failing my initial Work Capability Assessment (WCA) and having to go to an appeal tribunal. The knock on effect that had when my DLA application was turned down simply because of my failing of the WCA so I had to go to appeal tribunal for that as well and the problems we faced being disabled but not being able to access any services without being in receipt of DLA. Next came a bit of talk about the NHS wheelchair service before moving onto our social services assessment (where we were refused direct payments, mainly because they couldn’t look at the interplay between my physical & mental health issues). As well as our recent Occupational Therapy assessment which had decided that because I can step out of my door I am not allowed a wheelchair ramp. Never mind that I can’t get myself and a wheelchair outside.

On that note my partner got my electric chair outside and grabbed the manual chair and we went for a roll which I think made an impression. Things that all who use wheelchairs, or even regularly push wheelchair users loathe became visible to another. Things like;

  • The camber on pavements that forces your chair to drift towards the road (if not slide into it when it’s severe) 
  • Those lowered kerbs that are so high you have to have a couple of goes at hopping up them (especially if they have a depression in front) which can leave you stuck in the road for longer than you feel safe
  • Crossings which have a lowered kerb on one side and none on the other which force you to drive along the road dangerously
  • Paths made of poorly maintained paving slabs so full of gaps and cracks your front castors or rear wheels get trapped
  • Shops with one step into them
  • Cars parked over lowered kerbs or obstructing paths
  • Drainage grates in front of lowered kerbs which trap the castors of the unsuspecting
  • No lowered kerbs at all!

We headed back home after a quick ‘tour’ with me pointing out just how hard it is to mobilise 50-200m once in a day when you don’t have the pain and fatigue so often prevalent with those who use wheelchairs (and are not those superb paralympians). We had a quick talk about Christine Miserandino’s Spoon Theory and pacing as we headed back to the house.

We finished with a bit more of a chat where we covered once more some of the pertinent areas from earlier whilst I dealt with a quick bout of sickness before moving onto what practical steps could be taken to help.

A lot of what I spoke about falls under the remit of the DWP and is national level stuff which really does need to be dealt with by MPs and similar, something punching ever so slightly above the weight of a fairly new local councillor… Still, there was plenty that could be done locally too. The DDA 1995 has been in place for 16 years now and in all that time Birmingham council has never found the time to make its pavements accessible to all of its citizens, yet I don’t see any roads that discriminate actively against drivers with disabilities. It’s sad how low down the list equal access for those with disabilities is and unless someone makes a push I think it’ll stay that way for some time to come. Shops on my local High Street have told me the reason they don’t have portable wheelchair ramps is because the council have told them they can’t – if that is true that is something that needs challenging. Cuts made by the council to Adults & Communities have a very real impact on disabled peoples ability to interact with the world (by stopping them leaving the house independently for example ) and those cuts can be fought against by local councillors. That’s just a few things off the top of my head, the list is much longer which is both a shame and an excellent opportunity for improvement.

I’m just glad to have had the opportunity to give a quick glimpse of life with a impairment to someone with some power to make their constituents’ lives better or worse. I should dearly love to be able to do the same again with other politicians in the future but time will tell on that front.

Regardless it’s time for me to get some rest so I shall sign off for now.

The Hardest Hit October Action

Today, up and down the country, disabled people and their carers and allies came together to protest the unfair and overly harsh cuts to crucial services they are suffering under the current government. We rallied under the banner of ‘The Hardest Hit’, a coalition of hundreds of disability charities and individuals.

We headed into to Birmingham this morning to join the local rally and after grabbing a quick hot drink we made our way over to Victoria Square (opposite the Council house) and said hello to the brave souls at Occupy Birmingham.

The Occupy Birmingham Camp

Just before 12pm a band started up on the main stage to welcome us all and to attract attention from the passers by. They were stunning. Really entertaining and really talented, I just wish I could remember their name so I could hunt out some more of their music.

Music

At 12.30 the rally began and there were some amazing, heartfelt speeches from disabled members of the community. The welfare reform bill, ATOS and the cuts were all heckled whilst cheers went up to those hammering home the point that we just wanted to live and be respected rather than survive as objects of pity. It was noted (bitterly by many) that no Conservative or Liberal Democrat councillors or MP’s had accepted the offer to come and speak, or even come and show solidarity. Jack Dromey (Labour MP, Erdington) and a ex-labour MP involved with the local mayoral campaigns came to speak. Jack particularly went down very well. There was also a showing of Labour councillors, including my own, James MacKay. Where it was lovely to see them supporting us there is still a feeling of betrayal when one remembers that they were the party that inflicted ATOS and the massively flawed work capability assessment (WCA) on us all. It would be nice to see the party start taking disability seriously and working to improve things like the WCA rather than working to reduce the amount of money it pays the genuinely sick and disabled.

Jack Dromey MP speaking
For me, this was a wonderful chance to meet some lovely new people and feel a little less alone. Where, on one hand, it’s nice to know you are not the only person to have been wrongly given ‘0’ points by ATOS whilst severely disabled it’s also very depressing you start realising just how wide spread it is. It also gave me a chance to try and impress how these cuts are effecting people daily to politicians and some members of the press. I’m not sure if it will have done any good, but I feel better knowing I tried.
To finish off I thought I’d share some of the super signs people had;
Now I have all but run out of ‘spoons‘ so I’m going to take a lot of pain medication and get some rest.

Edited to add some quick links:


BBC article on Birmingham Action with one of the wonderful speakers.
Another article by Damon Rose for the BBC.
BBC on the Cardiff Action.
Guardian article.
Birmingham Mail article.

A Step In The Right Direction

I got some good news today, Cllr James MacKay (labour) replied to my letter regarding the lack of lowered kerbs & therefore pavement accessibility today. He has agreed to meet me at the start of November and come and see for himself the barriers faced by wheelchair users when all they wish to do is cross a road or access some pavement safely.

I’m quite excited by it all, I’m a firm believer that the reason access is so bad is because the vast majority of able-bodied people – including those working in government & planning – simply don’t see the problems. I’m sure that one way of combating this is by awareness raising. Physically showing the people with the power to make changes exactly why it must be done is imperative to keeping disability rights in peoples minds.

Now, if only Mike Whitby & John Alden would reply in such a positive and productive manner too 🙂

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