Wheelchair Awareness Day

I was horrified to read that paralympian Anne Wafula Strike took the drastic decision to undergo surgery to have a suprapubic catheter fitted (for which she had no medical need) because she had had such bad experiences trying to access working disabled toilets. On one occasion she ended up having to wet herself on a train journey because the disabled toilet was out of order. She describes how finding disabled toilets, which would accommodate her needs, was a daily struggle. Such an experience is humiliating and facing these kinds of issues daily can significantly restrict the quality of life that the disabled should be able to enjoy.

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My colleague Dawn Humphries and I had an eye opening experience at a Wheelchair Awareness Day in Birmingham hosted by No 5 Barristers Chambers, which was held with input from the Back Up Trust, (a UK charity helping individuals who have suffered a devastating spinal cord injury rebuild their independence), solicitor and wheelchair user Raquel Siganporia (Trustee of the Spinal Injuries Association) and paralympian Steve Brown, Captain of the London 2012 GB Wheelchair Rugby team.

Basic wheelchair skills

As well as some inspirational talks from their key speakers, and insight into the experience of wheelchair users, Dawn and I were taught some basic wheelchair skills by Back Up.  We then completed a basic challenge which included manoeuvring through a slalom, reversing and parking – not too bad on a flat surface with nothing else to worry us!

We were then let loose on the streets in the City Centre to try and complete seven real life challenges. These included trying to access a disabled toilet, visiting a cashpoint and purchasing a drink from a café. 

It was a real eye opener and incredibly hard work to propel yourself on what appeared to be a flat pavement, every slight surface change was gruelling. We were further thwarted by a lift that didn’t work and fire doors so heavy they could barely be opened from a sitting position!

Lack of accessible facilities

As for trying to access the disabled toilet, this proved one of the biggest challenges of all. Although Birmingham Central Library is a modern state of the art building, in which you would have hoped full consideration had been given to providing accessible facilities, this sadly did not prove to be the case. 

There was no disabled toilet on the ground floor, and as mentioned above the lift initially didn’t work and we were faced with the heavy fire doors. Having finally manoeuvred through the doorway we were faced with a sign on the disabled toilet to say it was ‘out of use’. At this point I began to understand where Anne Wafula Strike was coming from. 

Dawn and I encountered similar difficulties when trying to perform the other challenges getting a real glimpse of an insight into how so many day to day tasks can present a huge challenge if you are a wheelchair user. 

This can end up limiting the options that should be available, but Raquel Siganporia challenged us to rethink and raise our expectations for those who have to use wheelchairs. 

There is clearly still a huge way to go in ensuring that accessibility and quality of life for wheelchair users is as good as it can be.

Right equipment

The day also highlighted what a difference it can make having the right equipment. Claire Ashton, an Occupational Therapist with huge experience in this area highlighted how high quality, well fitted wheelchair and postural management support can make all the difference for individuals who have a spinal injury. This also reduces the risk of other medical complications such as pressure sores, chest infections and urinary infections.

Wheelchair rugby leaves us battered and bruised

In the afternoon we met Steve Brown, who used to be Team GB wheelchair rugby captain, who now hosts Countryfile, works with Prince Harry at the Invictus Games and presents as a sports commentator.  Steve gave us an incredible insight into how a spinal injury, although catastrophically life altering, can also be a catalyst for amazing life opportunities.

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We then took a coach to the university sports hall and soon realised we were in for trouble, when faced with not only a sea of wheelchair rugby chairs, but also people getting changed into sports gear.  What followed was a terrifyingly intensive two hour knockout heat of full on, no holds barred, rugby combat, coached by Team GB champions, which was absolutely not for the faint hearted.  They were ruthless and we both had the bruises to show for it and are thankful that compulsory games are no longer part of our weekly routine! 

We made some good networking contacts, were exhausted, but came away with a far greater insight into some of the challenges and skills of wheelchair living.  

The day made a lasting impression on our understanding of what is clearly a massive challenge to those with spinal injuries and their families.  It has underlined the importance of helping those with spinal injuries to have the support and equipment to maximise their quality of life.

Many thanks to No 5 Barristers Chambers for letting us use their photos in the above blog. To view the great video from the day, visit:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=maH5V0G9kBQ&feature=youtu.be