Sunday, February 22, 2009

London in a wheelchair

Hi all, This is a very old trip report - from 2001 as a matter of fact. I wanted to find it to make sure it wasn't lost to posterity, and here it is...
I spent a week in a wheelchair, in London. A few of you asked that I write of my experiences.

Well, as I am rather lazy - I am cutting and pasting my thank you letter to the father of the friend who lent me the chair. He had a chronic debilitating condition for two years, and miraculously recovered. I told my friend that I would write of my experiences to him, (as he INSISTED that I not purchase him any gifts - however I did cheat, I bought him a lovely coffee table type book on London as I figured he might like to actually see where his wheelchair went for that week...

So here goes, please keep in mind that this was actually addressed to a specific person...

Dear Mr. Robertson,
I am Paul's friend and coworker, and the beneficiary of your kindness in allowing me and my friend to use your wheelchair for our London adventure. I told Paul that I would write you a letter telling you of my experiences. I also thought you might like to see where your wheelchair has been. I do hope you like the book, it was the least I could do to thank you.

As you may know, we used the chair to research a book on disabled access to London. We not only wanted to see what the frustrations of visiting London might prove to be (and how to get around them), but we also wanted to be able to see how well a disabled person would be treated there, especially by the people you would come into contact with through traveling, such as hoteliers, airline attendants, and so on. Therefore it was important that I remain in the wheelchair for a significant part of the trip.

As it was a 'press trip', we really had the red carpet rolled out for us. We flew first class on British Airways, as well as staying in four different luxury hotels - all gratis.

I've been to London several times (and hope to live there one day) so a fair number of the attractions were not new to me. However this was a completely new perspective, even for old familiar sights. It was also interesting to see how people in general interacted with you. I noticed that while I was smiled at frequently by passersby (unusual in a large city I think), I was not often addressed or engaged in conversation by people in general, even in the hotels. (I can see how this would make it rather hard to flirt!!)

I found that people were very solicitous towards me while I was in the chair. I managed to tip it over backwards onto cobblestones once. It all happened so quickly - one second I was trying to take a small ramp by myself, the next second all I saw was sky, my feet, and about 5 faces peering down at me with eyes THIS BIG. Before I even had time to react they quickly righted me and off I went. It was actually funny for about 20 minutes - then it started to hurt. OUCH! (Don't worry, your chair took it quite well - no probs).

Over the course of the week I was:
Lifted up steps; shuttled into taxicabs, bumped over cobblestones at the Tower of London, lifted up off the cobblestones at Somerset House, then slalomed through the fountains there, was smiled at, winked at, pushed up a looooong 45-degree ramp at the HMS Belfast and later peered over my toes down that same long ramp… (the Belfast is a warship which saw action on D-Day - now a floating museum); I 'excused me' through the CRUSH of people in Leicester Square after we left a theatre… and last but not least experienced the Tube (subway) with the chair. When they say "mind the gap" as you exit - they are not joking. I have seen gaps between the platform and car of over a foot and a half wide!! There were too many other experiences to fit in here - but I think I hit some of the highlights…

I'm not by nature an extremely patient person. In fact, most of my friends would call me hyper (the less charitable ones would say I suffer from ADD) but at any rate - I sure had a taste of learning how to be patient. Spontaneity tends to go out the window and in its place is an amazing amount of planning and prioritizing - at least to avoid frustrations that is. The time you have to build into mundane, day to day activities is not something I was aware of prior to this experience. Within a few days I was pretty convinced I never wanted to sit in that chair again.

I give anyone who must rely on a wheelchair enormous credit for their courage in dealing with it. I am now even more thankful that I have led a charmed life. I'm also very glad that you are no longer in need of the chair! Paul tells me you used it for two years and that your recovery could truly be deemed a miracle. I'm glad you recovered from your affliction.

In all this was an interesting experience and I am glad I have the luxury of calling it interesting. To me, travel has always meant freedom and independence. So it was a good feeling to know that I might be helping someone to enjoy a certain measure of freedom and independence by assisting them in their travel plans....
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