Almost exactly three years ago the children’s organisation Kids Company suddenly closed. A couple of days later I was introduced to Rachel who’d worked for them as an occupational therapist. She’d lost her job out of the blue and was looking for work she could do while she searched for a more permanent post.
Rachel started supporting me at the castle, and from very early on, Wednesdays have been her regular shift as my overnight support worker. She’s cooked me amazing meals, kept me safe in the middle of the night, and together we’ve been to lots of festivals and travelled to the US. She’s had my back more times than I can remember. Even after she started a new full-time job two years ago she shared her Wednesday nights with me.
Tonight is her last regular sleepover because new responsibilities at work mean she’s no longer able to regularly support me.
To celebrate and wish her luck I took her out for a delicious meal. We had a bit of time before our reservation so we went to The Victoria a nearby pub for a drink. I chose the pub because I knew it had an accessible toilet.
When we arrived I saw that nearly all the tables had high stools for perching on – no good for me as a wheelchair user. The bar staff said we could sit in the restaurant section, so we bought our drinks and did just that.
After about ten minutes a member of staff came over and presented us with menus. We explained that we weren’t eating and she immediately started telling us we couldn’t sit there. This made me angry and upset because the rest of pub wasn’t accessible to me. Rather than just listen and take in what I was saying, she started to challenge me. Her manager passed and indicated to her that she should leave us where we were, although he didn’t speak directly to me at any point.
It felt horrible, firstly being unable to sit in the main part of the bar, and then being challenged about my own access requirements. It made me feel incredibly unwelcome.
We finished our drinks quickly and prepared to leave but I decided to use the accessible toilet before we went. I opened it with my radar key only to be confronted by a toilet covered in literal red tape and clearly out of order. The sign accompanying it made me even more upset.
The suggestion that the baby change was still ok to use made it feel as though this toilet was not intended to be used by wheelchair users, but only by parents and their children. And they hadn’t bothered to put a sign on the door to let me know before we ordered our drinks.
We left the pub feeling angry and unwelcome – it wasn’t the relaxed start to our last evening together I’d hoped for.
Of course toilets break and people make mistakes but the combined impact of these three issues made it clear that bodies like mine were not expected to be there.
I urge anyone providing any sort of public space or service to think about the hidden messages your choices make. Consider different types of body when choosing furniture, ensure any changes in access are clearly communicated to all staff and patrons, and invest in equality training.
My experiences tonight mean I’m unlikely to go back to that pub in a hurry. With 22% of the UK population now identifying as disabled, we’re talking about up to a fifth of potential customers. Thinking about access is not just socially, morally and legally essential – there’s a strong financial case for it too.
Rachel and I went on to have a great meal and a lovely final night together but this experience could have easily derailed our evening. Fortunately there’s no derailing my tics:
“Bye, bye Rachel’s tooth brush.”
“Lamp-post, Rachel’s turned her back on you.”
“Rachel, putting the tortoise into peas since 1991.”