Entertainment & Culture

The perils of shopping with mobility impairments

New Disability Horizons contributor, Merry Cross, who currently presents the radio show Make Yourself Heard, shares her thoughts on the perils of shopping with mobility impairments.

If I were asked to describe myself, I suppose I would say I am a disability ‘old hand’. I was born with a (particularly rare) impairment, but got away with mainstream education.

I was around at the very beginnings of the disability movement in England and, despite eventually becoming a single mother of twins, never quite lost contact with the movement. I am now passionately defending it again.

I’ve done many different things in my life ranging from acting with Graeae Theatre Company (a theatre company that promotes accessibility and differences) to training teachers, social workers and others about protecting disabled children from abuse.  Currently I present a radio show called Make Yourself Heard for disabled people on Reading4u.co.uk, which streams through the internet.

But today I would like to talk to you about shopping, and the perils it can bring if you have a mobility impairment.

Firstly, fashion and I have been sworn enemies since my teenage years, when A-line skirts were a must have – although for me, ending at the knee, they just acted to highlight my lower legs and disability. So it’s no surprise that when I have to do it, I turn into Ms Grumpy Old Woman International.

So it’s official, I’m allergic to shopping. When I walked with a leg braces I hated it and when I walked on crutches I hated it. Now, walking with a (very) raised shoe and a stick, guess what, I hate it! It’s SO tiring and dispiriting, especially when searching endlessly for clothes, or worst of all, shoes.

Shopping with a mobility impairment | Shopping with a disabilityBut this is all personal dislike, what about the practicalities of shopping?

Most of us, most of the time, follow our instinct and the warnings of our mothers to “look where you’re going”.

But shops, and worst of all shopping malls, have the curious effect of wiping all of this out of our brains. Men, women and children alike hasten on their way, necks twisted, as they stare into shop windows.

But when gazing in such an odd fashion, body twisted to look at anything except where they are going, do you think they are also able to watch out for things or, more importantly, people in front of them.

If you’re very lucky, you’ll witness one of those ‘you’ve been framed’ moments, when a luckless shopper walks into a free-standing advert. But more commonly, they and the person they were about to mow down, will perform a rather messy dance in order to disentangle themselves and their shopping. This particular entertainment will either be accompanied by more apologies per second than most of us can count, or a torrent of abuse.

Personally, with a wobbly balance, I (and anyone like me) would be highly likely to be felled during such an encounter. So when I see a side-gazing body heading my way, unless there is space for me to get out of their path, I stand stock still.

In those long moments, I have to hope and trust that their attention will be wrenched from the lure of a bargain, by a stationary object intruding into their peripheral visual field, i.e. that they’ll see me in time. And believe me, there have been occasions when I have been sorely tempted to deliver a sharp reminder with my stick.

But one of my daughters gave me an alternative idea, as well as a good laugh. The other day, when I was very unwell, she had to manoeuvre me through our house in my wheelchair. As she reversed, she announced in bass tones very similar to those on refuse collection lorries: “warning, this wheelchair is reversing… warning, this wheelchair is reversing.”

I could do with a recorded announcement, emanating from the end of my stick, which I could point straight at the oncoming body. It would go something like this: “watch your step. This shopper is dangerous. Watch your step. This shopper is dangerous.” And I would stand there smiling angelically.

By Merry Cross

Check out…

• Our Arts and Cultrue section for all things lifestyle.
• XENI, the new fashion label for disabled women.

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  1. What I find most gutting is an oncoming person who clearly sees me, and at some distance. They stare me down on approach then get angry if/when I can’t veer around them, despite repeated attempts at dialogue. I’m a self-propelled wheelchair user, not an ice skater.

    On balance though, I love it when meeting with a pram, pushchair, elderly or other vulnerable person. We stop, smile and work out a path forward based on mutual respect. There’s a lovely brief convo about how we’re all in it together.

    Which one outnumbers the other? I’ll have to do a field study and report back…

  2. For my final uni year dissertation I looked into disability within fashion and carried out an exercise in my wheelchair about how various high street shops coped with customers like me, from store layout to changing rooms. I found that next were very good on having enough space to get around and a lot of things were in reach on the displays even if some staff were a little patronising and didn’t treat me like a ‘normal’ customer, but then all saints was too crammed to get my wheelchair through all the areas and they had to move a Hoover and clothes rails out of the disabled changing room before I could get in. They didn’t even have hand rails around the pull down chair or a mirror in front of it to view yourself! When I wrote to complain though they were the most apologetic and even gave me a £50 gift card as way of apology. Much more than can be said for places like miss selfridge and even debenhams!

  3. My aunt has a short left leg and wears a 6″ built-up shoe.The shoe is very heavy and I wonder if a raise such as yours might be lighter.Can you tell me the extent of the raise that you wear? She had a short leg from birth but her leg has no impairment apart from it’s shortness.

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