On Saturday I might have been at the front of the class, but I was not at the front of train.
I felt very honoured to be invited by Sisters of Frida to speak about the rights of disabled women in front of 10 keen future world changers at the Plan International Youth Action Festival. The prepared presentation got a little derailed, however, by the fact that I almost missed my first teaching experience in 2 years.
Friday morning, I rang the First Great Western assistance line to book the ramp and wheelchair space, as per usual. It’s one of those boring jobs you do whilst doing something else, as you can be on hold for a little while.
“Hi, I’d like to book a ramp and wheelchair space for tomorrow please.”
“Name? Address? Postcode? Destination? Time of travel?”
So far, so routine. So dull.
“Hi, Miss Perry? Yes, I’m afraid we don’t have any available wheelchair spaces on your outgoing journey.”
Oh sugar. “None at all?”
“Do you have a scooter license?”
“No, it’s a wheelchair.”
“Well, there is a space in first class…”
“How much would that be?” Though I hate spending money, I hate letting people down more.
“I don’t know, you’d need the bookings line.”
A sudden recollection of a conversation earlier this summer struck me. A strong sense of déjà vu mixed with impending disaster flashed across my brain.
“How wide are the wheelchair spaces in first class?”
Oh sugar indeed. “That’s not going to work, my wheelchair’s 700mm.”
“We could put you on a different train?”
“No good. I’ve booked my carer and taxi around the train time, which I booked around the time I need to get to London.”
“Well, there might be space anyway, I’ll book the ramp anyway and they might be able to get you on.”
“So there is a space?”
“But you can’t book it?”
“No. It depends if anyone else using a wheelchair is already in the space or not.”
I hate uncertainty even more than spending money and letting people down.
“I’m going to have to think about that, bye.”
Should I cancel and give my colleague time to prepare how to run the workshop without me? Should I go to train station and hope for the best, and risk letting people down last minute, losing my taxi fare, and starting my weekend with a crushing epic fail?
I immediately contacted two people: Eleanor Lisney, my fantastic colleague and mentor, and the credible hulk and serial transport tamer himself, Doug Paulley.
Eleanor and I hatched a back-up plan; I’d Skype in and be projected on the wall like that one smug Oscar winner who refused to leave the Bahamas for even a day. Not that would’ve been awks at all, but we’d have made it work somehow.
Doug gave me sound advice, which I will be using if this isn’t resolved the easy way.
I rang the assistance line again, and asked them to book the ramp. I then asked the important question: Why is the space on the first class coach smaller than most adult wheelchairs, and can we do something about that please?
No answer was forthcoming and I was passed upwards, to someone who knew nothing about the situation but I think had heard of the legendary Doug Paulley. She offered me train vouchers (the value of which will be going to Transport for All), and expressed that she didn’t want me to feel discriminated against as it hadn’t been intentional.
Discrimination isn’t a feeling, and it doesn’t matter whether they meant it or not. This is discrimination. I am excluded from first class. The champagne lifestyle is apparently not the life for me, even if I wanted to waste my money on unnecessary extravagances.
I did not get my hopes up on Saturday morning as I got to the platform. The staff member on the platform listened to what had happened and told me not to worry, I’d be getting on that train. My heart sank as another wheelchair user, who had booked the space, wheeled up the ramp.
A few seconds later, I was told it was my turn, but before we got near the wheelchair space a conscientious gentleman began to make a fuss, saying loudly that the train was full and he wasn’t going to move out of the wheelchair space. The platform staff member intervened in brilliant fashion.
“Look, no one else is making a fuss, they’re all happy to move up: it’s just you. This train is not going anywhere until I’ve got these two wheelchair users on to this carriage.”
I wanted to both give the man a medal and disappear into a hole in ground in embarrassment.
I was aboard, admittedly sideways because of the crush, but I don’t get travel sick so this wasn’t an issue. Then I saw the reflection in the window of the very same conscientious gentleman who had protested my right to board standing right behind me. Half an hour later, he thankfully got off the train without incident. If you’re reading this sir, I’d like to think we might have got along better under different circumstances, and I hope you understand why I hope we never cross paths again.
From there it was a simple matter to take a taxi to Westminster Kingsway College, grab a cuppa, find the room, read the presentation, spark some discussions, talk to the BBC, and go home.
The young people attending the workshop were the saving of my day. They listened to what I was saying, they showed an interest, they even took it upon themselves to immediately tweet First Great Western about my experience. If these people are the future, then I look forward to the day they’re running the world.
By Fleur Perry