I’m angry and incapacitated

Worse places to be stranded. View of Castel San Jorg from our hotel.

Two weeks ago whilst on holiday in Lisbon I fractured my ankle. After a lovely day exploring the mountain town of Sintra I stepped out of the Metro just outside our hotel, slipped and landed squarely on my right ankle fracturing my fibula.

After a frustrating 24 hours trying to get our travel insurance to do what they are paid to do (a whole other story), an anxious trip to a Portuguese equivalent of a NHS hospital (actually not a bad experience — checked in, triaged, x-rayed, plastered and sent on my way within 2 hours), I could only weight bear on one leg and would have to stay an extra 24 hours in Lisbon while an appropriate flight was found.

We decided to make the most of an extra 24 hours in such a fantastic city. We hired a wheelchair (3 euros for 48 hours!) and were at least able to go out to eat and enjoy the hub-bub of Placa de Commercio. We also took advantage of the views from the rooftop pool. There are worse places to be stuck.

Enjoying as much as we can an extra night in Lisbon

I was apprehensive about the flight home but at the Portuguese end they literally could not have done more for us. We were escorted through special assistance security, passport control to our gate, then onto our own private minibus and ambulift and onto the plane with a special narrow wheelchair. I had 3 seats to myself and the BA staff couldn’t have been more attentive. I felt like a VIP!

Then we arrived at Heathrow.

Now, I love the UK. I am proud of our keep calm and carry on attitude but I am ashamed to admit I had no idea how blind we are to the everyday struggles of people with a disability. The following is what I have experienced since we arrived back in the UK.

At Heathrow we had to wait a while for the ambulift to arrive, but nothing major. However, it only arrived with one operative and they should have two people for moving someone off a plane. Fortunately the BA crew stepped in to help as they said it would take an age otherwise. When we got to the terminal building we waited 10 minutes while they tried to find a wheelchair. Once found we were handed over to a perfectly pleasant member of ground staff who took us to a lift and then pointed us in the direction to baggage reclaim. At this point we had no luggage but were soon to collect 3 cases. We managed, but a simple ask of “Will you require any more assistance?” would have been nice.

Now the above wasn’t horrific, we coped fine, but it was a totally different experience to the one in Lisbon. And it seems we got off lightly, it could have been much worse if you read BBC journalist, Frank Gardner’s experiences of Heathrow.

Relieved to be home I set about planning how we would be able to lead as normal a life as possible while effectively only having one leg for 6–8 weeks. Those that know me know I am not a stay at home sort of person. We had crutches already which were infinitely more usable once my temporary cast was replaced with a fracture boot, but if we wanted to go anywhere as a family at more than a snails pace a wheelchair would be essential. We hired one from the British Red Cross, who loan out all sorts of mobility aids for just a donation. Aamazing service and lovely volunteers.

Back home. I’m determined not to be confined to my front room watching re-runs of Strictly but it is not as easy as I thought.

So we’re set, I thought. We live in the town centre of Guildford with a supermarket at the end of the street, how hard can it be? Surely a town centre in an affluent area will be well set up for someone incapacitated?

I’m sure anyone who lives with a disability either temporary or permanent will tell you it is unbelievably hard. We live less than a 10 minute walk from the town centre. To get there in a wheelchair we first have to negotiate food delivery drivers blocking the pavement at the end of the street while they wait to collect takeaways. This pushes us on to the road at the point of a blind turning. There are pavements so narrow it is touch and go whether the wheelchair will fit. Paving slabs that are uneven and have been patched up so many times that even when I am being pushed, I sit feeling every bump through my fracture. Crossing roads where holes literally flatline the wheelchair, to the point where I have to get out so we can safely rescue it. I’m lucky, I can at least stand and walk with help.

The final straw which prompted this rant, was an attempt to go out to dinner last night. We decided to drive in to town even though it takes normally less than 10 minutes to walk because we didn’t fancy chancing the pavements in the dark. We parked in the Tunsgate shopping centre car park, the town’s flagship new shopping centre, that has just undergone a multi million pound refurb. We decided not to take the wheelchair, just the crutches, as it would be “easy” to use the lift from the car park to the restaurant we were visiting in Tunsgate. Of course, the lift was out of order!

So not to be deterred, and with no other option signposted and certainly no staff around to ask for advice, we exited the car park and walked all round the outside, which involved steep slopes. This was our only option. I couldn’t manage the stairs, but the slope on crutches half killed me. Looking back now we should have just driven somewhere else, but I’m stubborn and again I thought it can’t be that hard!

I’m here to tell you it is. Every trip outside my front door requires a lot of planning and actually makes me a little anxious. I don’t feel confident enough yet to leave the house on my own, but I can’t have someone with me 24 hours a day and you don’t want to be a burden on friends and family.

I am counting down the days until I am recovered. That could be a while. I am seeing something of the life that many people have to negotiate every day, and it makes me ashamed. Ashamed that I hadn’t really given it much thought before, ashamed that in 2018 we still haven’t got it right. CEO’s, town planners, council leaders please before you decide on any new builds or infrastructure, go round your town in a wheelchair or crutches. Then plan your exciting new developments through those eyes.