Mind the gap: My adventures living a normal life, in a wheelchair

As I've mentioned in previous posts, strange things happen to me when I go out - some hilarious, some infuriating - which often say much more about everyday life as a wheelchair user and attitudes towards disability than any Paralympic coverage or TV show.

For this reason, I've decided to log my experiences, and perhaps reflect on them in separate posts if necessary.

Monday 15th July: "You have lovely eyes, have my flowers"

I've heard it said there's no getting away from the fact that my wheelchair does make me more eye-catching, especially to those who've had a bit too much to drink. I, however, prefer to put this down to dashing good looks and a magnetic personality. How else could anyone explain the lady in the red dress, who ran up alongside me as I headed to the train, winked and offered me the bouquet of flowers in her hand.

"It is my birthday, but I want you to have these, you have beautiful eyes," she said. Aware that these situations aren't supposed to happen in real life, I eyed her with suspicion (I mean, remember that scene in The Matrix?).

Still, I thanked her, but explained I couldn't take the birthday flowers. It was quite clear she was very upset, and I didn't want to make her night any worse. My attempts at diffusive diplomacy didn't work.

"You're the nicest person I've met all night, you can't get rid of me that easily. At least hold them on the train for me," she begged. Before I could say anything she'd thrown them on my lap, and the rather obvious train ramp quickly dispelled any hope of me subtly disappearing onto a separate carriage.

Reluctantly I accepted my fate. For the next 30 minutes I was stuck acting as part toyboy, part counsellor. Things started well, I learned the lady was Moroccan - a part-time waitress in London, who harboured a secret love for the original PlayStation. This made me feel better about pretending I'm living in the 90s. In return, I opened up about my nervousness over an upcoming job interview, to which she provided vehemently heartfelt words of assurance. Then I made my mistake, I asked her how her birthday had been.

"Don't make me cry, I've drunk too much wine," she said. Suddenly I saw visions of the rail network flooding under her tears. In a bid to avert disaster I complimented her. This led to suggestive giggles, and a kiss on the cheek. People were now looking. And I was still holding her flowers. Maybe this is what Chris De Burgh was trying to warn of throughout 'Lady In Red'.


Scrambling around her handbag, she emerged with a scrap of paper and a Mascara pen, which she used to write her number with. "Ring me, I live in Kingston - we can drink some champagne on my balcony. Do you like champagne? Are you single?".  My answers to the two questions arrived somewhat jumbled, between "Yes/NO" and "NO/yes". Fortunately, we arrived at her stop: "I'm 43 and play Diablo on weekends," she whispered in my ear. Then she was gone.

I arrived home to my parents' and some important dinner guests. I was holding the flowers, had lipstick on my cheek, and the most improbable story. "I didn't know you were going on a date," they said. I wasn't, I replied.

Friday 2nd August: Did you book 24 hours in advance?

Using London transport in a wheelchair is akin to buying a lottery ticket, great things are promised but you're never quite sure what's going to happen. The chances of winning are fairly slim (13,983,816 to 1), yet you still buy a ticket, because five months ago, you won ten pounds. Despite the improbability, a little voice still whispers that this could be your day.

Sadly, it turned out this particular train journey to Waterloo from Teddington wasn't going to be a winner. It had all started so promisingly; at Teddington the guard happily put the ramp out, and even offered to wait around at Waterloo in case the station staff did not arrive to help me off. "I'll call ahead," he said, "but I'll check everything's in order when we arrive, because I know the system doesn't work half the time". It didn't this time either. Nobody knew a thing about me when we arrived.  Had the guard not been so willing, I would've been left shouting for help.

You see, as a wheelchair user you're meant to book 24 hours in advance, for a specific train. I'm not really sure how this is to be expected of anyone, let alone a young 23-year-old journalist with commitments in central London. To make the situation even more ludicrous, many local stations, including Teddington, do not employ platform staff - so the guard would have to help me anyway. And then there's the small fact the system doesn't always work, as the outbound guard admitted.

There have been times both the guard and the station staff have failed to help me off, and because it isn't the final stop, time runs out - leaving me stranded - traveling somewhere completely different. Thankfully, I'm able to use my voice, but what if my disability meant I couldn't?

Back to the night in question. I was in good spirits after spending the afternoon with some course mates from City University's Newspaper Journalism MA. These feelings soon faded when, at Waterloo, my request for help to board was treated with utter disdain by the guard. "Have you booked assistance!?" he barked. "No" I explained, because I didn't know what time I would be returning.

This was lost on the guard, and suddenly I became aware he wasn't speaking to me, but to my carer. "He needs to book, you need to use the system". In the end I had to resort to waving my arms (right in front of his face) to get his attention. I explained again that, in my considerable experience as a wheelchair user, the "system" failed me more often than not, and that in fact he would need to help me off at Teddington regardless, since there are no staff.

His response came with a flick of the hand: "put him on board now". It's been a long time since I was treated like cattle.

Ten minutes into the journey, he returned, prodding his phone in front of my face and showing me how to book assistance online. Trying to remain calm I explained I knew what to do, but that it's the process which fails. By now you'll probably have recognised a pattern in our conversation. To cut things short, the discussion ended with the guard shouting that "people like me" hold the rail service up, and that I need to book a day in advance. I explained that like everyone else, my day is subject to change. "You need to change your attitude, use the system," he replied.

A summary of how I felt, courtesy of Nicholas Cage:

Wednesday 18th September: "You're out late!"

I went out this week, surprisingly. I'm not sure if it's normal, but every time I approach a bus stop I subconsciously analyse the other people waiting. You never know, I might meet my future wife (remember those match-making adverts). In truth, Teddington's reality is often different, involving either picture perfect young suburban families or quaint pensioners. Today's episode involved the latter.

Elderly people often like to be my friend, they see me as less of a threat. Except this particular lady didn't ask where we were going, instead she asked my friend why I was "up so late, past my bed-time" at the witching hour of 6pm. He laughed, but then realised she was being serious - "...no no - he's fine...Alex isn't..."

"Hi, I'm going out tonight. Have you had a nice day?", I interjected, trying to save my friend's embarrassment. But to no avail, she simply smiled at me pitifully and turned back to him.

"They have good schools now, which special school is he at?", awkwardness reigned again. Seconds ticked by.

For a moment I toyed with the idea of explaining I was a journalist, then thought better of it. Glancing to my friend we decided to have some fun. "I think you misunderstand, I'm his carer, he doesn't look after me".

Over the next the next few minutes I explained I was taking him home to watch Sesame Street as he'd had a big day out: "I have to stop him from going in all the pubs, he's growing up so fast and after all the ladies!", she laughed in bemusement. Little did she know how deeply prophetic those words would be by the end of the night.

I lie. In fact we went home and watched the clip below, getting drunk on copious amounts of Ribena.