For many years I drove regularly from Yorkshire to London for work. Thanks to hand controls, driving a car on this sort of journey when you’re physically disabled is straightforward; it’s everything else – from refuelling to going to the toilet – that’s difficult, stressful and sometimes simply impossible if you’re travelling alone.
Planning is essential, and better data is needed
The most important part of my journey happens before I leave home: the planning. I need to be careful where I choose to refuel; not all service stations have room between the pumps to park and open your door fully without blocking other people. I need this space because I have to get my chair from where it’s stored on the passenger seat, reach over to the back seat for the wheels, assemble it outside the driver’s door and then transfer myself into the chair.
I can avoid having to do this if there’s an employee at the service station who can come and refuel for me. While there are apps that promise to highlight service stations where this facility is available, they are – like apps for other things such as disabled parking or toilet facilities – generally piecemeal and unreliable. I have to be prepared to refuel myself. This is easier said than done, as the powerful recoil on the heavy fuel hoses is enough to pull me along in my chair.
The difficulties don’t end there, because paying for the fuel is often hampered by the high counter in the service station shop. If you don’t just want to fill up – maybe you need water for the screen wash or to check your tyre pressures – then you have to transfer from your chair back into the car, drive across the forecourt and repeat the whole process.
A visit to the toilet is likely to be essential too (most people with my level of disability are incontinent). Even if the accessible toilet isn’t out of order, which they often are, there is not always room for an accompanying carer – something that’s essential for many disabled people. I think that facilities like this can get neglected because they’re not used all the time, and that a lot of this problem could be avoided simply by having a larger toilet that anyone can use and therefore gets more attention when it comes to maintenance.
Fear of breakdowns and punctures causes anxiety
To put it mildly, travelling on your own on the motorway as a disabled person is character building. This is particularly true if you break down or have a puncture, both of which have happened to me. Luckily, when my car broke down I was in a fleet vehicle with excellent roadside assistance and a police patrol car spotted me and parked behind my car to shield me while I waited for help (because, of course, I couldn’t clamber over to the passenger side to exit the car safely and wait behind the crash barrier). Sitting in a broken-down car that’s shaking as lorries thunder past is very frightening and potentially dangerous.
If you have a puncture, and you’re a wheelchair user like me, you can’t undo the wheel nuts to change a tyre. Even if you could manage that, you couldn’t then lift the spare wheel into place. Have you ever tried holding a spare wheel at arm’s length while sitting down? I simply have to hope that I don’t have an incident during a journey – an anxiety-inducing state that I know affects many disabled people’s mental health.
There is some hope for the future
Long-term disabled people like me tend to become conditioned to the sheer difficulty inherent in doing things other people take for granted. We live in an able-bodied world, but our lives could be so much easier with a bit more consideration. Fortunately, there are some developments on the horizon that I hope will improve things.
Many disabled people are hopeful that the widespread adoption of electric vehicles will help, because they will then be able to stop and park at a single point in a service station to charge, go to the toilet and get a bite to eat. Businesses are waking up to the ‘purple pound’ – the fact that disabled people have a combined £260 billion buying power. Hopefully future mobility solutions such as autonomous vehicles will realise the value in tailoring services for this market.
Until then, while cities such as London have become easier for me to get around thanks to improvements in the tube network, accessible buses and the excellent black cabs, my journey to them will remain a challenge.