Still A Lovely Concept
For once it was a lovely day where the rain didn’t soak me and my motorised chair through to the bone, or should that be to the frame as it relates to my chair. The only real positive about being a wheelchair user is when I see people queuing and I smile to myself as I resist the urge to say, “Well at least I have a seat”. When I say ‘resist’ I mean resist some of the time, as I haven’t managed quite that level of self-control and have been met with people nervously muting a very uncomfortable and slightly false laughter. This is probably the conflict going on in their brains from all that correctness programming, not knowing whether or not they are on dodgy ground to laugh at, or perhaps more accurately with, a disabled person. Queuing aside I always have a sense of anxiety in the rain, after all I sit on top of a rather large battery that drives my chair for more than 20km on one charge no less, well it impressed me. To me that’s a lot of juice below my derriere, so I have a level of fear as I don’t want the rain to turn my motorised chair into an electric chair in the Texas sense of the phrase. Yes I can certainly think of a few easier ways to meat my maker than extreme electrical shock surging upward as my soul no doubt heads downward, never be able to get that stain out of my pressure relieving cushion.
I do a lot of traveling on business so I am used to knowing that many cities although welcoming and wanting a successful serial entrepreneur to set up his next business within their business rate zone, still, in reality, view the Social Model of Disability as a ‘nice’ concept. The Economic Development Officers (EDO) I tended to meet to discuss business are usually surprised that I am a wheelchair user, as if being in a wheelchair with a degenerative condition of the spinal cord somehow excludes me from being business developer, an employer, a wealth creator. It still surprises me their reaction after all it is my spine that has become extremely inconvenient and not my mind. My mind has been an issue for many since I was young, but strangely never a problem for me, go figure. Occasionally these EDO’s even say “you should have let us know you were in a wheelchair” before it dawns on them that this isn’t a useful thing to say. You can tell a part of their brain is screaming “what the hell are you saying you idiot, as the words just fall out of their mouths before their frontal lobe has time to kick in with its social skilling message regulating “this message is not acceptable, please don’t say it to a guy in a wheelchair”, unfortunately this message is generally a micro second too late.
Then the embarrassment lights up their faces, glowing, heat radiating, bright red complexion surpasses and perverts even their fake tan, which has been paid via chemicals or gym membership sun bedding, as I retort a simple yet deadly “Why?”. Usually at this point the now flustered EDO has turned from confident professional ready to win me over to lip quivering and jabbering unintelligible goldfish, with a functional age of about 3, and I have only just met them. So, for no other reason than my own naughtiness, probably the reason I am heading downwards when fried by my chair, I wait a second or two as they search for any string of words that may unhook them from their own thoughtlessness. But I only wait a couple of seconds, which may seem much, much longer to them, so I let them breath again, unhook themselves, my amusement fix abated, well for now. I say “Shall we discuss why I should start my next venture here?” The relief on their now fully Robin red breast faces, is quite palpable, as they see the opportunity to gather themselves and get back on track. However if I wanted to I could just let them walk onto another landmine that is under their next step without them even knowing.
Normally I save them the embarrassment of knowing that the places, potential offices they want show me, convince me to have, is now inaccessible and say to them that I only want to see ground floor, open plan offices. Then I add that we should use my vehicle, which is wheelchair accessible unlike the modes of transport to these venues that they originally planned, and so the second landmine is missed. Hey perhaps that means I will go upward with the lightning bolt that explodes through my ass, well we shall see? To give these people a chance to avoid my own wickedness, I do always tell the EDO’s in advance that only ground floor, ultra accessible offices will be accepted, and most figure out that this is because the target audience for employees and market place is the disabled & long term conditions community. So it shouldn’t be a surprise when I say just because there is a lift, an elevator as they seem to be called more and more, I don’t consider it an acceptable venue for my businesses, again they have jumped on a third landmine to my obvious annoyance.
Elevators breakdown and trap people, yes I am claustrophobic and lifts (can’t be bothered to keep typing ‘elevators’) bring out the worst in me, it’s not a pretty site and is to be avoided at all costs. My only other concern with having to use a lift, besides being trapped inside what I consider to be a metal coffin with rapidly diminishing air as I hyperventilate, to access a place of work is that when they are out of order or undergoing maintenance, THEY DON’T GO UP OR DOWN and prevent people from accessing their place of work. Worse than that, if the fire alarm sounds they also stop people using the lifts, so people in wheelchairs above the ground floor cannot exit the building. So people such as I are kindly designated an area to wait in to be rescued. Wheelchair users wait in this designated area whilst functioning bipeds run like hell down the stairs, I like to call the designated waiting area the Human Barbeque Zone! So I am usually pretty adamant on the grounds of accessibility, claustrophobia and not wanting to become the biggest stack of spareribs you have ever seen, sat on top of a wheelchair that is likely to explode when burnt to a cinder, literally kissing my ass goodbye as the battery detonates. I hope this clarifies my concerns as to anything other than ground floor premises.
Like I said, I tend to use my transport, a VW Caddy Life with a ramp at the back so I can drive my wheelchair into the back safely, my right hand business council does the driving (my PA), and there are 3 spare seats for the EDO’s to tag along. So in this large vehicle the roadshow commences as we travel round these suggested venues or in deed to venues where I am having business meetings, which takes up the majority of my time. A collection of business meetings, a tapestry of commerce on a vast variety of subjects that tends to stretch my intellectual ability far more than Sudoku ever could. Such business days are also populated with colourful engagements, conferences for example where I am attending to contribute and frequently being a speaker. A big part of my role now also seems to be advising businesses who are struggling, who are having high staff turnover, especially in the health and social care sector of which I am considered an expert, or generally giving businesses an independent and confidential opinion of how they can improve quality and through this increased profits/customer satisfaction.
The buzz in business at the minute is the Kaizen philosophy of continuous improvement, well a European version of this Japanese mind set. This is usually combined with a more traditional ‘Lean’ paradigm, which considers the expenditure of resources for any goal other than the creation of value for the end customer to be a wasteful use of resources. I have seen these concepts and models of operations come and go over the years, their underlying principles are not exactly new though, they all revolve around the principle that if the customer is treated well, and spend money wisely, with quality being everything, are foundations any business should be built on, regardless of the package these principles are wrapped up in. My years of successful business experience, especially in the health and social care market, means people do turn to me for assistance, consultancy work I guess you’d call it, although I see it as enjoyable far more than work.
It surprises me that I have just about 30 years of experience and it all started with being a Psychiatric Nurse but my pathway has always been afflicted with a strange form of attention deficit disorder (ADD). Yes my career saw me get to the top level of specialist secure environments for adolescent ‘lifers’, then I moved and got to the top level of Governor in HMPS specialising in new prisons and healthcare environments. Moved again and got to the top of the private prison sector becoming a Director of Youth Offending. Now that last title I always struggled with, I mean I didn’t ‘direct’ kids to commit crimes as it suggests, I wanted to change it but the CEO wouldn’t let me, ho-hum. Then commencing my own businesses in health and social care delivery, again my ADD kicked in, start one company, getting it going, make sure it is sustainable and has the right team to run it, default to mentor and guide, move onto the next one. I can’t draw a line with a ruler, I have no artistic skills whatsoever, so I believe this is my art, the creation of business for philanthropic and social benefits, and naturally I guess people turn to me for advice, for guidance, after all it can be pretty lonely at the top as a Managing Director or Chief Executive. Sometime these people just need a fresh pair of eyes or to bounce ideas off someone, especially when facing issues of expansion, change, and/or problems that threaten the business. It’s high stakes as it is never far from your mind as the boss that people’s livelihoods depend on your decisions, and so does your own family, the pressure can be quite intense, so to be able to discuss such issues can be invaluable. I feel quite privileged and humbled that people come to me for assistance; it isn’t an ego trip at all as I feel that to help one’s peers is exactly what we are supposed to be doing, I just wish there were more disabled CEO’s & MD’s.
As I am explaining to the EDO that I have a vehicle that we can use I am interrupted and told that the local transport hub is very accessible and people in wheelchairs use it all the time. The venues that they want to show me are not far from one of the stops of this transport network, the Tyne & Wear Metro rail System. I am informed with some vigour and confidence that this system is cheap, connects the airport with the City and then out as far as South Shields on one side of the Tyne and North Shields on the other. I am lulled into a sense of confidence with their total faith that this was a real advantage, and I persuaded to leave my car at the Civic Centre and venture into the centre of Newcastle to use this North East version of the London Tube, “Only much better” I am reassured. I remember thinking clearly that I did hope it was better, I use to live in London and I do not have fond memories of the Tube, hot, smelly, dirty, crammed in like sardines. Again my claustrophobia was not exactly a coping mechanism, I recall to this day wanting to scream as we descended ever downward into the bowels of the London Underground at Victoria. Even now my heart is racing a little and my chest tightens to think of what it was like, it was bloody awful, not something you would recommend to anyone, except for your worst enemies. The naughtiness in me peaks out again just to see if there is that opportunity to have some fun, perhaps the Underground was an omen telling me where I would end up if I didn’t control the ADD child in my head.
Newcastle is a lovely city, compact with many wonderful features to recommend it, Edinburgh is nicer but that’s a personal preference thing, but I enjoyed my short trip from the Civic Centre to the Central Station. I think the EDO wanted to show off the city centre and can’t blame him; boringly I am a bit of a history geek so I was interested in the architecture and the combination between old bits of castle walls and the modern features on banks of the Tyne. Again on a person preference basis I prefer the old but striding across the river are some impressive bridges, including the world famous Blinking Eye leading to the Baltic modern art gallery and a very impressive Sage Centre. I love modern architecture when it is done well, especially with the canvas backdrop of Georgian stone fronted buildings & Victorian gothic splendour.
Central Station is a bit of a mismatch, definitely Victorian in origin but a bit of a messy place that feels somewhat dirty, but the people are so friendly and helpful, as was the EDO with us as we went into the Metro area. I never understand why that these type of underground stations are always tiled, perhaps it’s for cleaning but it makes them seem like the old public toilets, and frankly they often smell like it too. Nevertheless the EDO’s enthusiasm kept me engaged despite the distraction of the homeless person asleep to the left of me, my mind thinking “is he ok, is he breathing?” and then I noticed that he was thank goodness. The first obstacle was about to stop us before we even saw a Metro train, a rather grumpy Metro employee, overtly not enthused about his job in any way shape or form, deliberately not making eye contact as we try to get his attention, whilst he slovenly checked people’s tickets, well every fifth or sixth person’s ticket. He looked utterly disinterested in what he was doing, not the best advert for the Metro organisation, but what followed next was even worse for their reputation. The charming EDO asked the Metro guy where the lift was to get down to the ticket area as I was faced with a steep set of steps, which my chair and I were not going to attempt, as it was the equivalent of throwing myself off a small cliff.
The EDO gesticulated and mumbled that the lift was round the corner, so once the EDO had come up the stairs again we headed round the designated corner. Hay-presto there was the lift as promised, and there was also the large notice saying that the lift was out of order, the blood drained from the EDO’s face as quickly as his enthusiasm did. He returned to the Metro employee and I couldn’t hear what was said but I could tell this was not exactly a happy conversation being had, the level of hand waving was a bad sign for sure. Once the EDO returned to me he explained that it wouldn’t have made any difference if the lift had been working as apparently the Metro have a rule than does not allow motorised wheelchairs on the trains they use, the only explanation that was given was that it was a health and safety issue. Not being best amused I asked why in the 21st Century I had been excluded from a public form of travel, making it VERY clear I felt this WAS discrimination. At this point my sense of humour was in the same in the same state of the bloody lift, it had failed completely. The EDO was profusely apologising and I asked myself why the heck hadn’t he checked this out before embarrassing himself, the Metro owners, the City of Newcastle upon Tyne and myself with this exclusionary policy that limited disabled people’s ability to truly integrate in the City’s economy.
To cut a long story short, we eventually did look round the available office spaces but there was no way I was going to set up within the City after this embarrassment and exclusion, like I was some form of toxic risk to the Metro. I did write to the Metro but the letter was ignored, but it still bothers me that in the 21st Century there are organisations that treat the Social Model of Disability as a concept rather than an actual necessity to allow people with disabilities to be part of society. Fundamental to this is public transport systems that are accessible, that are useable to people with a vast array of disabilities, how else are they supposed to get to work in cities? Ridiculous farce I was put through and I won’t forget it either, if you want disabled people to become payers of tax and National Insurance then society has to provide the facilities for such people to access the economic zones in each region. If society chooses not to do this then there really should not be complaints, derogatory labelling and negative stereotyping of people with disabilities who are unable to work. There is a difference between those people unwilling to work and those unable to because of reasons beyond their control; after all I don’t know anyone who chose to be disabled.
Yours most sincerely
Smiling Cat Ventures (www.smilingcatventures.org)
Innovative Minds @ Work (www.innovativemindsatwork.org)
Mind the Step (improving accessibility)
Able Politics (increasing disabled peoples engagement in politics)
Face Book: Disability in Business
Linked-In: Jonathan Wade (Innovative Minds at Work)