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Friday, 25 October 2019

Accessible hiking in the Cairngorms - Strathspey Railway

Continuing my series about the Cairngorm National Park, I'm going to combine a couple of days into one. We had intended to hike from Aviemore to Boat of Garten and get the steam train back. That's not quite how it worked out but we still enjoyed a couple of nice days out.

Strathspey Steam Railway

The stream trains run from Aviemore's main railway station and go to Boat of Garten and Broomhill. You can travel standard or first class and there are various dining options available. If you need wheelchair assistance, they prefer you to book in advance but we just arrived early on the day we wanted to travel and we were able to buy tickets for the next train. 

Pricing seemed very fair to us. Wheelchair users get a third off and a carer can travel for free (standard class). If you need to travel in your wheelchair, the only option is to travel in the guard's van, and they don't charge then for either you or a carer. We planned ahead, took my crutches and travelled in a standard coach. They put my chair in the guard's van so I could get off at the other end and have a look around. 

Assistance dogs

They allow dogs to travel on the train, and assistance dogs are no problem either. We would have liked to treat ourselves to first class but they don't allow assistance dogs in first class. When I asked about this, first they said it was because of food hygiene but when I asked more and explained that assistance dogs can go in restaurants, then they said it was because of space in the compartments. We had a look later and I'm not sure I buy that, as there is more space in first class than the standard coaches, but we were still able to travel and neither of us wanted a fight.

It was Liggy's first trip with me on any kind of train. She laid under the table and was very well behaved indeed. Getting on and off was a little tricky as the floor was slippery and she was excited and trying to negotiate my crutches through a narrow doorway with steps. 

Photo of Liggy sitting under the table on the train


Toilets

There are no accessible toilets on the train or at Boat of Garten but there is a good one in Aviemore and a half measure in Broomhill. The one in Aviemore is small but there was room for my chair and there are rails and stuff and level entry. At Broomhill, you have to wheelie up a small step to get into the ticket office/shop. Then entrance to the toilet is very tight - another passenger helped me move a table out of the way. Inside the toilet, there are no rails, so getting off the loo was a little tricky! The sink is just about within reach, though I'm sure they wouldn't want it pulling off the wall, so if I was them, I'd at least invest in a free standing toilet frame.

The stations

At Broomhill, it is worth getting off and having a potter around. Some of the platform is gravel though, so getting a close look at the engine requires a bit of determination! 

Steam engine

Broomhill Station and ticket office

Parking and getting to the platform

There is parking at all stations. In Aviemore, to access the right platform, you have to go round the back to the main car park, as access from the town centre is only via a footbridge with steps. There is blue badge parking and then you have to cross the railway line and go up a ramp onto the platform. I found this easy enough to do independently. 

If, like us, you go and park up, buy tickets and then discover that you can't travel in first class where you would get food, you can go and get lunch to take on the train. It's a fair walk round into the town centre, back down the entrance road, under a subway and back into town. Tesco and M&S both do decent meal deals. We had plenty of time on our side so it wasn't a problem doing this.

Hiking between stations

There is a lovely wide track which allows walking and cycle access between Aviemore and Boat of Garten. Technically, it is wheelchair accessible, but I would want to qualify that. The early section of the walk goes through a residential estate, which lacks dropped curbs, so I ended up wheeling on the road a lot. It wasn't busy and I was comfortable doing this as Neil walked behind me and let me know when to stop and wait for passing cars. 

Signage

At the beginning, there is a sign showing that Boat of Garten is both left and right as you come under the railway subway. That is because one way is for road users and one is off-road. We went for the off-road option. It shows 6 (miles, I presume). We set off and although a little hilly, it was a nice enough path. After the initial sign, it assumes you know to follow 'route 7' cycle track. 

As you come out of the residential area (Silverglades), you go through a golf course. There is a new sign, showing 4 miles to Boat of Garten, which is really encouraging, as you think you're a third of the way there already. 

At the golf course, the path turns into a forest area with a lovely wide dirt path but some evil hills! Neil had to help me with some of the steepest parts. You go for what feels like miles because of all the ups and downs and about half an hour later come to a new sign... which shows it is still 4 miles to Boat of Garten. WHAT?!! My arms and shoulders were exhausted by then, and we had passed a sign to the golf club house which is open to the public. There are no toilets on route, and I was getting to the point where I needed one, so we turned back and went for coffee and a wee instead.

Later, we noticed another sign, about a mile before the first sign (6 miles) which also stated 6 miles to Boat of Garten. We can only presume there is something psychological going on here or they have some significant rounding errors!

Asking about paths

When we set off on this walk, we did stop a couple of people who were coming the other way, and asked what the path was like. We were told that it was wide, smooth (concrete) and pretty level all the way. This theme came back later in the week. My advice is not to believe anything people tell you. Walkers have no idea whether they are on the flat or hills. They are utterly oblivious!

Our original plan

So our original plan was to hike one way and take the train the other. Would this have been possible? Firstly, I believe Boat of Garten is higher than Aviemore, so if we were to attempt this, we would get the train there and hike back. It would still be hilly but hopefully more down than up. 

We would also need a toilet plan. I have a she-wee but I don't like using it. Just because I technically could stand up and have a wee like a man, doesn't mean I want to. So then I'm tempted not to drink anything, so that I don't need to go, but on energetic hikes like this, I would need to drink. There is no accessible toilet at Boat of Garten either, so I couldn't go before beginning the walk section. 

If we had an answer to the toilet issue, in theory, I reckon we could take our time and hike it back. It might be more doable if we had a group of us - say if our sons were coming too - as then there would be more help available on the steep hills. It would also be easier, later in the winter or early spring, when my muscles have built up again. I barely do any exercise between June and October, because it is too hot and then there are too many wasps flying around, and nettles blocking my way. That means that in October, I am probably at my weakest, physically. 

On the plus side, if I did attempt this, I would need my mountain trike and we wouldn't be able to carry my crutches, so I would have to travel in the guard's van, which would be free. So we would effectively get a day out for just the cost of lunch. Bargain!

Thursday, 24 October 2019

Accessible hiking in the Cairngorms - the mountain itself

It's difficult for website owners to give accurate information about wheelchair access because all wheelchair users are different and there is so much variation between different types of chair. We recently spent a week on holiday in Aviemore, Scotland, exploring the area and enjoying some fresh air and exercise.

So how did the area perform in terms of accessibility? Here are my thoughts on some of our days out.

Cairngorm Mountain

I first visited the mountain a couple of years ago, when I had some adaptive ski lessons with DSUK. They have since left the area, in part due to the closure of the funicular railway. In the last week, we have been up the mountain at least three times. There is parking, including plenty of blue badge spaces, a cafe with accessible toilets and an exhibition, telling the history of the mountain. 

Parking and getting in

We found parking really easy, but that could be because it's a quiet time of year. Having said that, it was easy in the middle of the ski season too. What is not so easy, especially as a manual wheelchair user, is getting from the car to the cafe. It is a mountain, so of course you have to expect some steep slopes. It really is quite steep in places and the ground isn't particularly smooth. Once you get near the buildings, the ramps are pretty good, though still steep. Inside the buildings was a doddle though, with big wide doorways and smooth floors. 

Photo of the outside area showing how steep the entrances are

Exhibition

I thought the exhibition was great for access! There was plenty of space, nice clear displays and a couple of videos that were easy enough to see. If they ever get the funicular railway running again, I can vouch for good access there too. I was able to board and get off independently, as there is level access. There is a charge for the exhibition but carers go free.

Cafe and staff

We found the staff to be extremely welcoming and friendly! We arrived on a miserable sleety day. It was wet, windy and freezing cold! Nevertheless, a lovely old chap was standing outside to greet visitors and point them in the right direction of the exhibition, cafe and toilets. 

I was really impressed with one guy in the cafe. We were sitting, having a cuppa and a young chap came over and asked whether I had skied there a couple of years ago. He had helped out for one of my lessons. He was basically the route leader, who I followed, so I didn't get lost or into difficulties. He recognised me and remembered from two and a half years ago! That is pretty impressive! 

Outside

Most of the paths in the area are gravel and steep. I did manage to get around in my normal chair but it was hard going and a little scary in places. Neil took Liggy to explore the stream and have a sniff around. I managed to get down the gravel slope but going up, I had to use my ski technique and do a zigzag path, whilst simultaneously pulling constant wheelies. 

Photo showing gravel path on a steep slope.

Activities

At this time of year, the only real activity going on is tubing, which I didn't attempt. For me, whilst it would be great fun, I wouldn't be able to get from the bottom to the top and I would almost definitely get hurt. For the more able, there are hiking paths, but these are well outside my capabilities. Photography though, is doable and the scenery is outstanding! We had a variety of weather conditions, from snow to sunshine. Here's a selection of my favourite pics.

Photo of distant hills and Loch Morlich in thick cloud and mist

Photo of Cairngorm Mountain with snow on the top

View from the mountain across to Loch Morlich and beyond

Saturday, 7 September 2019

Good... better... best

When I was in teaching, there were fashions around how we marked children's work. I can't remember what it was called, but one of them worked on the principle of good... better... best. It went rather than this.

It's good that you used adjectives to describe the characters. It would be better if you thought of some more interesting adjectives. What is the best word you could use to describe dad, instead of 'nice'?

This week, we had our two team away days. Because we are having some building works done at the office, there were no meeting rooms available and we had to go offsite. So we booked a room at the local Toby Carvery. Neil and I often use Toby Carvery for meals out, as they are generally okay from an accessibility point of view. That thought triggered a marking process... So here I go, marking Toby Carvery on their accessibility. Of course, they might vary, so this is just the one we were at this week.

Good

It was good that:

  • you had plenty of accessible parking spaces, with hatchings on both sides
  • the car park is well surfaced
  • there was a ramp on both sides of the steps to get up to the front door
  • there were no steps inside the building
  • there was enough space to get around the building in a wheelchair
  • the staff were very helpful but not patronising (they were particularly good at not assuming I'm incapable of doing things for myself)
  • staff interacted appropriately with my assistance dog - welcoming but left her alone to do her job
  • the accessible toilet had a radar lock
  • the accessible toilet was clean and spacious
  • the carvery area was wide enough to get through and was clean
  • the lady who greeted me found out allergy information for me quickly and accurately.
Better

It would be better if:
  • the ramps were smooth (asphalt) rather than higgledy-piggledy paving stones
  • the front doors were automatic
  • the carpets were replaced with wooden floors (easier to clean and easier to propel over)
  • the toilet roll holder allowed the toilet roll to go round, instead of you having to bend at a painful angle and put your hand up inside it and fight to get any toilet roll
  • the highchairs were not stored right outside the accessible toilet.
Best

If you want to make your business/service accessible for wheelchair users, what is the best thing to do?

For me, there are only a few things you need to think about:
  • Parking and getting inside - consider electric and manual wheelchairs, as well as assistance dogs. Wheelchair users do need more space than you might think. Many places have double doors. Please don't lock one of them! Wheelchairs generally need to open both.
  • Moving around the building - again allow more space than you immediately think is necessary. When positioning tables and chairs, think about the space that is left when a large person is sitting at the table, rather than when the chairs are pushed right under. Also be aware that self-propelling over carpet is rather like expecting you to wade through knee-deep treacle. It is hard work! Hard floors are better.
  • Staff attitudes - training is essential! All staff should know how to communicate in a way that is helpful but not patronising. Please remember that we get through normal daily activities every day. Things that you think are difficult might not be at all difficult for us. Don't assume we need help with every little thing but be willing to help if asked.
  • Toilets - it should be obvious but we need to be able to get to the toilet, into the toilet and out of the toilet, without any obstacles or barriers. Remember that many wheelchair users have limited movement, so putting toilet roll behind the toilet or in an awkward place can cause big problems. Also remember we use our hands to propel, so if the hand dryer is broken, please put a sign up. Once our hands are soaking wet, we're stuck. It's very difficult to propel with sopping wet hands! Make sure the toilet seat is secure, sudden movements can be agony for back injuries. Same with grab rails - we use them because we have reduced/no lower body strength. They need to be able to take body weight without giving way. Toilets need to be clean. Making the toilet roll easy to use helps with this. We don't like sitting in pee on the seat and cleaning it is probably more painful and difficult than for an able-bodied person. Radar locks prevent the toilet being used by everyone. This helps keep it available and also helps keep it clean.
  • Assistance dogs - it should go without saying that you can't deny access to an assistance dog, and they don't have to sit in the dog-friendly area. We may deliberately sit away from other dogs, so that the assistance dog isn't distracted by them. It's nice to be offered a bowl of water, though many owners will bring their own bowl. If you want to be extra helpful, consider providing toileting areas. There are 3 likely surfaces that assistance dogs prefer to toilet on: grass, pebble or bark. How hard would it be to provide a small area with each of these? Oh... and a bin nearby to put our little black bags in!
Do you notice which of these areas is the biggest? After making access into the building possible, if I was an owner, deciding on priorities, I would prioritise the toilets. It seems a small thing but makes a huge difference! Most restaurants only have one accessible toilet but several ladies/gents. Having two accessible toilets would be best. That way, if someone is already in there (especially if it is also the baby change) there is an alternative. Also, if something goes wrong and one becomes out of order... well it's obvious!

Wednesday, 31 July 2019

What does equality look like for me?

I nearly wrote something yesterday but I wanted to think about what I really want to say. I'd seen an article about churches that have ministries aimed at disabled people. Very sweet but it didn't sound very inclusive or equal. It gave me a sense of being different and that I need to be looked after. That's really not me! I think their motivation is loving but it indicates a faulty view of people like me.

Today, I saw an article that referred to a hate incident that happened to a chap I follow on Twitter. He was at a garage and someone hurled a stream of abuse at him, saying, "Boris is going to deal with "all you f.....g disabled scroungers!" Unlike the church example, this one was fuelled by hate, rather than love... but it still contained the same message - that disabled people can't provide for themselves and that we need to be looked after.

So what I want to communicate is actually from the opposite angle. These are examples of how we are perceived (with good or bad motive) as being different. And okay, I am different. We're all different in one way or another. It's not just about church, although it has bemused me at times that I feel more equal at work than in church. Maybe that's because I'm at work for 40 hours a week and at church for 2. It's about the whole of life and what equality would actually look like.

Access

For me, the biggest issue is always access. Can I go where everyone else can go? Can I do what everyone else can do? Can I access life as an equal?

At work, I would say mostly, yes. I can get into the car park, park in a space that is wide enough for me to unload my chair and Liggy. I can get into the building quite easily, move around the building, including the kitchen. There is an accessible toilet - okay there are some frustrations there, as I spend a disproportionate amount of time waiting to get in there. Maybe there should be more accessible toilets if so many people need them.

When I go shopping, most places are accessible. Supermarkets are mainly okay, though they could improve our local Morrisons by having one wide aisle that isn't a double aisle. I feel rather self-conscious when I'm waiting in the checkout queue and someone next to me could move on but can't get their trolley past me.

Clothes shops can be a pain. I can usually get in just fine but often the rails and displays don't allow me space to get round. The same goes for places like Savers. Their products might be cheaper than Boots' but I can generally get round Boots and not Savers.

Church is a mixed bag. It's not our building so in some ways, we can't influence the things that hinder access. While we're there churching, there are swimming lessons and most of the parents park in the blue badge car park, rather than walking 100m to the main car park. They park too close together for me to get a chair through, let alone Liggy next to me. They create spaces that don't exist. Honestly, it irritates Neil more than me but it does reduce my access, particularly when leaving at the end.

Inside is fine. The toilet is good (got a heated seat!) There are no carpets, which makes my life very easy. The doors are automatic or left open. It's split level but we've got a ramp that I can use to get to the lower level, if I want to. I don't usually bother though. The ramp is very close to the edge and I'm rather protective of my knuckles... and Liggy could only go down and not up, as she's on my left and the ramp touches the wall on one side. But if I really needed it, Neil could shuffle it around a bit and it would do its job.

Perception

I'll be honest, the only place where I feel really equal in terms of perception is at work... well, and at home. Home should be a given though. At work, people just treat me exactly the same as everyone else. They expect equal standards from me. That was the same in my previous job too. It's sometimes harder to get the right job as a wheelie, but once in, the chair makes no difference at all.

Out and about, shopping, eating out, etc. I usually feel equal. Sometimes people will give the impression that I'm less until they talk to me or get up close but then they realise I'm okay. It's just my legs aren't so good. The exception is when my tremor is bad. Then sometimes people think I'm drunk or terribly nervous. That doesn't make me feel very equal but I can understand it. If they hang around long enough or if they ask, I'll explain that it's a neurological movement disorder. I sometimes explain it as being Parkinsons in reverse. Essential tremor is when using the limb, Parkinsons when resting... also less harmful, but just as embarrassing.

In church, some people treat me like a normal person. They don't assume I need help with everything or that life must be terribly difficult. Others... I'm not so sure. I still occasionally get people expressing surprise or shock that I actually have a job. I get people assuming that if Neil is not with me, it must be more difficult. I get people assuming that moving around is difficult or slow. I try to be patient but it's frustrating how little they really know me. Again, it's all motivated by love but the message is that I am somehow less of a person.

Space

Space can be connected with access but I don't mean that kind of space. Personal space is important too. This is where I admit, I'm not equal. I take up more space than a non-wheelie without a dog. Wherever I go, I take up more space. If I go out for dinner, I need two spaces - enough for a wide chair and Liggy's bed. In church, I need enough space to sit comfortably but also space to move... to go to the loo... to get a coffee, etc.

Personal space includes what is going on around my head and face level. If a group of people are chatting, they don't tend to stick their elbows up in front of other people's faces. They don't put their bags in faces and they generally don't lean on each other, as though free standing is just too tricky. Yet when I'm in a group, having a chat, I am often distracted my someone's elbow just inches from my eyes. If they were to turn suddenly, I'd get a black eye. Of course, they'd be all apologetic and it wouldn't be intentional, but that wouldn't help me much. It would be easier if they began with a bit of spacial awareness.

It's the same for Liggy, she has been trodden on twice now, in such a way that she was hurt. Both times were in church (different churches) and both times by people who were just oblivious to their surroundings. Maybe that's why I like a lot of personal space, especially in church!

Leaning on my chair is something that makes me feel quite sick. The movement it produces causes pain in my back and makes me feel seasick. Plus, it's widely acknowledged as being extremely rude. It doesn't happen a lot now, as I don't have handles on my chair but still some people seem unaware that they are even doing it. The only people who are really close enough to be touching are my close family and best friends. Neil - fine. Josh/Andy - fine. My mum - fine. Pretty much anyone else - not fine.

I'm not equal but I don't want to feel like less

I don't like it when a situation or a person makes me feel like I'm less of a person or have less rights to exist than others. However, I acknowledge, there are situations when we're not equal:
  • I can travel more quickly than you (unless you are a jogger/runner/cyclist) so if you hear me behind you, you might want to move over and let me overtake.
  • My upper body is much stronger than that of the average middle-aged woman (so don't give me cause to sock you one!)
  • You need a degree in civil engineering to take my chair to pieces and reassemble it. I have this skill. You probably don't. Don't feel bad about that. You can probably do deckchairs. I never mastered them. 
  • I have awesome problem solving skills. That's because society makes me practise them every day. So don't expect me to be easily defeated.

Saturday, 20 July 2019

Words, names and labels

I should start this post by confessing that I don't have a set of thoughts with a conclusion yet. This is just a topic that has been raised recently at work, in the news and as I have pondered life.

Words


A blackboard with "Words have power" written in large letters.


There are almost as many sayings out there as there are words. There seems to be universal acceptance that words are powerful. The words we use have impact. They can change lives and situations for good or bad.

I think most religious texts have some reference to the power of words. The Bible has much to say about the power of the tongue. It compares it to a forest, set on fire by a small spark. Just one word can trigger a powerful reaction.

I also found a Korean proverb, "Words have no wings but they can fly a thousand miles." I guess that was written before the Internet made it explicitly true.

Names


Photo of a pair of chopsticks with three pebbles

Say it with me. We all know the rhyme.

Sticks and stones
May break my bones
But words will never hurt me.

I'd like to use a rude word here (or several) but I'll exercise a modicum of self-control. But really? What a load of rubbish!

In days gone by, and even today in some cultures, names are very important. Babies are given a name that means something and is an indication of what their parents are hoping and praying for. I have a friend in Finland who had a baby and the name they gave him means 'king'. This is not a child who should grow up feeling insignificant! When I was at school, I had a friend called Helen. We looked up what our names meant in a book and it said Helen meant 'horse'. I hope she found out one day that the Greek meaning is really 'shining light'. My name means 'overcomer'. I wonder whether I was given it prophetically or whether actually, we subconsciously become what we are called.

When I was a child, somebody gave me a nickname. They called me it most of the time. I had no idea what it meant but something should have warned me that it wasn't kind. One day, I did something really stupid! I asked them what it meant and why they kept calling me it. Their reply caused more damage than any physical injury could ever do. Their words hung over me like a dark cloud for years and years. Even now, on my darkest days, those words come back and I have to fight their power and not allow them to destroy me. Names last... maybe forever.

Labels

This is where work came in. I was doing a piece of work and half way through, a particular phrase (not one I devised) was changed. Unfortunately, this phrase came up about a million times throughout the piece and even 'find and replace' wasn't great at finding them all. I could see the importance of the change of wording but it kind of niggled me a bit too. Obviously, I can't tell you what it was, or I'd have to kill you (and that might be quite a lot of killing) which would make me a murderer. Well actually, no... it would make me a person who has committed murder.

This is the idea behind labelling theory. There is a difference between a murderer and a person who has committed murder. The first labels the person, as though their action is part of who they are. The latter sees them as a person first, and thus (love that word) allows them to change their choices and desist from committing further murders.

Okay murder is quite strong. Let's scale it back to children. I do some work with Care for the Family. They very much promote the idea, in parenting, that you criticise the behaviour, not the child. So, 'that was a naughty thing to do', rather than 'you are so naughty!' Pointing out that the behaviour was wrong is more constructive than labelling the child as naughty. Because if I'm naughty, I should probably focus my energy on doing more naughty things.

I have a lot of thoughts swimming around my head on this. Going beyond the child example and thinking about crimes and big stuff, there is every reason to avoid labelling a person, and giving them the freedom to change their life choices... but what about the victims? If my child was killed by a drunk driver by a person who was driving whilst under the influence of alcohol, then calling them by a label might validate my pain more. It might make me feel like my child mattered more. I might not care too much about whether the person felt labelled or what their future life may become. After all, my child's life didn't matter that much to them! (No.... it's just an example! My kids are fine!)

Labelling isn't good or helpful but sometimes I want to label. Hmmm!

Language used to describe disability

Let's switch to disability-related language. It's quite fashionable, at the moment, to use person-first language. So we talk about a person living with dementia, rather than a dementia sufferer, etc.

Am I a disabled person or a person with a disability? Am I a wheelchair user or a person who uses a wheelchair?

Honestly, I don't really care. I am a disabled person. I am a wheelchair user. The labelling theory above, is about the ability to change... to not be defined by a label. Depending on how you interpret words like disabled, I don't think it applies in the same way. Short of a miracle, my situation is not likely to change. The label doesn't make me disabled. It's just a description.

My bigger issue is what people hear, see, think, etc when they encounter disability. Do they interpret disability as:

  • weakness?
  • fragility?
  • incompetence?
  • dependence?
  • defeat?
Or do they see:
  • resilience?
  • problem-solving?
  • creativity?
  • determination?
  • patience?
  • tolerance?
  • persistence?
I was thinking about the difference between those who have known me since before my injury and those who have only ever known the disabled me. These two groups of people treat me (on the whole) very differently. My family and old friends never treat me as some fragile person who needs to be protected and looked after. They don't assume that I am incapable of doing things. They don't talk to me as though I might break. They laugh at me, do banter, challenge me, expect the best of me and, when I'm having a bad day, they encourage me to do something positive rather than sympathising with my inevitable demise.

Sure, there are things I can't do. Steps are always going to be a serious challenge! Obstacles and narrow doorways, aisles and the like are often a stopping point but really?!! In this generation, that is something that needs changing, not accepting! Heat, hunger and tiredness... well they were my nemesis long before I injured my spine. 

Don't call me...

This is a highly personal list, and different for all, but don't use the following words to describe me:
  • handicapped (unless you are referring to my lack of golfing prowess)
  • wheelchair-bound
  • crippled (though 'crip' might be okay for extremely close family/friends)
  • severely disabled - get real! I struggle to stand, walk and pee, and my hands shake but there are worse things. I've told you a million times not to exaggerate!