Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Wheelchairs: a quick guide for restaurants and town planners

Having a wheelchair user in my family has allowed me to see what it's like to be pushed around London and how restaurants can make life very easy or a complete nightmare with very little effort

London is now one of the best European cities for wheelchair accessibility. This is good news for the pram brigade and probably helps bicycles in some weird way too

But there is one thing that really makes a difference for wheelchair users (and their pushers) and it's all about customer service.

* Please note I refer to 'pusher' rather than 'carer' as my Mum usually explodes with laughter when I am referred to as a 'carer'. References to pushers and users should be taken in the right context

A little insight is probably helpful here.

Pushing someone in a wheelchair is HARD WORK.
Being in a wheelchair is NOT PLEASANT, especially for people who have been able bodied for most of their lives and don't enjoy having to rely on others.

So here are some tips...

DO talk to people in wheelchairs. They generally still possess the power of speech
DO make space for wheelchairs. Otherwise it will hurt when I hit your ankles
DO help people in wheelchairs and ask if they need anything. They (and the pusher) will appreciate it

DON'T BLOCK THEIR VIEW. You can stand behind a wheelchair and still see perfectly well so give them some space - particularly at events/exhibitions
THINK AHEAD. If you can save a wheelchair an extra trip, the pusher and the user will be extremely grateful. e.g. if you can get something done with a quick phone call, then don't insist on sending the wheelchair user/pusher up four floors
MAKE TIME for wheelchair users. Yes, they will take 10 seconds longer to seat but it's very hard to hurry when you can't control parts of your body.

For anyone reading who can influence town planning and building regulations, please note that there are a few key areas that still need improvement...

1) Cobbles
Yes, London has many cobbled streets. You won't notice until you cycle or wheel someone over them and then you really notice them. They are very nice to look at but hard work and painful for wheelchair users. Is there any chance of a discreet wheelchair/cycle/pram lane?

2) Drobbed kerbs
I have been known to wheel my Mum along the streets around the Strand and Regent St/Piccadilly because we couldn't find a dropped kerb to get her back on to the pavement. The taxis were very scared as we were going faster than them but it's not ideal.

3) Wheelchair ramps/access
Let's face it, if there are steep steps into your venue, a ramp is probably not a good idea as 90 degree ascents are not simple for a wheelchair to cope with. Take note COTE Covent Garden (whose staff were actually brilliant and physically lifted my Mum plus chair up said steps)
Equally, telling a wheelchair user that the access point is another trek around the back of the building isn't exactly the most motivating. AXIS @ Number One Aldwych.
And directing wheelchairs up a ramp into a very crowded cafe with not quite wide enough doors and multiple hurdles isn't very helpful either TOM's KITCHEN.
How can any of the above be acceptable means of access?

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