A Wheely Accessible Gondola

In November 2017, as part of my 2nd European road trip, I found myself in Venice.  Not completely by chance – I had plans.

A couple of years prior I had seen a video showing how Martyn Sibley was able to take a gondola ride in Venice seated in his wheelchair.  I love boat trips so naturally I had to have a go.

The drive to Venice from Monte Carlo had been pleasant and driving into Venice itself means a journey across a bridge which carries roads, railway lines, cycle paths and pedestrian pavements away from the mainland of Italy.

At the other end, actually the entrance to Venice, were armed soldiers and armoured vehicles, which was a little intimidating, but they just waved the traffic through in the direction of a small car park, where I was able to find a space and then found that disabled people paid just 2 Euro and could park all day, whereas everyone else had time limits.  Noting the soldiers nearby I did briefly wonder what would happen if you were to over stay your time…

Exiting the car park I approached the nearest building which was a ticket office for the water bus service, where long queues of people jostled to get through to the boat.  I noted that there was a separate area for wheelchair users to access the boat as well.

Having a look around and watching a few of these water buses go by, along with lots of other types of boat was fascinating.  I was almost tempted to grab a gelato from a nearby shop and sit there for a while but I had a ride of my own pre-booked and didn’t know where the jetty was that I needed.

Finding a map on my phone I located the jetty and made my way over, passing a funeral home whose staff were busy loading a coffin into a hearse, before I arrived at the correct place.  It was obvious which jetty was the right one as it had a lift attached to it, looking like a platform type lift that wheelchair users will have seen and used in various places.  In the water a gondola, beautifully turned out with polished wooden surfaces and glinting brass adornments.

I approached the 2 men on the jetty and explained that I had booked a gondola, asking if either of them were the gondolier.  Disappointingly neither was wearing the stereotypical striped jersey and hat but one chap was indeed the gondolier.  Together they prepared the lift for use, which involved obtaining a wired industrial type remote control and plugging it in.  While one chap operated the controls the other helped position me on the lift and, after being swung out away from the jetty and over the water, I was lowered into the gondola which at first felt a little unnerving, especially on leaving the lift and entering the gondola proper as it was rocking and bobbing about with every movement and felt very unstable.

The gondolier then started positioning me in the boat, explaining that they are built asymmetrical for stability once the gondolier takes his position and starts to propel the boat.  This was something I’d never noticed or heard of before but once mentioned I could discern that the front wasn’t quite straight.

Whilst the gondolier was making everything ready for my trip the gondola was rocking a fair bit and I found myself holding onto the frame of my chair tightly, whilst realising that that wouldn’t be any help if the boat did overturn.

When he was ready we departed the jetty and headed out into the grand canal.  The width, amount of traffic and noise was staggering.  I noticed that as we were in motion the stability of the boat settled down and it felt very secure.  I started to enjoy the ride, taking photos and even a few seconds of video.  Here I was, riding a gondola in Venice!  Quite possibly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  The architecture of the buildings lining the sides of the canal and the light fittings at corners were stunning.

After a while on the grand canal we turned off and into narrower canals with quieter waters, where I spotted and marvelled at bins being emptied by workers on boats and a fire service garage full of red boats.

Even here in the quieter canals there were a good variety of boats, from other gondolas to pleasure cruisers and at one point a power boat, chugging past gently.

I did notice, as we passed under bridges, that a lot of people would turn, looking in our direction and smile, reaching for cameras and phones.  By the same token I was smiling back and taking photos of the bridges.

I had booked an hour-long journey and that hour flew by.  Soon we headed back to the jetty and, after being hauled out of the gondola by the lift, I was back on solid ground and handed over my 160 Euro to the lift operator.  Pricey but worth it.

I headed back to my car and, starting the engine and getting myself together, I reflected on the fact that I had just taken a gondola ride around Venice, which is pretty awesome in itself, and I had done it without having to leave my chair.

I drove away, back over the bridge to the mainland and on, toward my next adventure.

 

 

Experiencing the Caledonian Sleeper

For those that don’t know, the Caledonian Sleeper is one of only 2 sleeper train services still running in the UK, the other being the Night Riviera which goes from London to Penzance.  The Caledonian Sleeper runs services every night except Saturday from various parts of the Scottish highlands and lowlands to London (and back again), via a few other stopping points.  It had long been a dream of mine to travel on the sleeper and so last year I made that dream a reality.  This was my experience.

After packing clothing, overnight items, my APAP machine and some snacks and drinks I drove from Yorkshire to Fort William, rode the sleeper to London, stayed overnight and visited the British Library before riding the sleeper back to Fort William and then driving back home.

Such a great experience. First the road trip through the highlands, where I used to live and which was stunning. Then arriving at the station to find that the platform staff already had a ramp out for me right next to the accessible cabin (wheelchair user).

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I asked one of the on board staff if they’d mind taking a photo of me by the name of the train and they duly obliged, with a smile and a bit of chatter.  I handed the lass a fiver as a thank you.

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Boarded the train and was shown around the cabin, all the features and the toilet etc by a train manager, toiletries and a food menu laid out on the bunk, all presented nicely and bottles of water in a rack by the window.

Made myself comfortable and had a look around, opened a bottle of water when the train manager came back with a coffee for me and asked if I’d decided on breakfast. I chose the scottish cooked breakfast and coffee and was left alone again, with the train manager advising that if I wanted or needed anything I just had to press the call button as my wheelchair wouldn’t fit down the aisles to get to the lounge or restaurant cars.

Eventually we set off (I’d arrived well early in order to make sure nothing went wrong) and it was a lot of fun being able to watch the highlands slide by outside from my own private room, being able to lay down and watch movies on my laptop whilst travelling. I’d brought a couple of beers with me and drank those before turning in for the night as it got darker.

I didn’t get much sleep – the journey itself was smooth and relatively quiet considering, but there was the odd time where there would be a jolt that woke me, plus I was so excited as this was something I’d wanted to do for years – I was like a kid at Christmas!

Approaching London in the morning I was brought breakfast in my room and there was my only disappointment of the entire experience – I’d expected it would be served on a plate and freshly cooked. What I received was a cardboard box with greasy congealed food inside, most of which I ended up leaving. That was the only disappointment though and I resolved that on my return journey I would opt for the porridge – can’t go far wrong with that.

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I arrived at London and was surprised to see the ramp had been placed at the door before I’d even left my cabin and I was straight out onto the platform where a chap with an electric buggy thing asked me if I needed a hand with my luggage (2 backpacks and my APAP machine).  I snapped a couple of shots of the loco that had pulled the train.

Now to the return journey. Arriving at the station which was eerily almost empty, I promptly fell over backwards in my chair whilst trying to reach for a drink from one of my backpacks and instantly had people helping me up again. The signs announced that the train was delayed but no big deal – I wasn’t in any rush, so I got a pasty from a pasty shop I found (horribly overpriced and hotter than the sun!) and chilled for a bit.

When the train arrived and the staff started boarding I was again shown to my coach where there was a ramp waiting, shown to my cabin and asked if I needed any help which, since I’d already travelled down on the sleeper I didnt. For this journey my cabin had been stocked with more bottled water and the toiletries that first class passengers get (I’d only booked standard class). I assumed that they’d either run out of the standard toiletries (which are nice enough) or that they had been put in my cabin by mistake but either way it was a nice surprise.

Just after departing I was again brought a coffee and the train manager gave the spiel about pressing the call button if I wanted anything. I told him that, although I had ordered and paid for the scottish cooked breakfast, I’d really rather have the porridge and coffee come the morning, which he made a note of.

Again as it got darker I turned in and again I didn’t sleep much – still hyped up that I was once again travelling up the country on a train in my own private cabin with a bed to sleep in. I found it fascinating watching the station staff and train crew re-arranging the train at various points during the night (it splits into 3 somewhere) and I had a chuckle as we departed Leeds station – I could have left the train there and been home not long after.

I was awakened in the morning by the train manager entering the cabin – I’d requested breakfast at 7 and he’d spent some time knocking on the door apparently before opening it himself, I must have been fast asleep. I was presented with my porridge and coffee, which I enjoyed as we rolled across Rannoch Moor – the sun shining on the snow-covered mountain tops and mile after mile of empty moorland, until I spotted a pair of walkers hiking across the scene.

I spent some time outside of my cabin opening the windows in the vestibule and getting some brilliant photos and videos as the train meandered it’s way back towards Fort William. I got speaking to an American woman who had brought her little girl on holiday and decided to ride the sleeper as part of that.

Returning to my cabin I washed and dressed, packed my gear away and made ready to leave.

On arrival at Fort William there was the chap on the platform stood waiting with the ramp, like a soldier on parade I remember thinking. Train stopped and I loaded my baggage on my chair and left the cabin. I asked the chap with the ramp if he would mind grabbing a quick snap of me as I came down the ramp. He obliged with a smile and I gave him a fiver in appreciation.

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Leaving the station entrance I was glad to see my Volvo, still sitting there patiently and fully intact, waiting to take me home.

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Driving back over Rannoch Moor, which I’d gone through on the train not long before, I reflected on what a great experience I’d had and decided I’d have to do it again when the new rolling stock was in use.

 

 

The Fight That Isn’t

Back in March of this year (2016) my driving licence was revoked by the DVLA.  An appeal by me against this decision failed to overturn it.

This immediately prompted questions and comments from various people – work colleagues, family and friends – which I fended off with vague replies.  While vague these replies were also accurate.  My eyesight and cognitive abilities aren’t really up to the task of driving and may never be again, which is upsetting.

This decision in March was another step on a journey that began in July 2015 although really it could be said to have begun around 2012 sometime when I first mentioned that I was having memory problems to my then GP who laughed off the idea.  In July 2015 I approached my current GP and again mentioned my concerns about my memory.

My GP asked some questions and got me to draw a clock face.  I remember this clearly because at the time I felt absolutely ridiculous.  The upshot of this assessment was that I was referred to a memory clinic nearby, something that at the time I wasn’t aware of the existence of.  More tests and assessments were carried out, and for each one I had that ridiculous feeling.  Here I was an intelligent, articulate professional being asked what seemed stupid questions and not always being able to answer them.  I was asked to copy drawings of shapes and write simple sentences.  More clock faces were requested.

I now know these are pretty standard assessments of memory, reasoning and understanding.  I also had an MRI and CT scan of my head.  This whole process took a number of months and during this time I was finding I was struggling more and more with every day tasks both at work and at home, mainly caused by my memory problems but also I was finding that my ability to reason was declining as well as my decision making ability.

In October of 2015 I took a holiday.  Quite an epic road trip across Europe for 2 weeks.  I had an amazing time but in the back of my head was always the idea that this might be the last chance I had to do this – it had always been a dream of mine and now I’ve done it I would dearly love to do more of it but may never get the opportunity again.

I also around the same time started re-doing my BSL level 1 with Sense in Rotherham and in February 2016 managed to pass the last of 3 exams to gain the level 1 qualification, battling against my memory all the way.

Also in February 2016 as a result of all the assessments and scans I was diagnosed with young onset Alzheimer’s disease.  My brain is destroying itself piece by piece.  The rate of progression cannot be known but progress it will, taking more and more of me away as it does so.

This was the reason for my being taken off the road.  I had noticed, right from early stages, that I could set off somewhere and then forget either where I was going or how to get there.  Sometimes both.

I now seem to inhabit a life that I don’t always recognise.  I get confused easily and struggle to carry out simple tasks.  Some days I can cook from scratch a dinner for several people and then others I can’t manage to warm something up for myself.

I rely on habits and routines in order to make sure I remember to do simple things like locking up when I leave home or getting my lunch ready for work, taking my medication etc.  Mostly this works but sometimes it still falls down.  If for some reason I don’t do things in the right order then things are missed.

Part of my every day life is work.  Again my memory issues have a big impact here when I can’t remember how to carry out certain procedures, so look at the knowledge base we have but then another issue kicks in – the one where I struggle to follow sequences of instructions.  It can take me several read-throughs just for one instruction to sink in and sometimes it never does and I have to ask for help from a colleague.

So this is the fight that isn’t.  In the past I’ve fought cancer and won.  Twice.  This isn’t a fight though.  There’s nothing I can fight against, nothing I can win.  This is just going to take and take and take until there’s nothing left.  Some days I already feel like an empty shell, just going through the motions using my routines and habits to get through the day.  And this is still early stages yet.

What’s really scary is that this is just the tip of the iceberg.  I’m going to decline.  I may over time do or say more and more things that don’t seem to make sense to anyone else.  The information I’ve read  tells me that when this happens there will have been a reason that I did or said whatever at the time but that I often won’t be able to remember what that reason was.

For the time being I still have my long term memories.  The old stuff is still there.  But my short term memory is shot to hell.  Even when prompted I can’t always remember recent events and conversations are out more or less as soon as they’ve happened. Learning new things, taking new information on board, is difficult if not impossible.

And it’s so goddamn scary.

 

Review of 2012 and Looking Forward to 2013

January 1st saw the introduction of the new, secure, Blue badge.  On the 5th I appeared on BBC Look North (on behalf of Disabled Motoring UK) talking with Peter Levy about the changes and about enforcement of the scheme.  This involved getting to the studio in Leeds (somewhere I was already familiar with after my appearance on Radio Leeds in 2011).  I was mic’d up in the newsroom and positioned in front of a rack on wheels containing some equipment that looked like mixers, 2 small screens (one showing me and the other showing Peter in another studio) and on top of it all a camera and bright light, which managed to make the most of my shiny forehead!  The technician who had mic’d me up and made me comfortable appears in the clip as a hand in the background pretending to work.

January 8th saw the birth of my youngest Niece Phoebe, who I had in my arms within 30 minutes of her being born.  My memory is not great but I vividly remember that at home we had just sat down to a Sunday tea of chicken, rice and potato wedges when I got a call informing me that there had been complications during her birth and asking if I could get to the hospital.  When I arrived it turned out that Sarah, Phoebe’s Mum, was not well, though I never did find out the details of the problem.

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In other news January saw me meeting Pan Aveyard, bag packing on my Birthday, the news that Mat Fleming was being put in for GCSE Maths 2 years early, Von’s car throwing a wobbly, Joe Fleming ending up in hospital with suspected broken ribs and my friend Liz Ellis speaking on BBC Radio Leeds.  I was also disappointed at not having been selected to be a torchbearer after being nominated and getting through the second round of selection, but found out that a distant cousin of mine (also a wheelchair user) was carrying the torch through Dewsbury which was cool.

February saw me at my first training session for the Olympics.  An orientation session hosted by Lord Coe and Eddie Izzard which was informative and entertaining.  This proved to be a challenge to get to as it was held at Wembley Arena and coincided with some of the worst snow seen in London, making a simple 10 mile journey take around 4 hours.  I was one of the lucky ones who managed to keep my car moving – I encountered rather a lot of BMW’s and Mercedes’ sliding and slithering around and unable to get up the hills, forcing everyone that could keep moving to have to weave among them.

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One of the more positive aspects of that session was that it gave an idea of just exactly how many of us were involved, a chance to speak to some of them and provided a spark of excitement in anticipation of the Olympics.

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February was the month of Grimsby YMCA’s annual Sleep Easy campaign and fundraising project.  I spent a night in Grimsby sleeping on the street with just some cardboard and lots of layers of clothing for comfort.  This was just one night and was incredibly difficult, I think at most I only actually slept for around 15 minutes and it was certainly an eye opener.

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February also saw me start doing admin support in the fundraising office at Cancer Support Bradford and Airedale for 2 days/week.  This had come out of a conversation with my friend Sarah Firth who works there and (hopefully!) allowed the fundraisers and Sarah to be able to spend more time doing what they’re best at and less time doing admin tasks.  This also got me out of the house and interacting with people as well as improving my confidence at the realisation that I could still cope (after some 2/3 years away) with working in an office and be able to problem solve and from time to time even answer IT related questions.  This lasted right up to going away for the Olympics in June and the intention was to return to this after the Olympics, but life took a bit of a twist.

In other news for February, I took Libby to the library for the first time, something she loved and has enjoyed ever since, I attended my first (and last!) ever football match, watching Huddersfield Town get beaten by Sheffield Something on Valentines Day and I met and became friends with my “Brother from another Mother” Mark Winterbourne.

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March came and brought with it fuel shortages and another bag pack for Cancer Support Bradford and Airedale.  At this session I was stationed by an exit of the supermarket with Amber, my friend Sarah Firth’s Daughter and we got talking about MS, what it is and how it happens etc and about the neurological system in general.  Something which Amber took in and later educated her Mum on.  That was deeply impressive to me and was an illustration of how much you can influence a child just by talking to them.

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March was also the month Von passed her 3rd theory driving test which brought her another step closer to getting her license after so many years of being knocked back.

For me March also saw me at Stoke Mandeville stadium spending the weekend handcycling on track and out on the road with the guys and girls from the UK Handcycling Association.  This was a lot of fun but also a lot of hard work.

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In other news for March I managed to spill coffee on my beloved Kindle DX but also managed to strip it down and clean it all out and it survives to this day.  And I learned an important lesson when I failed to display my Blue badge whilst parked in Huddersfield and had to ask Kirklees Council to withdraw a parking ticket, something they agreed to do but weren’t obliged to do.

April was Gadget Show Live in Birmingham with Mat Fleming, this was pretty amazing and gave me a chance to drool over lots of lovely gadgets and then watch a live show featuring some amazing acts like Laserman and Addictive TV.

This was also the month I decided to trial Windows 8 on my laptop and then, shortly after installing it, wondered what I’d done.  I soon got used to it though and quickly grew to like it, despite the oft-complained about “split personality”.

April also saw the inaugural #CostaPosse meet up.  I have some amazing friends – Liz Ellis, Mark and Elaine Winterbourne and Sarah Firth and we decided to get together at Costa Coffee in Greengates, Bradford.  The main link between us all is Cancer but when we’re together we laugh and laugh and laugh.  More details of the #CostaPosse are in my post titled “Special Friends”.

This was a busy month for Libby too when she started Karate, graded to White belt and took part in her first tournament.

In other news I got my shifts for the Olympics and got a scare when Libby collapsed on the kitchen floor in front of me, which saw me panicking and frantically trying to get hold of Von and then calling an Ambulance.

May saw another training session for the Olympics which introduced me to my car, a BMW 320d ED, and also to radio communications and the associated protocols as well as a bit of customer service and road safety.  After these I was then allowed to get behind the wheel and after a bit of familiarisation with the car and navigation system headed out onto the streets of London for assessment with a driving examiner.  Thankfully I passed with full marks for safety and a few pointers such as checking the inside mirror when turning left for cyclists.

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May also saw me say goodbye to my beloved BlackBerry when I upgraded to my HTC One X Android phone, which was a massive leap over the BlackBerry in terms of functionality and ease of use.  This was very kindly set up for me by the ever-knowledgeable Pan Aveyard at his free social media and Android drop-in.

In June Joe Fleming managed to get a job with his first interview after leaving school.  He had printed off several copies of his CV and handed them out at various shops in Dewsbury and got an interview, turned up dressed smartly and got the job.

I battled my fear of heights when I got harnessed up and hooked to a wire to zip slide from the Tyne Bridge in Newcastle.  This was 750 feet from the bridge crossing the river to land on the bank at the other side and was done the day after Bear Grylls had taken the Olympic flame down the same line.  This was in aid of Cancer Support Bradford and Airedale and required my good friend Sarah Firth to firmly tell me I was doing it and had no choice after I got on the parapet of the bridge and then announced I couldn’t do it.  I did do it, am glad I did and will be doing it again.

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June also brought another Olympic training session.  This time it was venue-specific and so I took me to the ExCel centre in London which was to be my base depot for sessions covering depot procedures, vehicle checks, checking in and out of car keys, radios and paperwork and health and safety around the depot.  There was also information around security and access to the depot and I was given a VAP to allow my own car to access the depot and was allocated a parking space.  For the rest of the day we hit the road to familiarise ourselves with the routes we would be using.  I had passengers in my car from the Metro newspaper who were writing a feature about the Transport team and in particular about the 2 disabled drivers based at our depot, being me and Graham Day.

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In other news Libby graded to Yellow belt in Karate and I collected my Olympic uniform.

July was a busy month, beginning with Von managing to fall while ice skating and doing herself some serious damage.  It initially looked as though she might have a spinal injury but a few hours later it turned out she’d broken her scaphoid, a small bone near the thumb.

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The biggest news from July was Von passing her practical driving test, finally!  I was sat by Gatwick airport in London in my Olympic BMW when the message came through and I reckon the scream would probably have been heard in Yorkshire.

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And in July I started my Olympic driving duties.  My first shift, driving that car out of the depot and onto the streets “properly” made me feel proud, though nervous at what to expect.  Those nerves soon turned to boredom though when it transpired that demand for the service had been over-anticipated.  During one shift a bunch of us were sent up from the depot in the basement of ExCel into the main area and allowed to watch some of the sport.  I ended up watching some fencing which was fun.

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After my first shift I headed from London straight to Birmingham where Jodi Picoult and her Daughter Samantha van Leer were doing a talk and book signing of their first co-authored book Between the Lines.  This was the second time I’d met Jodi and being in a lecture theatre the stage was down some steep stairs.  Jodi and Samantha came up to meet me and sign books and Jodi made a nice comment about my Olympic uniform.

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In July Cancer Support Bradford and Airedale held their annual Moonlight Walk event for ladies.  I volunteered to help and acted as “emergency” driver carrying first aider Aimee Vonstra-Edwards.  During this and whilst following the ladies one of them became exhausted and became a passenger.  I was trying to shout encouragement to the rest still taking part.  It was a very successful and enjoyable event and there was a great atmosphere.

Back to the Olympics, The Times newspaper did a feature on 3 of the Games Makers and I was one of them.  This involved an interview with one of their writers and a photoshoot session at Tower Bridge Studio, the first time I’ve had a professional photoshoot and the first time I’ve worn make up!  I was very impressed at the way the photos turned out though.

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In other news Libby made us proud with her SAT results and her acting as Nancy in the school production of Oliver and I confronted a man acting bizarrely on our street, parking his car and watching kids playing then driving round the corner, parking again, putting on a hat to cover his face and walking round the street.  That was also reported to the Police and thankfully he hasn’t appeared again.

August saw me in hospital after going to A&E in lots of pain and being admitted.  Not a great time but made better by visits from family and a surprise visit from the the #CostaPosse Sarah, Mark and Liz, who I understand had some fun of their own trying to find the ward and confusing the nurses.  High point of that stay and what made me laugh through the pain was being told by one of the nurses that I was “well equipped”.

September came and with it a new job, working as an IT contractor at Rotherham Hospital, I just can’t stay away from the places lol.  It was quite possibly very well timed though as I wasn’t in a good place mentally at the time

September also brought 2 thank you letters just days apart.  1 from Cancer Support Bradford and Airedale thanking me for my efforts over the few months I was there and 1 from David Cameron that was a thank you to all the Games Makers for their efforts during the Olympics.

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And being September it was time for the DMUK Awards.  This was a fab and successful event with examples of great things being done by and for disabled people and showcased some wonderful achievements.  I was particularly pleased to be reunited with an old friend – a certain 1932 Argson mobility trike which has been restored by Twisted Mind Custom Motorcycles and also to meet and talk with Sue Marsh who, along with Kaliya Franklin, received the Denny Denly award in recognition of their work on producing the Spartacus report which forced the Government to rethink some of their welfare reforms.  Sue is a lovely lady who was so modest and it was great to meet her.

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In other news, Libby successfully got through another Karate tournament and I was named as the first “champion” of the Great Yorkshire Stair Climb.

October was all about In the Pink.  My awesome friend Sarah who works at Cancer Support Bradford and Airedale had set herself a challenge to wear something Pink every day of October and to have at least 10 photos taken out in public places.  Now at first this might sound easy but when she mentioned about how it made her feel, really self-conscious and nervous, it becomes clear that it wasn’t quite that easy.  Sarah got donations of all sorts of items of clothing in Pink including wigs and even had a Pink car to use for the month.  Could she be any more conspicuous!  Sarah did an amazing job and pulled it off magnificently.

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October also saw my first visit to Top Gear Live, which I loved and the full release of Windows 8 which, after having trialled it, I upgraded to whilst away in a hotel.

In November my friend Pan Aveyard finally managed to jump out of a plane.  This was supposed to have happened in July but the skydive people had to rearrange due to the weather, then it was supposed to be September but I had a job to go to so had to rearrange.  So it finally happened, on a cold but dry and clear day this brave (mad) man went up in a plane, which is bad enough, and then jumped out of it.  Thankfully he made it back to earth safely and in so doing raised lots of cash for Cancer Support Bradford and Airedale.  Respect.

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November held a challenge for me as well in the form of the Great Yorkshire Stairclimb.  This event involved climbing up the stairs inside Yorkshire’s tallest building, Bridgewater Place in Leeds.  There are 522 stairs and I believe I may be the only wheelchair user in the world to have completed such a challenge and am possibly the only wheelchair user ever to have been on the roof of this building.

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In a moment of fun November brought me my first ever taste of race car driving on a track.  Organised by ST Accessible Motorsport and using their race prepared Volvo S60 with 240bhp and which can be quickly adapted to be driven by people with a wide range of disabilities.  This was a huge amount of fun and after telling Von about it it sounds like she’ll be up for a go at a future session.

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November also saw me arranging my big challenge for 2013.  I signed up to take part in the Edinburgh 5K wheelchair race and the day after the Edinburgh marathon.  Then was told by the organisers that I wasn’t allowed to take part in the marathon as they don’t allow wheelchairs in.  There then followed almost a month of discussion while they tried to find a valid excuse for not allowing me to take part.  The details of that are in my post titled “The Challenge is to be Accepted for the Challenge”.

December started with Gadget Show Live @ Christmas at the ExCel centre and it sure was strange seeing it in civilian guise after having been based there during the Olympics.  The exhibition wasn’t as good as at Birmingham and was a lot smaller but the show was fab.

And December entailed getting ready for Christmas.  Decorating the house, wrapping gifts and writing cards.  Catching up with friends and family.

I was also asked by Dilwyn Price to be best man at his wedding to my Mum in May next year which was a shock but in a nice way.

We spent Christmas Day at my Mum’s in Wales which was nice and relaxing and made it more enjoyable than usual.

Looking forward to 2013….

2013 already has a challenge arranged in the form of the Edinburgh wheelchair race and marathon and I will be starting training for that shortly and starting on a diet too.  May is going to be a busy month with my Mum’s wedding on the 4th in Wales, the DMUK AGM in Glasgow on the 18th and the Edinburgh events on the 25th and 26th.

Right On Track – A Day With ST Accessible Motorsport

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On a dark, cold and thoroughly miserable looking November morning I drag myself from my bed to the shower at 4am.  Having freshened up and gotten dressed I have a coffee and some porridge.  Then a coffee.  Then I fill my travel mug with coffee for the road.  Coffee is good.

Loaded up, I hit the road.  One good thing about travelling at this time of morning – the roads are practically empty.  Soon I’m on the M1 southbound with the music up loud, the car smelling of coffee and me feeling a lot less bleary.

At 7:15 I arrive at Rockingham Raceway and, following directions from the security guard, wind my way around the roads within the complex to the paddock where I find the ST Motorsport van and trailer.  The Volvo S60 T5 is being unloaded and taken into the garage.  I park up and make my way into the garage where Steve Collett welcomes me.  Then it hits me that today I am actually going to drive the beast I’ve just seen being unloaded.  I have seen this car several times at shows and events such as Get Going and Motability One Big Days and have wanted to get behind the wheel for several months.  This car is race prepared and adapted with hand controls and the controls can be adapted very quickly to suit drivers with various disabilities.

There’s another chap in the garage named Steve – Steve Tarrant.  He has a motorhome and has stayed overnight at the complex.  He shakes my hand and introduces himself and we have a chat.  Steve is an experienced motorsport marshall, talking to him it is clear that racing is in his blood and his passion for it is such that after losing a leg when an F1 car tore it off at 180mph he fought the authorities to be allowed to continue marshalling and was the first marshall who uses a wheelchair.

Did I mention that I’ve wanted for a while to get behind the wheel of this Volvo?  Before I can take the controls myself I have to be driven round as a passenger for sighting laps and this is the part that has worried me – I am a very nervous passenger having been driving more than half my lifetime and the thought of getting into the passenger seat of a race car while being driven around “Europe’s fastest track” by a racing driver has filled me with dread.  I even ask if it’s necessary and am told it is.

So I transfer into the passenger seat, over the carbon covered spar of the roll cage, and am strapped in nice and tight.  This should be reassuring as it is obvious I’m not going anywhere but it feels claustrophobic.  Our driver for today is Paul Rivett, a driver in the Clio Cup who is currently close to the top of the leaderboard.  This is a little reassuring but I am still nervous.  As he gets in and straps himself in I explain to him how I feel and ask, pathetically, if he can “take it steady” once out on the track.  I am surprised when he agrees and explains that today is a track day, that we’re not going to be racing and can go as fast as I feel comfortable with.  This is a great comfort to me and I relax a fair bit.

Guided out by Steve Collett we leave the garage and enter the pit lane, checking it’s clear before moving out towards the traffic lights and the track.  Approaching the lights the marshall there holds his arm up and points to his wrist.  We raise our arms and show our wristbands, signifying that we are registered as drivers and have attended the drivers briefing.  Satisfied, the marshall waves us past and we accelerate as the pit lane ends and we join the track proper.  The sun has made an appearance and most of the track is bright and dry, with just a couple of damp patches.

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The pit lane joins the track right after turn one, one of the fastest points on the track, and straight away there are cars whizzing past on our right.  This is the only part of the track where overtaking is permitted on the right.  At all other times the rules say to pass on the left and there is no overtaking on bends, only on straights.

Paul’s voice comes in over the intercom as he asks how I am.  I say something in reply, I can’t remember what, and Paul then starts giving a commentary and telling me what to look out for, where to brake, where to turn and where and when to pull the throttle wide open.  Taking a hairpin and finding a patch of water halfway round the car slides a bit and Paul corrects and holds it then tells me to look out for that.  I make a mental note and continue listening.

In what seems like no time my 3 sighting laps are done and my head is spinning trying to remember turns, braking points, turning and acceleration points.  My most dreaded part of the day has been a huge amount of fun and I am disappointed to arrive back at the garage and have to get out.  This is where I had a surprise as I had thought that Paul would take each of the 5 drivers out on their sighting laps and then we would get our turns.  This turns out not to be the case as I am bundled straight round to the driver’s side and strapped in again.  This time I will be in control and again I am slightly nervous, but an excited kind of nervous.

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Once in and helmeted up again and Paul is ready we are again guided out of the garage and I listen intently as Paul give me guidance over the intercom, I check the pit lane carefully.  I am very aware that I am in control of a machine I have never driven before and which someone else has put a lot of time, effort and money into and am entering an area filled with more of the same, including some very exotic machines.  I don’t want to be the one responsible for damaging any of it.

Approaching the marshall near the end of the pit lane we again raise our arms and get the wave.  Paul tells me to go for it and I accelerate out of the pit lane, a check in the mirror and over my shoulder for traffic and I am on the track.  On.  The.  Track.  For the first time.  First impressions – I am impressed by how light the throttle is and how the car responds.  I am also very aware of the other traffic around me.

Lap 1 and Paul is reminding me of the braking and turning points.  I had noticed on the sighting laps how he used the whole width of the track when taking the bends and I start to do the same.  Coming to the hairpin where we slid previously I take it perhaps a touch too fast and the car starts sliding a fair bit.  I steer into it and ease off the gas and once the car has settled down I pull the throttle again and receive a congratulations from Paul for the way I’d held and corrected the slide.  While I hear that I am thinking it was my fault we slid in the first place but there’s no time to dwell on that for we are fast approaching a turn which sits at the crest of a short hill and appears to me to be a left hander but is in fact a right.  I’ve approached ready to turn left and the surprise throws me somewhat.  I make it round and we then enter a series of left handers which Paul wants me to take in one long, smooth movement.  I fail miserably and the car lurches from one to the next.  Straight after this I enter the chicane a little too fast but Paul doesn’t seem to mind.  This then takes me back to the longest and fastest straight.  Paul tells me to open the throttle fully and I pull it a bit more and aim out towards the wall on the far right of the track, then hold position around six feet away for the length of the straight before easing off and moving left slightly for the banked left hand curve which is still mostly in shade and so may be slippery.  At the far side of the banked curve is that hairpin again.  I brake harder than I had on the last lap and make it round without sliding and to a comment of good from Paul.

Several laps in and I’m starting to get a feel for the track.  I now know what I can safely take the hairpins at and that the turn that appears to be a left hander is actually a right hander.  But those left turns, that everyone else seems to be able to take fluidly, still elude me.  I lurch from one to the next, missing the apex of each and getting in the way of everyone else as I repeatedly brake and then accelerate again.  Paul takes matters into his own hands, quite literally.  He tells me that on the next lap he will control the steering and show me how it’s done, and that’s exactly what he does.  Suddenly it all seems much easier and on the next lap I manage to make them all flow into one, long, smooth left hand turn.  I feel like a driving God.  This feeling is short lived as we again approach the long, fast straight and, again, Paul tells me to open the throttle.  Being quite a few laps in by now I am feeling much more confident and have a feel for the car so I open the throttle all the way, the first time I have done this.  I squeal like a little girl as the car snarls, crouches and then launches itself down the straight which suddenly doesn’t seem as long as it had before.  Driving God indeed, Paul is laughing and I can’t stop giggling at the acceleration.

A few more laps and my time is up.  I enter the pit lane on my last lap and slowly pull down past the other garages before pulling into ours.  I switch off the engine and remove my helmet.  Let out a breath and realise I’m still grinning like a Cheshire cat.  Steve is by the door with my chair and as I transfer back out the other guys ask how it was.  Only word that I can think of to do it justice – awesome.

I’ll definitely be booking a slot on another of these days and may be taking along my partner too as I think she would enjoy this experience.

I would like to thank Steve Collett, Paul Rivett and Steve Tarrant for making this possible and for their work and dedication to making motorsport accessible to disabled people.  I wish them every success in the future.

Service Call – A Great Idea

Great Idea – If People Know About It

DMUK Member Dan McIntyre Takes A Look At ServiceCall

ServiceCall is a system which allows disabled people to summon help
when needed, for example when visiting a petrol station.  It was developed and manufactured and is
marketed by Autochair Ltd, a supplier of various motoring-related mobility
products such as wheelchair hoists, person lifts and swivelling car seats.

The system is quite simple and consists of an infrared transmitter
which the user carries in their car.  On
arrival at a petrol station that uses the system the user points their
transmitter at the receiver which is usually mounted in the cashiers area in a
prominent location and presses the Call button.
This activates a beeper and flashing strobe light at the receiver.  The cashier or assistant then comes and
assists you.  This is more discreet than
the usual sounding of a horn or flashing of lights.

At time of writing the transmitter costs £14.95 which includes postage
and packaging and the receiver (which the relevant company pays for and
installs) costs £335 excluding VAT.
ServiceCall can be used at locations other than petrol stations where
assistance might be needed.  I have seen
it installed in banks and chemists, though how much use it gets there I do not
know.

I have been using the system since late 2006 and have had mixed
experiences.  For the most part petrol
station staff are trained quite well and respond quickly and politely when
possible.

One of the more interesting experiences I have had was at the Tesco
supermarket in Batley on a Saturday in 2007.
I had pulled up needing fuel and used the ServiceCall transmitter as
usual.  The receiver had beeped and
flashed and the young lady working inside had looked at it, reset it and
ignored it.  I waited a few minutes
thinking she may have been busy and come out when she could.  After this I used the transmitter again and
again the receiver beeped and flashed, was reset and ignored.  I was now worried that I wouldn’t be able to
get any fuel.

On my third attempt the young lady inside reset the receiver again and
looked out of the window, at which point I flashed my lights and she came out
to the car.

Once I had explained to her what the problem was she apologised and
replied that she hadn’t been told what the beeping was and just kept resetting
it.  When I asked her about filling the
car she replied that she was 16 and didn’t know how to use a petrol pump.

Her colleague in the shop was busy so she was unable to assist.  I was then surprised when a young lad who had
been filling his scooter came over.  He’d
heard what was going on and asked if he could help.  I explained to him I needed petrol and he
very kindly filled my car.  The young
employee had returned back inside by this time so he took my money and went
inside to pay.  As a thank you I also
paid for the fuel he’d put in his scooter – it was the least I could do.

So the system is useful, where people have had training and are able
to actually assist.  To their credit the
above incident was highlighted to Tesco in a letter and they responded by
ensuring all petrol station staff are trained in its use, as well as the use of
petrol pumps.

 

DMUK campaign on behalf of disabled motorists and have a campaign
around the subject of refuelling.  This
centres around 4 main issues:

  • Disabled motorists must be able to receive appropriate assistance
    with refuelling and paying.
  • If there are changes to the way that fuel is supplied, such as
    changes in automation or staffing levels, these must not have a negative
    impact on disabled drivers.
  • Petrol stations should install Servicecall and train their staff to
    use the system properly.
  • Petrol stations must find an acceptable way of taking payment using
    credit cards, for example by installing ‘spark safe’ terminals or accepting
    a signature instead.

An effective campaign relies on as much information as possible being
received from the people affected – disabled motorists and/or passengers who
need to refuel their cars in order to keep their independence.  DMUK have an online survey at http://tiny.cc/petrolstation where you can
submit details of your experiences.

End

ServiceCall
details: http://www.service-call.net/

Address: ServiceCall, Milford Lane, Bakewell, Derbyshire, DE45 1EX

Tel: (01629) 814488 –
or Freephone 0800 458 3008

Fax: (01629) 815470

Email: info@service-call.net

Check Your License – Is It Valid?

In January this year I placed an order for my next
Motability car with my local Peugeot dealer.
A few days after this I received a phone call from the dealer explaining
that the order had been refused by Motability because my license was
invalid.  This was a shock to me as,
having renewed my license in 2009, I had noted that it was valid until 2047.

A quick phone call to the DVLA in Swansea revealed the
problem – driving license holders are now required to update the photos on
their license every 10 years.  The expiry
date of the photo is shown in section 4b on the photocard part of your license.

In order to update the photo a driving license holder needs
to obtain a passport style photo, a D1 driving license application form (which
can be obtained from your local Post Office) and a cheque or postal order for
£20 made payable to DVLA Swansea.  Fill
in the relevant sections on the D1 form (it comes with a guidance leaflet) and
send the form, photo, cheque or postal order and both parts of your current
license to DVLA, Swansea, SA99 1DH.  It
is important to use the right postcode due to the way the mail is sorted at
DVLA.

In my case I sent off my application and new photo and have
now received my updated license.  And my
Peugeot dealer managed to get the car ordered with Motability.

DVLA say that they send reminders to anyone whose current
photo or license is about to expire, but this didn’t happen in my case.  With the onus being on the license holder and
with a £1000 fine if you do not update the photo, it could be worth checking.