A Poet in London? Not if you’re travelling by wheelchair!

A cast iron sign saying "London" with a pointing finger

Building a career as a poet in London is hard enough – doing it while relying on wheelchair accessible public transport is almost impossible

The problem with trying to build a performance poetry career in London is that London is a big city, and early-career you really don’t want to turn down any bookings. This means being willing to travel to all ends of the city for a 5 minute set in an empty room – challenging and dispiriting for anyone, but when you can’t use most of the transport network (and no, I’m not exaggerating), this becomes almost impossible.

When I could still walk, even with crutches, public transport was a pain. I fell on steps to the Underground, had to sit and rest in the long tunnels, or later had to ask people to carry my manual wheelchair while I dragged myself down the staircases. Now that I’m in an electric wheelchair, most of the tube network is closed off to me – and even a number of the ‘accessible’ stations have a gap that is insurmountable. Transport For London design a ‘step-free tube map’ [link] in which you will quickly see that much of London is wiped off.

Out of 270 London Underground stations, about 70 have some degree of wheelchair access. Of those, about half are completely flat access (the other half require a ramp or similar). But wait! Even the stations TFL gives their highest rating for offering flat access could have a step of 5cm and a gap of 8.5cm. Indeed, stations TFL shows on their ‘step free’ map can still have a step of up to 32cm (higher than the long side of an A4 sheet) and a gap of 25cm (almost as long as an A4 sheet). I know no electric wheelchair that could do that safely.

Transport for All [link] have some good resources on their website, but let’s be honest, unless my booking is somewhere very central (rare for an early-career poet), I’m going to be taking a route that takes twice as long as it would someone who could climb steps, and will probably rely on staff remembering to turn up with a ramp in the right place at the right time. This goes wrong about 20%-25% of the time in my experience, leaving me stranded on a train while the doors try and close on my footplates and the person I’m with goes running after a staff member to find the ramp. This delays the train and angers the staff, but it’s my only option if I want to get off!

So, buses. Often my only option. They’re meant to all have ramps, wheelchair spaces, and drivers who will let you use both. However:

  • Drivers don’t like getting the ramp down, it takes time
  • Standing passengers don’t like moving out of the wheelchair space (despite wheelchairs having legal priority in that space)
  • People with buggies really don’t like moving out of the wheelchair space (despite wheelchairs still having legal priority in that space)

This means in practice that I don’t get on about 20-25% of buses I try to get onto either. Sometimes because drivers won’t ask the buggy to move, sometimes because the buggy won’t move, sometimes because the ramp is ‘broken’ (I’ll believe it when I see it), and sometimes because the driver is an arsehole and decides despite acknowledging me and hearing me press the ramp request button on the side, he just wants to pull away anyway.

The reason there’s a wheelchair space on buses is because disabled people chained themselves to buses to demand one [link]. If I hear of a protest from people with buggies, chaining themselves to buses to demand an additional buggy space, I’ll bring them thermos flasks of tea and sandwiches (if I can get there), but until then I’m going to exercise my legal right to travel in the sole wheelchair space.

I’ve had people screaming at me, and accusing me of trying to kill their baby for asking them either to fold their buggy and carry their child or to get off and ask for a transfer token, . I’ve had drivers pull away while my wheelchair remains unsecured in the middle of the gangway. I’ve been shouted at and sworn at for delaying buses. I’ve fled them in tears. Never once has another passenger intervened to help me – people just stay silent and look away.

If I have to get a bus (which I hate doing, but it’s better than relying on someone to remember the ramp when I want to get off the train), like everyone I have to calculate for traffic. On top of that I then have to calculate a route that will get me there on time if I have to miss three buses because of rude drivers, broken ramps and angry people with buggies. If a bus is every 20 minutes, then I have to leave an hour earlier, just in case my legal right to travel is impeded.

Once I get to the venue, I then have to believe the organiser when they say it’s flat access. This often means in practice “flat access as long as you can wheel safely up an Everest-steep ramp”, or “flat access… but not to the stage” or “flat access via a stair-lift with 100kg max weight” (my wheelchair is hundreds of kilos, because it’s quite specialist).

And then… time to perform – by which time I’m exhausted, frazzled and upset. It’s enough to make anyone quit.

If you’re booking disabled performers, think about the extra support we might need. Consider setting up a taxi-fund for us, so that we don’t have to spend our earnings on taxis. Similarly, ask if we’re going to face any other additional costs (e.g. paying aides) and contribute to those if you can. If you’re funded by Arts Council England, then put these costs in from the beginning.

Similarly think about space and equipment. Are you offering BSL translation of the performances (if not, why not)? Does your venue have a hearing loop and do you know how it works? Have you got quiet spaces set aside where appropriate? Do you have an accessible toilet (and is it big enough for two people)? Do you have a Changing Places toilet [link] or do you know where the nearest one is? Do you have audio-description set up? Audio-description can be done by someone sat next to audience members who require it, or can be pre-recorded onto an .mp3 player. Have you asked your performers what access needs we have (and if you have, are you prepared to meet those)?  If your event has no budget whatsoever and you cannot acquire a BSL translator (and you’ve tried very very hard) do you have performance scripts to lend to D/deaf audience-members?

Many disabled people are prevented from earning money because of restrictive benefits regimes, while others are limited to earning a certain amount each week. If your performers tell you they can’t accept money, see if they have any costs associated with performing that you can pay instead – care, taxis, equipment, props…

I’ve been lucky – bookings at the Barbican Centre last year and Invisible Festival earlier this year went smoothly, with the maximum assistance from the organisers, while Crip Casino @ Platform Southwark later this month [link], and the Barbican Centre for my OpenLab week bode well.  Only the Barbican Centre can offer a Changing Places toilet (I’ll write about my need for them soon), but Platform Southwark is near one. At Invisible Festival I had to occupy the entire toilet area, because the single accessible toilet wasn’t big enough for my PAs to change me in – but nobody complained!

While many of the challenges disabled poets face reaching venues are built into London, there’s a lot a good event organiser can do to mitigate those – whether through meeting the extra costs we face or through very precise planning to make sure that everything you can do is being done. When you’re considering diversity amongst your performers – race, gender, sexuality, class etc please also consider booking disabled performers, and for the love of god it’s 2018 – there is no excuse for booking wheelchair inaccessible venues for your event.

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