Holiday Travel Blues

I am writing this during a break in packing for the first holiday my wife and I have booked in over three years, as I need to take my mind of the increasing panic I am feeling. Writing it down makes it more real and not seem so crazy. You see one of the driving reasons why it has been so long since we last traveled to foreign climes is my dislike of traveling abroad. But this is not a phobia, not but is instead based in the litany of cock ups, disasters, mistakes and down right discrimination I have faced during the 25 years I have been trying to see the world. In fact one of the things that always amazes me when I read any foreign travel story written by a disabled traveler is that they hardly ever experience any major problems. Every time I have gone abroad something has happen worthy of an entire book, or a comic farce at the least.

It began with my first trip away to Ibiza in 1988, at the tender age of 23, with my great mate Trevor Beasley. I should have known the omens were bad when I was dropped by the ground staff who carried me onto the plane. Not only dropped, but dropped onto my spine – the root of my impairment. So to say it hurt was a considerable understatement! That was soon forgotten as we did the decent thing for two young guys on a lads holiday and got very drunk on the flight. We arrived at the hotel only to find that the room that we had been promised would be OK for my wheelchair had a minor issue… I couldn’t get through the bathroom door. The solution? We removed the door. So this meant that Trev and me got better acquainted the we would have preferred, but the holiday could proceed. After three days of sun, sea and failing to find sex, on the way back to the hotel after another boozy night, there was a terrible crunching sound and my chair broke in half. IN HALF! We fought our way back to and I then spent four days stuck in our room, having food brought up to me by the mate of which ever girl Trev was trying to chat up. Finally Trev found a garage run by a guy from Scotland, which allowed Trev to describe what was wrong with the chair in English, and he bravely carried the broken scrap metal to a nearby town in the boiling mid day sun to be repaired. (yes he never tires of telling me how tough it was, even to this day) It returned welded solid, and so was possibly the first rigid frame chair ever. All of this had taken the shine off the break, so we decided to stick to attending a nearby punk bar for the rest of the holiday in case of any more “incidents”. When it came time to leave, I sat on the place filled with feeling of happiness. I was going home and so nothing else could happen. Until I saw the baggage handlers jumping on my welded open chair in a futile attempt to close it. On arrival home I found both wheels were buckled and had to spend ages stuck on house arrest waiting for a replacement chair to come.

Mik Scarlet & Trevor Beesley Ibiza

80’s Sunshine Boys

What is most amazing is that this is not a one off. Everything that happened on that holiday has been repeated in some form or other on almost every other time I traveled abroad. Not only for a holiday, but for work too. I once went to New York to film a travel program for the BBC. Not only was I a wheelchair user, but so was the director. When we landed at JFK all hell broke loose. The ground staff refused to help either of us off the plane. While I eventually decided to crawl the length of the plane and down the steps to the ground, my director could not as she used a powerchair and just could not crawl. So now we have a plane that needs to be turned around with a cripple stuck on it. After an age, getting near to an hour, the panic became fever pitch and the poor director was manhandled off the plane by cabin staff, mixed film crew and anyone else nearby. Even after we got off, this major world city was not all wheelchair heaven. The freakiest thing was the wheelchair accessible cab we hired to drive us around for the period we were filming there. The driver smoked super strength weed all day and night, freaked out at regular occasions and drove off without us twice. And of course my chair broke and I pulled a muscle when I got thrown out of my chair by a massive pothole in a road I was crossing (note New York has great pavements but the roads are appalling!). I won’t bore you with my long list of other reasons why it was a disaster because I disliked the city so much I fear it might have coloured my view.

Mik Scarlet on the Hudson river NYC

Mik Does The Big Apple

But my most recent trip away really put my off flying, almost for good. After a fairly successful trip to Cyprus, with only a minor wheelchair repair incident, my wife and I arrived at the airport with a feeling that maybe our travel jinx had been broken. As well as ourselves there was a other nice couple waiting to be loaded onto the flight, with the wife being the wheelchair user in this love match. We queued to get on the plane, but instead of being let on first as usual, we were made to wait until the very end. I got onto the plane only to see that the seats at the very front, usually reserved for disabled people, were filled with people who had paid for early boarding. When I asked if anyone would move, they all firmly said no. Luckily someone on row three said they would, and I fought my way to this seat. I should say that I now no longer allow anyone to carry or assist me when getting on or off planes, after way too many disasters, so I manhandled myself to this seat. The other wheelchair user was not so lucky. She needed a much greater level of assistance, and it was obvious to anyone who cared to look that she really needed to be sat at the front of the plane. But still none of the people who had paid six whole pounds for early boarding would move, especially the only person in the six seats who was traveling alone. He was quite insistent that he had paid for the seat so he was staying in the seat. Instead this poor woman had to be carried down the aisle of the plane way back to seats sixteen or seventeen rows back. By the time she arrived at her seat, her blouse was over her head, her skirt was round her ankles and she was screaming in discomfort. On arrival home we were met by the UK ground crew who were stunned to find the seats we had been put it, if for no other reason that it made their jobs harder. We swopped numbers with the couple as we wanted them to claim against the airline but heard no more.

As I said earlier if I tried to list everything that has ever happen when traveling abroad this would be one of the longest articles in history, there have been so many. A humdinger was when we arrived at a hotel and got our keys to our room on the forth floor, but when we asked “where’s the lift” were met with the answer “What lift?”, or the time we tried a package holiday from a supposedly accessible holiday company only to arrive at the hotel to be told they don’t have any accessible rooms. We ended up being moved to another hotel to a room that meant I couldn’t wash for week as there was no accessible bath or shower. The list is endless.

But don’t let this put you off traveling if you are disabled. What you need to do is plan. Plan for every eventuality. This time away I am taking a full puncture repair kit, plus we know the Spanish for bike pump, a mini tool kit, every type of pills and potion I might ever need and a full knowledge of both local and international equality and airline law. To me foreign travel is not super fun, but more a test of endurance. But us disabled people do like to prove we can do something, and the harder it appears to be the more some of us like to it. All I will say is next time you read one of those “Here’s a list of amazing fun things I did when I visited…” articles they may have left out some the less fun events out of the story as not to terrify you. I mean who wants to read a travel article that just goes “ARGH, it was awful!”?

Anyway, back to the packing. Do they allow welding gear on flights nowadays?

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Too Close For Comfort

So the Olympics opening ceremonies are now a year away, with the Paralympics following 44 days after. Whatever my feelings on the event now, when the bid for the games was announced I was overjoyed. In fact I volunteered to help the bid team by demonstrating how the games would help make London more accessible for disabled people. You see I regularly holiday in Barcelona and have seen how much the Olympics improved that city. It was especially amazing as Barcelona is a city filled with historic buildings. Not only did it have an effect during the work around the games but it has influenced how the city has developed ever since. Every time I go back it has got better, and it is a credit to the city and it’s government.

Which is why I feel so let down by London’s bid. I really believed what I was told. That by bringing the games to London it would be the catalyst to a massive move forward in the city’s accessibility. Yet with only 365 days to go before the games and 409 days before the Paralympic opening ceremonies where do we stand… or sit? Sure things have got a little better but how much of that is due to the games? Has our public transport system been up graded to ensure that disabled people can attend the games? Have the tourist attractions of our capital been made inclusive? Do we have the capacity in our hotels for the predicted numbers of disabled visitors during the games? Can we all say that London is now a world class city when it comes to access and inclusion?

Sadly the answer to those questions is not a resounding YES. The tube has no chance of being accessible in time and the buses still only have one space for a wheelchair (unless a Mum has decided that her push chair needs that space). The DLR was already pretty accessible, but unless you live in East London getting to the line is a nightmare. Black cabs are accessible, but they are not allowed into the Olympic site so there’ll be no door to door journeys there either. As for driving to the games, forget it. While many more visitor attractions are accessible now, that is not really due to the games. Regarding the hotels situation, it is well documented that we will fall massively short. So with such a short time to go it looks like London will not have seen the major improvements that were promised.

Yes, East London and the Olympic site especially will be state of the art, but if the games are to be the London games I think we all expected the whole city to feel an effect. Not only for those of us who live, work or visit London from inside the UK, but for all of those people coming here from abroad. I know that I got involved as I really thought everyone involved in the games would want to make London a shining example of how a city can be made inclusive to the rest of the world. Instead, unless we see a huge rush of works in the next year, London will be a major let down to many of the people who travel here.

I know that in my area, Camden, there has been almost no change at all. In fact in some places things have got worse. Bars and shops have become harder to use, and there has been almost no drive from the games organisers to help the businesses and councils in London to improve their access. Instead the organisers are advising disabled athletes that places like Camden, with it’s poor access, should be avoided in case they injure themselves before their event. How sad is that?

To me the saddest thing is that there has been no outcry from the UK’s Paralympic athletes about the lack of improvement. Sure sport is selfish at it’s heart, and athletes at such a high level must focus mainly on their training, but I have heard no mention from any of them around how little is being done on the issue of access. I do hear that merely seeing so many disabled people excelling in sport will change opinions towards disability, and I am sure it will, but this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to make real physical change to our capital and it is slipping through our fingers. Mouthy gits like me do not have the profile to raise the issue, but these athletes do.

So come on Team GB. Stop working so hard going for gold, just for a minute, and give a thought to what real legacy for all disabled people the games could leave. Look at how little has been done, how little time we have left and make some noise. Trust me, if you do every disabled person in the land will be cheering you on in a way you could only dream of. If you do raise the issue you’ll be doing more for disabled people than winning a gold medal ever could, and long after the games have gone you will be able to look at the London left behind and feel a sense of pride second to none. You’ll be a real winner. As will we all.

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