Guest blog from TV presenter and campaigner, Sophie Morgan.
Earlier this year, I flew to Italy with an organisation called Disability Snowport UK. The plan was for us all to meet at Gatwick airport a few hours ahead of check in time so we would avoid any unnecessary and often unavoidable dramas that could arise when flying with so many different access requirements and special needs.
I arrived at the terminal on time and quickly spotted the group who were huddled by a cafe chatting; given that there were six wheelchair users on the trip it was hard to miss us! I wheeled over and introduced myself to everyone, before turning to go and buy a cup of tea.
“Morning love”, said the chirpy girl who took my order. “Where are you lot off to then?”
“We’re going to Italy,” I explained. “To learn to ski.”
She paused as she poured the hot water, “ahh, isn’t that nice!” She smiled down at me. “So great you’re getting out the house.”
I took my tea and returned the group. Six happy, independent, adventurous and fun loving young disabled people all smiled at me as I took my place amongst them but I didn’t smile back; I was angry.
What was it about a group of disabled people being together that brought out the ignorance in people? Why did that lady presume we didn’t get out the house much? Especially when in the past six months I have been getting out the house a lot! Travelling to New Zealand, Australia (three times), Cambodia, Malaysia, Morocco, Scotland and France to name a few! In fact, I had probably been to Gatwick nearly as many times as she has working there! So why did I suddenly feel I was no longer an individual, I was just a stereotype?
The reason I tell this story is because it is not uncommon and it is certainly not acceptable. Whether I travel by plane, train or automobile, it seems there invariably always comes a point when a problem with either attitude or access arises.
The more I travel – and I am actually writing this from seat 44D on Cathay Pacific flight from Hong Kong to London – the more I am noticing that it is often the attitudinal barriers that are making me feel more restricted, not just the physical ones.
So, where do we start?
One of the major inhibitors of change in the UK of course is money. The disability policies of these travel companies don’t seem to think we are worth adapting for, we aren’t valued enough. And it’s this word that I think is key. What is our value?
Instead of airlines, train companies and taxi firms thinking of meeting our needs purely from a corporate responsibility perspective, being morally and politically correct, what if they thought of our demographic’s spending power, or so-called Purple Pound, which is an estimated £80 billion. Yes, eighty. Billion. If they built it, we would come!
We have to show the travel industries that a change in their attitude will make a change to our lives. It is up to us to be the change we want to see!
On that note, I want to recommend a few things which have helped me over the past decade of traveling as a disabled person.
Get advice. Thankfully websites like Euan’s Guide (which Professor Stephen Hawking endorses) and the brilliant Blue Badge Style offer some invaluable advice, and there are always people online to ask for tips and pointers like myself and others.
Plan for the worst and hope for the best. I often expect to be treated poorly at airports for example, as then when I’m not, it’s a bonus! I was once poked in the legs continuously by a group of curious Indian security women because they didn’t believe I was paralysed, accordingly I missed my flight. I also had to be fireman’s lifted onto a flight in Nairobi once as there was no ambi-lift.
Don’t settle for anything less. I really think this is where we can make waves. We MUST complain, speak up or express ourselves when we have experienced discrimination. Be it to your local taxi firm, council, MP, media outlet or friend, if we don’t talk about the problems we are all facing on a day to day basis then nothing will be done. The Equality Advisory and Support Service (EASS) will also advise you on your rights via their helpline: 0808 800 0082
The world is yours. Everyone has the right to travel, to see the world and follow their hearts, and where there is a will there is a way, or as my mum says, ‘where there is a wheel there is a way!’ Please don’t let fear get in the way; all of these horror stories can be overcome with enough planning, guidance and a good sense of humour.
And if anyone ever needs any advice or just someone to rant to please get in touch via my website . I would love to help if I can, that is of course if I’m not too busy yelling at a poor unsuspecting taxi man or confused looking air stewardess about my rights!
Happy travels and good luck.
Sophie shares some of her experiences in our End The Awkward films.