Planes, trains and automobiles

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I discovered the other day that it’s physically possible to fly in my condition. I don’t yet know if it’s practical, but it’s something airlines can do. Apparently when a wheelchair user can’t transfer from their chair by standing or walking there are two options, depending on the airport. 1/ Some airports have hoists that take you from outside the plane to your seat. 2/ Some airports use a few people to physically lift you from your wheelchair to your seat. No extra cakes before your flight then eh? Of course, in my case that doesn’t answer the problems of what happens if I am in a collapse at the point of transfer. I can’t be hoisted when I’m like a rag doll. Or whether I could sit in an airline seat, would it be supportive enough when tilted? I could certainly take a pressure cushion and my neck brace. First class would work, but prices are crazy. I won’t give you the nitty gritty, but as I can’t access a toilet on the flight, I do have a way to cover that, external catheters etc. Planes then, while very tricky might be possible. I have never tried it, but they obviously aim to make themselves accessible for people in my situation. Interesting as I had assumed the only way to fly would be on a stretcher by purchasing several seats and therefore well beyond my means.

I have tried the train a few times. It’s an interesting experience. With train travel, if you want the easiest trip you need to book assistance at least 24 hours ahead. Then you are told to arrive 20 minutes before your train. On a cold day, if there is no waiting room that is a nuisance. The reason is so that the station staff can get ramps ready and plan where you need to be. I have only travelled between Taunton and Dawlish, with the occasional enforced stop at Exeter St David’s due to bad weather. Taunton is a great station, large lifts and plenty of helpful staff. Exeter St David’s is similar. Dawlish is a 2-platform station, the staff are great but not always there, so you can only travel at certain times if travelling to Dawlish. Taunton to Dawlish gets you in on the seaward side platform, the only way off that platform via wheelchair is across the railway line, via locked gates. You must be escorted by railway staff. It’s a busy line and we have had to wait 10 minutes to cross at times. As Dawlish is right next to the sea, it’s vulnerable to high waves. When high waves crash over the line they don’t allow wheelchair users to cross the line. Something about not wanting them to surf their way across. Therefore, the rail company lays on a free taxi from Exeter for any wheelchair users. When the line was damaged in the storm and a replacement bus service ran from Taunton, they laid on a taxi from Taunton for me.

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Dawlish train station in distance by the sea

One time we were on our way to respite at the RCH convalescence hotel in Dawlish and had a train booked. A storm hit before we travelled and we got a phone call from GWR to say we would be taken off the train at Exeter and taken by taxi to Dawlish. We arrived at Exeter and waited to be taken off the train. No one came, but the train stayed in the station. Eventually a rather hassled looking couple of train assistants arrived. Apparently the person who booked our assistance on the phone had put the wrong carriage on the station system. Then just to add to the confusion, they found in that carriage an elderly lady with mobility issues who was going to Dawlish. So when they had asked about who was needing assistance she was taken to be the one in need. They got her off the train into the cold and wet. It took a few minutes before someone realised it was meant to be a wheelchair user they were assisting. They got her back on and came in search of me. The train was held up about 15 minutes.

Our problems were not over there. Outside the station we were taken to our taxi waiting in the pouring rain and icy cold. It was too small for my wheelchair even though I had told the guy on the phone I needed a big taxi. The driver tried to load my chair 3 times all while leaving our luggage in the rain. I have to hand it to GWR, they stayed with us and when the taxi failed they took us to a warm place, ordered a bigger taxi and made sure it took us all the way to our hotel, no extra cost. They rescued a difficult situation, even though they had caused it.

The lady who had been removed from the train was staying at our hotel and unfortunately caught a cold later in the week. Many people on the train were staying in our hotel and had wondered about the delay.

Trains themselves are improving. In the past they used to lay a metal ramp onto the step of the carriage for the wheelchair to travel up and down. I guess some must have fallen off, which is no surprise to me. As I never felt safe on those old ramps. I used to watch them lay them on the step and make sure they were well in place before I moved. The new trains have a brand new and rather slow system. The automatic doors are locked, a plate is flipped out and the ramp clips into two holes. Therefore, it cannot slip. I watch the process equally carefully to make sure they engage the toggles in the holes. The ramps themselves are not very wide, neither are the doors. But the new trains are massively better than the old. On the older trains I could not always get into the wheelchair space, I sometimes had to stay in the corridor. The alleyways were also very tight to turn in. On the new trains everywhere is wider and easier to access. On some of them I have actually been able to access the toilet.

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On a train in First Class (Upgraded as second class off platform)

One extra bit of fun with trains is platform length. For some reason they always put disabled carriages at the end, normally one in first class at one end and one in second at the other. Dawlish station can take a 9-carriage train on the seaward side and an 8-carriage train on the other. So, when we are travelling home, and the train is 9 carriage it depends which end has first or second class disabled as to which class we are put into by the booking service. If they get it wrong, or the dispatch change it, we get moved. We have often travelled first class with a second-class ticket. I guess there have to be some pleasant aspects of disability. I had never travelled first class before, but I do enjoy it now. The snacks, drinks and sandwiches all being free is a great bonus.

Motor vehicles have to be specially adapted for my wheelchair. Vans need a lift or ramps, plus clamping points and cars or taxis need a ramp and anchor points. My wheelchair is so long and high that not every taxi can fit it. It’s a bit of an art being anchored into a taxi. They attach long seat belts to my front anchor points, then I drive the wheelchair in as far as I can just before my footplates make contact with the seats in front of me. To make these lock I should really go back a bit, but my chair is to big for that, so they stay a little loose. Which means the front of my chair can lift about 2-3” on a big bump. It feels a bit hairy. The driver then locks the rear two anchor points of my chair with ratchet clamps. This prevents it moving at the back. If the vehicle crashed, I would not be able to move forward. He also presses a switch to lock the two front seat belt that have retracted as I drove in. I have a car grade seat belt in my wheelchair, but they also add an extra one.

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My view in a taxi

Vans vary a lot in how they latch my wheelchair in. In some I have room to recline fully before being latched in. We discovered that the front latching points are on the moving part of the tilting mechanism, so I need to tilt it before they connect the straps or I pull them out of the floor. Vans are very bouncy and a problem I find is being in a collapse while in a van my arms can hang down very uncomfortably. Mary therefore sits next to my wheelchair so that she can hold my arms if necessary. If I set everything up right ahead of time, tighten my shoulder straps, remove my head pillows and have my neck brace on, them my neck stays on the head rest. But once I had my shoulder straps too loose and my head bounced off the neck rest and was hanging by the side of the neck rest. Mary couldn’t reach and we were on a dual carriageway. The driver pulled off at the next exit to rescue me. I still had a very sore neck for a few days. I have mentioned before that exiting a van or minibus involves a big trust exercise on my part. I am not able to see backward, so whether I drive the wheelchair under guidance or whether it is driven I have to trust the person in control. Remember the ramp I reverse down is only a few inches wider than my wheelchair and the ridges at its side are not sufficient to prevent my wheelchair driving over it. I much prefer vans with lifts.

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View from my wheelchair in the Slinky accessible transport bus

One thing makes me laugh every time I am loaded in a minibus. The rules of most minibuses say the driver or an assistant has to guide or push the chair up the ramp and back down. This rule ignores power wheelchairs. Modern ones do not have a motor disengage, or at least not fully. Even if they did, my chair with me in it weighs 250kg, that’s a quarter of a metric tonne. Good luck pushing that up a ramp unaided, even better luck preventing it falling. The most ridiculous sight was one respite centre that had a young girl of 17 who was instructed to stand behind the chair to stop it falling. I pointed out, if it fell she would just be crushed. I don’t understand the logic of some places.

Buses are a complete non starter for me. I tried one out once. But the space allowed is too small for my type of wheelchair and the turning space too tight. It has put me off trying again. Coach companies say they cannot accommodate my wheelchair.

I am always glad train companies are so helpful and that we can travel in taxis and accessible vans.

Apparently there are hoists available that can be fitted to ordinary cars, but they cost £3000 and are fitted to one car at a time. My wheelchair would be far to big and heavy to transport even if my friends or family had such a hoist, which they don’t.

Travel is a much bigger adventure when your mobility is limited.

Waiting at a train station

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