I was lucky enough to go to the London paralympics yesterday (and see the wonderful win by David Weir in the 5000m wheelchair race) and had an amazing time, very much in part because of the thoughtful attitude shown towards those not as able to get around as most.
The paralympics has received criticism from some disabled people due to an inability for some wheelchair users to sit with all their family at events and for the need to use a premium rate phone line to book accessible tickets. These problems aren't minor and should have been considered and overcome in the seven years of preparation for the 2012 paralympics, but on this occasion I wanted to take the time to congratulate the organisers for also making available some excellent facilities for disabled people.
I have Cystic Fibrosis (CF) and my lungs are now rubbish enough that I struggle to walk any distance at all. The olympic park is the size of 350 football pitches and I'd been worrying for weeks in advance as to how I was to negotiate such impossible distances without my car. But the facilities available made what would have been a very stressful, exhausting and likely impossible day, AMAZING!!
The moment we walked off the tube at Stratford there was a sign pointing towards a side exit very close by that had minivans available for those with mobility problems to take them into the park itself. Both my husband and Mum were welcomed to accompany me on board even though they don't have any health problems. The vans also accommodated all types of wheelchairs enabling them to be safely secured and for the chair user to also have a seatbelt.
Once we arrived at the park, there were volunteers with wheelchairs to take people the short walk to the Games mobility centre where you could borrow a wheelchair or mobility scooter free of charge (just bring photo ID). With this scooter I experienced the freedom I haven't had for years in that we could go all the way to the end of the park (at least a 30 minute walk one way) without feeling like I was killing myself with the effort - to be honest without it I know we would have just stayed by the stadium as my breathing was pretty bad yesterday.
There was a parking bay for the scooters near our designated entrance to the stadium and a volunteer available to show us to our seats. It was at this point we discovered our seats were very near the top of the arena and that there were no lifts! I really panicked as to make it up all those stairs would have been unbelievably hard for me, if not impossible, but the volunteer showed us to the ticket resolution desk, explained our problem and had our tickets exchanged for seats on the ground floor. To be honest the view was so much better - the first time I've ever experienced a CF upgrade!
Welcoming and wonderful attitudes
Unlike the current trend in the wider society that demands almost complete helplessness before help is given, the facilities offered showed a nuanced understanding of disability. It recognised
that some of us have adapted and curtailed our everyday lives to cope with our
disability but need extra help outside of our home or when we can't use a car.
But the best bit of the whole day was everyone's attitude to my health. The 'games makers' volunteers were unbelievably helpful and respectful. Without them I wouldn't have had the day out I had. I have CF so its a hidden illness, I look ok on the outside, I'm slim, I
don't need oxygen, I have all my limbs and I don't seem too out of
breath if I don't move much. But no one questioned whether I was ill, there was not even an eyebrow raised or a look of distrust in anyone's eyes. They accepted I needed help, didn't ask why, and gave it to me openly and with a smile and desire that my family should have as good a day out as everyone else.
I wish, wish, wish I'd ask the name of the young black girl, with the coolest hair cut, who swapped our tickets so I could say a public thank you. But she was a wonder! Then there was a soldier who was manning the body scanners, similar to those at airports, at the park entrance who assured me I'd get the scooter through as "long as you're a good enough driver", and the couple who asked me to beep my horn on my scooter so they could run behind me to get through the crowd. These light-hearted attitudes were so precious to me, as yesterday was the very first time I've had to use a mobility scooter to help with my walking. It could have been a very sad day for me, a marker of how poor my health is at the moment, but it wasn't. No one stared, judged, questioned. I didn't feel left out, in fact I felt more a part of everything as I could go where everyone else could go. I loved my scooter!
This is how society should be - that disabled people can ask for help when needed and that that help is offered by people who want you to be a part of the celebrations.
So there are good lessons to be learnt from the paralympics as well as bad ones and I just wanted to say thank you, thank you, thank you to everyone who made yesterday a wonderful experience.
Our view of the start of the 200m T44 race - Oscar Pistorius vs Alan Oliveira