I do not want to write this post – there is literally nothing I want to write about less. This is not about the coronavirus, which is pretty much all that feels relevant right now.
A lot of us are isolated, and feel trapped. Because the whole country, and much of the world is under lockdown. But on top of that, I’ve been trapped in my area of Oxford for months now, and am likely to remain so after the lockdown finishes. Getting out to the rest of this beautiful city is now much harder and more painful than it was before. They’ve shut the main road to cars at one end, and the impact on my life has been massive.
I understand the appeal of pedestrianising cities and discouraging cars, and the reasons behind it, I was able-bodied once. People probably imagine that there is some sort of provision made for disabled people, for wheelchair users like me who have to travel by car. There is not.
I wrote this initially as an instagram post and it sat in my drafts ever since. I looked back at the photos I’ve posted on there, of the painfully precious trips out with my children – so many of those places I won’t realistically be able to go now. In a life that was already so restricted it is crushing.
It is very difficult to talk about this. When I first became disabled aged 19 in 1998 it wasn’t too bad – as a disabled driver I could get to most of the city. Since then more and more of Oxford has been made off-limits to cars. And so, to me. Trying to explain to able-bodied people can be frustrating and upsetting. Honestly, I’ve stopped trying on the whole. There’s a reluctance to believe it’s true. They want details, make suggestions, refuse to believe there aren’t solutions.
So I’m not going to give details, and I’m afraid I don’t want suggestions. There are many admirable disabled people out there who patiently and doggedly document the access problems they face, put in official complaints, and fight. I can’t tell you how much I admire them. The truth is I can’t think of anything that’d make me more miserable. As a disabled person you’re constantly entreated to “look for the positive”. (Which is a thoroughly patronising thing to say btw. Don’t.) I enjoy my life enormously, despite its restrictions – my home, my young daughters and my husband. I’d just like to leave it occasionally. Documenting every access problem – every time you can’t do something – is the exact opposite of that.
So I wonder how many, like me, are largely invisible. Who find another precious trip they used to make is no longer possible and don’t have it in them to fight. Because it is too much, too painful, to beg and be dismissed. The city council, or whoever makes these decisions, will never know about us.
There’s a familiar gesture and tone that people use when this subject is broached – surprise, confusion, and dismissal with one sentence and a wave of the hand. Oh but you’re not the target, and I expected you to be with us, their tone says. Yes the target is overarching and something that threatens everyone – climate change. And this is one reason this is so uncomfortable for me, it’s got nasty locally around this issue – people against the closure are being written off as trolls. No, disabled people are not the target, but it hits us nonetheless. We’re the collateral damage for a greater cause, and we’re meant to accept that with good grace.
These anti-car measures are meant to be time-consuming, awkward, difficult – that is literally the point, to either ban or discourage car use. But if it’s awkward for you – eg slowing down and bumping over traffic calming measures – it is agonisingly physically painful for me. If it adds half an hour onto your journey it does the same to mine, and in doing so moves it from a do-able trip with planning and rest to essentially impossible. Many, many other disabled people are in a similar position. Disabled people with stamina and no pain do exist – I married one – but are in the minority.
If you were to ask local politicians they’d probably claim there will be some system in place for us. But this has already happened – the road is already closed and has been for months (initially for roadworks – then somebody had the bright idea of keeping it that way). There is nothing. They might point to an ill-thought through scheme like mobility scooters to rent, the sort of scheme which is relevant to almost no real-life disabled person for so many reasons. Or a phone number you can apparently call for permission to drive to a local playground (rising bollard issues). These things are diversions to help able-bodied people feel better about the situation. Including the people who make these decisions, who I’m sure are thoroughly good, well-meaning people. We are just not on their radar, and if we are, the real life implications of disability are poorly understood. (Or we’re just a sacrifice for the greater good.)
I remember when I first became disabled, and rang the number I’d seen proudly displayed on all the train timetables for years, right next to the wheelchair symbol. Here, I had no doubt, would be the answers – a specialist disability access helpline, I imagined naively. It led to the main desk. And believe me, they were not interested. I was appalled but also frankly begrudgingly impressed. It’s like the huge banners all over supermarket websites right now, proclaiming that given Covid-19 they’re keeping their slots for the most vulnerable. They aren’t there for us – those signs. Try to actually access some of this supposed help and you find that out quickly. They’re there for you. To make all the able-bodied people feel better. And from what I remember pre-1998, it works.
If you’re reading this as an able-bodied person it might be impossible to understand. But this is how it is. Every bit of my emotional and physical energy could be eaten up with fighting the myriad barriers. I can’t live that. I can’t face how insignificant I am to this city I love, how easily I’m excluded. It’s too painful.
My 5 year old asked the other day “but why does nobody care about disabled people?” Quite. What do I say?
Lucy Catchpole, April 2020