December 3rd is International Day of Persons with Disabilities, which I must confess, as a disabled person, was news to me. I learned of the day through my work as a disability network chair and was invited by the good folks at Tesco to take part in the celebrations as part of the Purple Light Up campaign at their HQ in Welwyn Garden City, England, a sprawling campus of buildings at the heart of which sat, most appropriately, the Heart Building.
It’s important to note the location as I live in a small town in Scotland. I had entertained the notion of taking the train as I thought this would be less trouble. However, travelling by train would have involved heading out to Edinburgh to change lines to head back down South. So I decided it would be best to fly. Having done this only once before with a wheelchair, I was nervous but I accepted this as part of my adventure. Luckily, I wasn’t alone. I was accompanied by my good friend Cheryl, to whom I had extended my invitation.
My wife took me to the airport and after some tears (mostly mine). I kissed her and the little one goodbye, and rolled off to my destination. Being a little anxious, I arrived in plenty of time and had the staff at EasyJet tag my chair. I was only away for the night so there was no need to check my bag. Unknown to me, Cheryl had already made her way to security and was on her way to Starbucks. When she notified me, I made my way up in the lift and to security. Along the way I managed to bump into my manager from work and her sister, who were proudly wearing purple, (a violet Nike swoosh still counts Sarah!).
I entered the security area and made by way through the labyrinth of belt barriers. There was slight moment on confusion when a staff member thought the man behind me was accompanying me. As we made our way through, I got talking to the man who introduced himself as Alan and I learned that he’d had a stroke.
This chance meeting couldn’t have been more coincidental when taking into account the purpose of that day. We spoke for a bit regarding the changes the stroke had made to his life.
We were separated as I put my personal belongings into a plastic box and placed it on the conveyor.
Now here’s a question, how do you get through a metal detector in a wheelchair?
I was led through a metal gate and asked to stop in a location of the security person’s choosing.
First I’m asked if there is anywhere I’m sore to touch, very courteous. I’m processed with a handheld scanner and asked to sit forward. Finally a swap is taken from my shoes, just in case I happened to be smuggling drugs in my socks – which I wasn’t.
I met Cheryl on the other side and went for a beer because it’s the law.
At the bar I spoke to a man who was a support worker for those with learning difficulties, who asked how I was managing in the airport and if he could carry my drink. We spoke a little about disability before I went back to the table.
I pushed myself the length of the airport and checked my wheelchair at the stairs to the plane, my way of ensuring it went on last and wasn’t damaged by someone’s Samsonite case. I climbed the stairs with the assistance of my walking stick. The EasyJet staff were courteous enough and made sure I got to my seat.
With the flight being little over an hour, Cheryl and I chatted and by the time we finished speaking we were descending into London Luton Airport.
After landing, we waited until the plane emptied and made our way out. My chair wasn’t at the foot of the stairs as I expected but there was a customer transport vehicle, which the stewardess advised would take us.
I spoke to the man on the ground, who was difficult to hear over the sound of planes and he mumbled something about walking. I’m okay for short distances but I was rather bemused at the suggestion I go on a walk to get my wheelchair and how counterproductive it was.
We walked for easily 200 metres, whilst the attendant ran the same distance, like he was trying to lose us. I waited inside the terminal for ten minutes before I got to sit in my chair again.
We collected our bags and went to Starbucks so I could charge my phone. Despite the introduction, Luton Airport was lovely. They’d gone all out with Christmas decorations, with a freestanding illuminated purple bauble that provided a great photo opportunity. I took particular delight in the choir of school kids who sang Fairytale of New York (censored of course).
We took a £40 taxi ride (thank goodness for expenses) to the Heart Building, just in time for the event to commence.
Key speakers from Remploy, Mencap, Shaw Trust, Reed In Partnership and Whizz Kids were in attendance to speak of their supporting strategies and the working experience of disabled individuals. It was truly refreshing to see a company supporting their disabled colleagues.
There was short break in which we went to grab something to eat from the on-site Express Store. I won’t bore you with photos of food, this isn’t Instagram.
Cheryl and I both regret not attending the experimental dining area. Heart is where the conference rooms are but also where Tesco employed chefs create new recipes, and the fantastic food was ridiculously cheap.
When we returned, Jason Bates, who is chair of Disability at Tesco and has cerebral palsy, recounted his own experiences in a story spun with humour and heart before summing up his personal philosophy in two words – “Be determined”.
Disability at Tesco sponsor and Store Director Justin Alexander, told of his career and how living with dyslexia needn’t be a barrier to success.
We also had the opportunity to listen to Laura Rutherford (http://brodymeandgdd.com/), a mother and Tesco customer who created a petition to encourage supermarkets to provide a nappy (diaper) product suitable for older children, such as her son Brody who has Global Development Delay, Epilepsy, Autism, and Hypermobility Syndrome. Tesco got in touch with Laura to invite her to assist with the product design for Junior Nappies. which can now be purchased at Tesco Stores.
The day was concluded by Jason pressing the big red button and illuminating the building for Purple Light Up – I bet you can’t guess what colour it was.
We then went back inside for canapes and wine, all Tesco products. I got the chance to speak with Jason and Justin, to share my thoughts and ambitions as an advocate for disabled workers.
Cheryl remarked to me how impressed she was at the candid conversations on disability and how there seemed to be greater acceptance than she’d previously thought. So much so that she’s recently came out to the world as disabled – more on this can be found on her blog at: https://cherylvenart.wordpress.com/.
We checked into our hotel then went for a cheeky Nando’s (made even cheekier by the allocation of a food budget). I enjoyed flicking through 30 channels of nonsense then went to be for my early rise the next morning.
The trip to the airport was all but the same, just going the opposite way and costing £10 more. I particularly enjoyed when the cab driver spoke to us about dead deer and which team I supported, which is none, but he continued to talk about Celtic and Rangers anyway.
Luton Airport managed to be worse this time. We got separated on the way through the queue, I got battered by plastic trays as everyone fell over each other and one of the staff felt it appropriate to call Cheryl daft for not knowing where to put her shoes after being asked to remove them. To top it all off, we got to the gate and were told we couldn’t board as we had to go to gate 20, we were at gate 1, ‘Because you obviously can’t walk’, luckily I can walk a bit, and was able to recover from my heart attack.
When we got back to Glasgow the customer assistance was fantastic, with very patient attendant guiding us through the building.
While it was great to see others openly talking about disability and the impact it had on their lives, I found attending this day to to be highly empowering and rewarding. I’m not used to travelling in my wheelchair, so I was nervous about the trip. Knowing that I was doing this for not only myself but others with disabilities, motivated me to overcome these concerns and gave me the opportunity to meet some great people.
Since attending Monday’s event, I have been approached by Muscular Dystrophy UK, who would like to do a feature in their upcoming magazine on me and my experiences as Chair of a Disability Network. When I was at my lowest, I never would have imagined that I would get to experience all that I have. This adventure has allowed me to realise that there are so many things that I can achieve in spite of and because of my condition.