I recently enjoyed a 'stag' weekend in Oxford celebrating a friend's marriage. I think it's time to coin a new expression to describe a bunch of grown up men friends participating in a weekend of activities that doesn't involve strippers, shaving off eyebrows, fights or any of the typical ritual humiliation usually associated with an antlered male ruminant.
Such events are a great measure of facilities and attitudes towards disability in the wider world, and the weekend in question was no exception.
The hotel facilities were first rate, and certainly the bast I have experienced in the UK. In fairness I may not be the best judge as soon after I started traveling following my spinal cord injury, I realised that I could make do with a shower over a bath in a standard room, and that most specifically 'accessible rooms' resembled hospital accommodation and were best avoided.
Not so in this instance. The room was spacious, carpeted and contained a proper double bed. The bathroom has a pedestal sink I could get my knees under, plenty of space around the toilet as well as suitable grab rails, and a fold down seat in the shower.
This last feature came as a relief, having previously found myself in rooms with roll in wetroom showers but nothing to sit on, except my everyday wheelchair. On such occasions I have ended up sitting on the floor which is one thing when making do at a friend's house but hardly a joy when you are paying for the privilege.
on this occasion, the only criticism was that the seat was poorly adjusted, the front edge tilting towards the floor. The problem was that I hadn't noticed this when I started my shower, and it was only when I introduced soap to the equation that I realised the problem. As the resistance between my horribly bony arse and the shower seat was affected by the shower gel, I found myself sliding alarmingly towards the edge. I grabbed for the handrail, but the soap played the same role in the purchase here too, and it was a frantic grasp for the shower head as antidote that only just prevented me from taking my usual spot on the ground.
The evening saw us take a few soothing ales in Oxford, but previous experience has taught me to keep my powder dry on such weekends as a long drive will often lead me to have a rough night with neuro-pain anyway, so I bailed from the pub fairly early.
I had a pleasant cab ride back to the hotel, during which the cabbie asked me how I came to be in a wheelchair. This is not the first time that I have had such conversations, and I don't mind too much, although I imagine that I might feel different when it is the thousandth time. The conversation was a first in another way, as the driver informed me with some degree of conviction that if I were to go to India, they would be able to 'cure' me.
All this time I thought that I was staying abreast of research into spinal cord injury, stem-cell therapy (olfactory versus embryonic), Functional electrical stimulation, and even robotics. You can imagine how shocked I was to find out that all I needed to do was get a cab from Oxford city centre to the ring road in order to be presented with the solution to such a profound injury as mine.
The following day we all went for a spot of clay pigeon shooting, which was great fun, although my performance followed the usual trajectory of things I haven't tried before (I started strongly, then began to think about what I was doing and it all went down hill from there).
Unfortunately, I failed to spot the largest and most deserving target of the day. Unbeknown to me, one of the owners of the venue asked one of my friends if he would take a picture of me shooting in my wheelchair so they could post it on their website. This was a trifle rude as he didn't ask me. It would have been a tad dishonest anyway, as the place is far from accessible (while having a step-free route, the whole place is on a very steep hill and covered in grass, so I had to be pushed around).
But I am most annoyed at having missed the comment that accompanied the request for a picture. "It's great that they can get out now and again, isn't it?"
In hindsight, the fact that I had a twelve gauge shotgun in my hand at the time probably means that my not having heard this remark was a good thing, if only in the interests of the budgetary constraints on Her Majesty's Prison Service.
I wonder how many other married journalists with one child (and another due in April. I know this is an underhand way of getting the news out, but yay!) have driven themselves to a sporting venue only to have their friends congratulated on their role in such a mercy mission.
My spirit was not dampened by such idiotic comments, only by the fact that I didn't hear them or get to respond. The 'does he take sugar' mentality is not one that I have encountered very often, which made it feel like such an opportunity missed. I will monitor the pictures and any accessibility statements on their website with interest, mind.
It was great to be able to participate fully in the weekend's activities, and if I take anything from it, then perhaps it should be the knowledge that, while things are far from perfect, exclusion is less of a common experience for many disabled people than it has been in the past.
Except where certain tweedy pillocks of Oxfordshire are concerned, of course.