Flash Says…

Archive for September 2011

Today for the first time I drove to a shopping centre – the new Westfield in Stratford City, which opened two days ago. Just ten minutes from my house, this could be what I need instead of trekking into town for shopping. My only concern was whether it would have those horrible concrete whirly-round ramps, which I’d enjoyed as a child but secretly feared as a driver. It was time to have a go and find out.

On approach I was surprised to see areas for vehicles to stop for searches, but I surmise that the entrance is shared with the Olympic Park. I pity the poor chap whose job is to stand there all day, waving people on to Westfield.

I followed signs, noticing “Best for M&S – Carpark B” so I stayed in the right lanes, managed not to get cross with everyone else changing lane at the last minute, and entered the carpark. Hooray, it was level – no nasty whirly ramps. “I’ll come again!” I thought.

At the barrier a staff member handed me a green plastic chip (about £2 sized) from the machine, which I took along with a leaflet about how the parking operated (you pay on exit, but for a few weeks the first 2 hours are free) and took instruction on where to find the disabled bays – “at the front”.

Lo and behold at the other end of the carpark, on the same level I entered, were several aisles of disabled bays. I dutifully memorised my aisle (213) and followed signs “to the shops”. This led to an escalator down to Waitrose (er, isn’t Waitrose at the opposite end to Marks & Spencer?) where a helpful assistant directed me back through the carpark to a lift by a sign for John Lewis (er, isn’t John Lewis on top of Waitrose?)

I looked back and made a mental note of how to get back to my car from the lift, as well as which floor I was on (Mezzanine). And so down into the shopping centre!

I did indeed come out near Waitrose, but equipped with a map and following signs it was easy to find Marks & Spencer, even though it was at the opposite end. The floor was clean and polished, and I whizzed through in my wheelchair; although there were lots of people there was room to move too. I smiled as someone’s overloaded bag burst in front of me (sorry, but he was laughing too). I even smiled at a child carrying a large Build-A-Bear bag with something pink inside. And I smiled again to see that Lego Store was only full of adults, even though it was well past school kicking out time.

In M&S I had a good experience as a kind assistant not only showed me to the item I wanted, but carried my basket there, and then took it to the tills for me. A second assistant loaded my full shopping bag onto the back of my chair. Now I just had to find my way out.

It can be hard to navigate when your eyes are at other people’s waist heights, but it was a direct route, passing the same shops I’d noticed on the way there (including queues of tweens outside Pulp) and I found my way back to Waitrose. Now to find a lift… hang on, it doesn’t have Mezzanine on it. Just LG, G, 1 and 2. Bother. Now where?

I consulted my map, but it didn’t show lift locations. I tried to retrace my steps, but I could only get a feeling that “I came out near Waitrose, and went past the ad for Foyles, so it’s around here somewhere”. I couldn’t find any manned information points, nor did I remember seeing one.

I spoke to a Westfield branded assistant. He wasn’t sure of the right lift but sent me in the wrong direction anyway, taking me to Carpark A. Not to worry, there were lots of assistants in the carparks and one was certain she knew the way to the Mezzanine in Carpark B… To cut a long story short, she didn’t. However I can now tell you what Carpark C looks like, as well as the rest of the mall! There was a specific moment when she stopped marching ahead and started looking lost, when we realised we were stuck with each other until I found the Mezzanine. I offered her my map and made desparate jokes about wanting to get back to the car before free parking expired. She asked if I could take a travelator but I didn’t want to try this as apparently it’s rather angled, and my chair was already quite “tippy” because of my shopping on the back – and I didn’t trust my guide any more!

We were just about to give up and ask the Concierge when we discovered the right lift at last! And it became apparent that the lass had been confused because other carparks don’t have a mezzanine between LG and G, and other parking aisles beginning with 2 are on level 2, not M. She thought I was wrong, and so led me on a wild goose chase whilst trying desperately to help.

Not to worry. I now fished out the green chip and posted it into the payment machine for validation. There was a low height machine – well done, Westfield! The chip seemed to come straight out again but I was assured it had been validated. I can imagine if there hadn’t been an assistant there I (and others) would have kept retrying to enter it until the machine made a sound or displayed something on the screen. Oh well, I know for next time!

Now to find my car. Hang on, other people had parked up since I’d made a mental image, and so I couldn’t see it across the carpark any more! The lift was at aisle 201 so I had to push almost the whole way across the carpark, past 25 rows of cars, over several inverted V shaped metal ramps, nearly getting stuck each time. I’d only had to pass one ramp on the way from my car to the lift so I’m still not sure whether I took the same lift back again!

All’s well that ends well, and I suppose I managed the trip on my own – and there were none of the whirly ramps that I feared. But I was almost at the point of panicking when not only could I not find the lift, but nor could the member of staff who was “helping” me. Next time, I’ll park elsewhere – and when all else fails I’ll remember there’s a concierge service on level 1.

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For some disabled people, it’s easy to answer this question. My friend Imogen is a single person who lives independently, supported around the clock by two carers – one week on, one week off. For those of us who require more support, however, it’s a grey area.

I don’t call any one person my carer. It varies; if I go to a gig I always take advantage of the deal for disabled people and get a free ticket for an “assistant” or “companion”. After all, I need help manoeuvring especially when I’m tired, and will need someone to fetch and carry from the bar for me throughout the event. The person who comes with me is usually my husband but not always; it depends which band’s on. I had a number of female friends competing to be my carer when I had tickets to see Robbie Williams!

At home, I struggle to define who is my carer. I receive disability living allowance (DLA) at the middle rate for care, which means I need assistance throughout the day, and this is true. But £49 per week doesn’t go very far. For that I can buy 5 hours of time from my wonderful cleaner, Lena. She spends Thursdays sorting the house out, doing all the housework that I’m ashamed not to manage; everything from emptying the bins, through hoovering, to several loads of laundry. Anything which involved bending down or lifting more than a small weight is a no-no for me.

I call Lena my cleaner. Sometimes I check myself and call her my assistant instead; she will do other tasks such as rearranging the crockery cupboard, helping me sort a box of items, gardening, or just fetching a jumper for me from upstairs. In fact, to my knowledge Lena hasn’t refused a request yet, although she does sometimes offer to do too many things – I draw the line at letting her walk my dog!

But in fact, the help I need IS throughout the day and certainly throughout the week. I’m always asking my husband to fetch things, join me to prepare a meal, even to help me stand up. Social services refused me any help because I have a husband who can do it, although they offered me a list of carers that I could pay. But that’s not the same; if I was single, I’d need care and while I’d have to give up my DLA care allowance towards it, I’d need several hours of external support, ideally every day.

And this is the thing. Many partners become carers in a way that is not officially recognised. They do not identify with websites or support groups for “carers” but they are quietly there, assisting, whenever they are needed. They are the ones who are expected to be strong. They are the ones who can’t take time off with ill health. DLA could not even begin to cover the wealth of work they do. It’s a gesture but no more.

Although I have Lena as a formal assistant, it’s my husband who takes the role of my carer, going above and beyond his usual role as my partner. But if you ask either of us to name my carer, I bet we’d say Lena, or no one at all…

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