In November 2012 I did 2 very unexpected things.
1st of all I went into rehab. I left work as a walker, albeit double walking stick dependent, person, and came out, 2 weeks later, as a wheelchair user. Not the usual outcome from rehab, which is meant to make you better, not worse! (I should mention that it wasn’t really their fault, my visit coincided with the relapse that saw me change from 2 legged to 4 wheeled)
2nd thing was I went to Barbados after this very short inauguration to life in a wheelchair. In fact, so unexpected was the move to the wheelchair, I had requested a room for somebody with mobility impairment but I was soon to learn, and very quickly, that being in a wheelchair was quite a different kettle of fish.
Fortunately, the manageress at the hotel (the Time Out hotel in Dover Beach) was massively helpful and even though the room type that I had been allocated was not suitable for a wheelchair (it was on an upstairs floor and there was no lift), I was relocated to a ground floor room and the very next day, somebody came to fix grab rails around the toilet and to take off the toilet door so the doorway was wide enough for my wheelchair to enter. She also got me a shower stool so that I could use the shower. Really, I was incredibly fortunate to encounter somebody so helpful on my 1st foray overseas.
Every morning, I would attempt the short walk from my room to the breakfast outdoor patio area using my crutches. My partner would follow behind me and steady me if necessary. However, the floor was made of those slick tiles that I would later discover are an anathema to crutch users, and he was not able to prevent me from doing a spectacular face plant, landing spreadeagled on the floor in front of a large group of people who were checking in at the reception and not really expecting such an unusual welcome!
The hotel was undergoing refurbishment, they were building a new bar area, so we got the holiday for a heavily discounted rate, usually it is pretty expensive to go to Barbados, but with this really good discount, it was actually cheaper to go to Barbados than to any of the other Caribbean islands.
As this was my 1st overseas experience in a wheelchair, and because I had only just become a wheelchair user, I had no idea of how difficult things can be and the amount of preparation that is usually involved in a wheelchair using vacation. Fortunately for me, Barbados is 1 of the best Caribbean islands for wheelchair accessibility. They have dropped curbs, a number of disabled toilets, some ramped entrances to shops and, as I was to discover, obliging lifeguards that helped wheelchair users get into the sea. Many of the pavements were new meaning that the surfaces were relatively smooth (although there were some hair-raising parts where the pavements were too narrow for a wheelchair meaning that you had to play chicken in the road with the cars).
One of the disabled toilets that I encountered was wide enough for a wheelchair to enter. Great. However, once you had factored in the extra space needed for your legs once you have transferred onto the toilet, it was impossible to shut the toilet cubicle door behind you! I was soon to discover that this is an all too common occurrence in disabled toilets, but at this point I just found it amusing and as the restaurant in which this occurred was not particularly busy, I was able to ask a nearby member of staff to make sure that nobody else entered whilst I was in there.
Another baptism by fire experience was when we took a day trip to swim with the turtles. I was super excited about the prospect of swimming with turtles although I knew that my ability to swim was much diminished. But I was determined to do this and it was 1 of the main draws for visiting Barbados.
I could not find any accessible boats so we went on a standard boat trip. As it was a day trip, I had to use the boat toilet with great difficulty. When the boat stopped and people got in the water to swim with the turtles, I was initially left behind and it wasn’t until I burst into tears that the captain realised that something was wrong! After a heated and tearful argument with the captain, the crew said they were willing to help me into the water and they had a way to do this. They used towels as a makeshift winch to lower me into the water. They then used noodles (long pieces of foam) to help me float and 2 of them accompanied me to help me move into the correct position in the water. Then the turtles came over! The turtles all came at once, for feeding time. It was an amazing moment and well worth the difficulty involved in getting into the water. Getting back onto the boat was tricky and the crew once again used the makeshift towel winch to haul me back up the ladder. I’m sure that any Health & Safety people would have been apoplectic but there was no way that I was going to remain quietly on the boat whilst everybody else got in the water with the turtles. The only thing that I was worried about was the fact that it was quite uncomfortable and quite undignified. However, I didn’t care because that was the only way to get me in the water to swim with the turtles!
One day my partner and I decided to visit the capital, Bridgetown. It was here that I had another rude welcome into life as a wheelchair user.
We consulted a guide to Bridgetown and looked for establishments that were wheelchair accessible.
The Waterfront Café claimed it was wheelchair accessible with a wheelchair accessible toilet so my partner and I decided to check it out. We arrived there and fortuitously I decided that I needed to go to the loo before we ordered any drinks or food. I asked where the toilet was and was taken aback when I was told that the toilet was up a selection of steps, in 2 step increments, with a kind of flat area before the next set of 2 steps started. Stymied, I enquired how I was supposed to access the toilets. A ramp was produced, which could be used to get me over one set of steps at a time. My sense of humour immediately began to fade. But there was no other option so we began the painfully slow process of moving me up the steps, one section at a time.
Finally, we reached the level at which the female toilets were located. It is fitting to say that I was utterly appalled by the fact that the doorway was too narrow for my wheelchair to enter! I could not believe it, nobody had told me that the toilet wasn’t actually a proper disabled toilet and was just a standard female toilet. Probably, they were just ignorant and it had never occurred to them that more than just a small ramp to get up the stairs was needed to deliver wheelchair accessibility!
We stayed in Dover Beach, St Lawrence’s Gap, at the Time Out hotel. The room in which we stayed was large, with a 4-inch lip to access the patio area in front overlooking the pool. There was a 3 inch lip to enter the shower. The hotel provided a stool for use in the shower but there were no grab rails in the shower.
There was a pool but it had no special equipment to enable access for disabled user.
Dover Beach had no walkway on the beach but I was told by a local in a wheelchair that the lifeguards would carry me to the sea if I asked. They would also carry me back, and keep an eye on my wheelchair, which would be left on a decking area to which I was able to wheel. This was the 1st time that I realised how invaluable information from other wheelchair users would be to my life.
There was no disabled toilet at the beach.
In the area just behind Dover Beach, a man sold barbecued whole fish with chips for takeaway only . They were simply delicious and we had them about 5 times!
In the Dover Beach local area, the convenience store was accessed by a steep permanent ramp which all but the strongest would need to be pushed up if using a manual wheelchair. The majority of the other shops were usually small and inaccessible.
Southern Palms beach club hotel restaurant was accessible via the pool area. It had a disabled toilet cubicle in the female toilet but this was the one that was not large enough to close the cublicle door!
The food was good – the mahi-mahi is particularly nice and the availability of fish varies so it seems fresh daily.
it was right on the beach with a lovely view and breeze but the steel drum covers from the restaurant band are a bit touristy!
Paolo’s do Brazil was the only place that eyesore that displayed a wheelchair symbol and was accessible via a ramp at the entrance.
It had a disabled loo which was good and large however the food was just Ok, and was nothing special.
The staff seemed quite disinterested; it felt a bit like a Benidorm venue but it did not have the kind of turnover that would be expected at a Benidorm venue!
Pisces had a wheelchair accessible area on the ground floor side area, which is accessed via a gated path. It doesn’t have a disabled loo. However, it had a great menu for seafood lovers, and the dishes were delicious. It was a lovely restaurant although the accessible area is not as attrctive as the upper part of the restaurant. All the staff that we met were lovely and really helpful.
Although there was a reasonable coverage of dropped curbs in the town centre, we couldn’t find disabled toilets anywhere.