Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Zen and the art of wheelchair maintenance.

I've been a bit lax over the last couple of weeks about wheelchair maintenance - you need to pump up the tyres once a week or so and strip out the front casters about once a month as grit, fluff and hair builds up.  In particular you end up with lovely little circles of hair.  On Thursday I'd noticed the casters were no longer moving very well and there was a bolt that seemed to be coming loose on either side of back, so I decided it was time.  And for the first time I did a proper job of it.

The basic rule is to take the wheels off, squirt everything that should move with WD40, tighten everything that shouldn't move but is.

So I hauled the wheelchair in the house and started stripping it down with my trust set of US hex keys.  So far so good.  Cleaned everything up, squirted WD40 all over the bearings, etc, and in the socket the front fork goes into on the frame of the chair.  As instructed I did the casters one by one, so I didn't forget which of the three positions they needed to be in.  That's the trickiest part and I've never yet managed to do it without dropping the bolts or, particularly, the washers several times.

I also took the wheels off, pumped them up to their full 110psi (that raised eyebrows when I bought the pump in the bicycle sectionof Decathlon) and squirted a bit of WD40 on the axels.

Fully re-assembled, I put the chair back in my car.

I didn't use it  much on Friday, so Saturday was the first time I used it for any length of time and it just felt weird.  Heading out to Tesco, I skidded on some gravel in the carpark.  It seemed to wobble and, on very smooth laminate flooring of the SNP local campaign office, one of the rear wheels skidded instead of turned.

I finally figured it out late afternoon - I'd managed to put one of the casters at the wrong height and that was enough to through the whole chair off.  Luckily it's a quick fix, so my local parliamentary candidate was treated to a quick demonstration of wheelchair maintenance (I keep a small purse with the hex keys for the casters in a pocket on the chair) and I was good to go.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Scottish Sea Life Centre - Oban

I'm still playing catch-up on our trip away during the school holidays, so here's a belated post about another one of our outings.

On our second day at Ballachulish we decided to try and dodge the rain showers and visit the Scottish Sea Life Centre at Oban.  It was featured in Rough Guide to Accessible Travel in Britain as accessible so I thought it would be fine - and have plenty of shelter if it did rain.

This Sea Life Centre is situated in a wooded area, just north of Oban.  Unlike the other's we've been to, it wasn't all in one building, but spread across several buildings.  The car park is about 100m or so from the main buildings and when we visited the ticket office was closed, so you had to enter through a gate with an uneven path.  Once back on the main path, it was smooth enough, with a couple of uneven bits where tree roots had lifted the path.  It's down a slight hill and I was a bit nervous about getting back up.

When we arrived the staff gave me a map with details of disabled access.  The main aquarium was not built with disabled access in mind, so you have to enter each of three sections separately to see everything - this means doubling back against the flow of other visitors and then going round the side of the building to re-enter via a fire exit.  At one point I sent the boy down some steps, saying I'd meet him down there, only to find I ended up stranded at the top of some steps at the other side of the building and had to shout across to get his attention.

The tricky bit highlighted in the Rough Guide was the ramp down to the lower level of the seal enclosure, which you also needed to use (again, against the flow of traffic) to get access to the lower level of the aquarium.  It was, as warned, slightly too steep but was also uneven, which made navigating it myself even riskier.  I had to ask someone for help pushing me up (and I hate this so much, my chair doesn't have push handles).  Likewise the adjacent ramp up to the upper seal viewing area is very uneven as well as slightly too steep and again I felt very much at risk of tipping.

There was also a cafe, in a separate building, with disabled toilet and a lovely view over Loch Creran, and a gift shop, with a viewing platform giving views over the otter enclosure.  The entrance to the latter was a little challenging (non-automatic door, plus ramp, plus threshold strip, plus recessed door mat!)

The outdoor areas were not so accessible.  I couldn't get up the path to the children's play area - luckily the boy is old enough to send up on his own, but it would have been disappointing for a younger child.  Likewise the Terry Nutkin Memorial Nature Trail has a narrow and steep path with steps.  The boy went off exploring it on his own, as it was one of the items on the kids' quiz which earned them medals, and was gone long enough I'd started to worry about how to go find him.

All in all we had a good day and I managed to see everything and not permanently lose the boy. I wouldn't like to visit when they were busy, because of the difficulties doubling back and going against the flow of traffic.   Unfortunately, though, I don't think it's quite as accessible as the Rough Guide writers think.

My two pieces of advice to the management are:

  • Fix the ramp at the seal enclosure - I was at serious risk of flipping over and that probably means it's dangerous for mobility scooters and potentially buggies.  The combination of uneven surfaces and a steep incline are a real problem. 
  • Please, please, please, when you're doing a trail for kids, don't include any parts of your site which aren't accessible.  Had I had a younger child, or had my child been the one in the wheelchair, they wouldn't have completed it and there would have been tears. 
Oh and the hill to the car park?  I made it back up that unaided.  And very proudly so!

Apologies for the lack of pictures.  

Monday, 27 April 2015

Great post this weekend on the BBC's Ouch blog about travelling in China with a wheelchair
We were in Glasgow this weekend as I had a residential training course (I'm the Branch Equalities Co-ordinator for my union).  The boy was treated to a day at the Glasgow Science Centre on Saturday by the creche at the course and had a great time.  So much so, he decided he needed to take me there after the course finished on Sunday afternoon. 

Entrance is expensive - it was £19 for the two of us, although they do let carer's in free.  There's then additional charges for the planetarium, the iMax Cinema and the Glasgow Tower.  We'd been before, a couple of years now and I was relieved to find that the main lift was working again.  The centre is home to perhaps the least reliable lift in the city, at the neighbouring Glasgow Tower.  It's been out of operation for much of the centre's life and unfortunately high winds meant it was closed when we were there as well.  As the limit if 20mph, I suspect it reaches it quite often given the Scottish weather (which, by the way, has been stunning the last few weeks!)

The centre is good, there are loads of activities and quite a lot had changed since our last visit so it felt fresh.  They pitch well  to different ages and have sections specially for younger children.  This time we spent a lot of time looking at Bodyworks, which we'd missed last visit.  Given the sheer amount of interactive activities, it was good to see that only a minimal number were out of order - I'm quite sure it's a constant battle to keep things working.  I'd like to see the planetarium, but we didn't have time this visit. 

We went for a snack at the cafe and unfortunately by 3:30 the selection of cakes was poor.  As it was a lovely sunny day, I fancied and ice cream but there were none to be had.   There are disabled toilets on two levels, but there really aren't enough lifts given the number of families with buggies.  There's one large lift near the entrance (which is possibly the second least reliable in Glasgow) and another which is barely big enough for a wheelchair at the other end of the building.  As a result I spent 20 minutes at one stage trying to get up a single floor. 

On the whole, I don't think it's as good as the Science Museum in London, which we visited last year and which is free or W5 in Belfast, which we visited 2 years ago and costs a couple of quid less.  And both of those have better cafes and better lifts.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Saturday, 18 April 2015

Culloden Battlefield Site

We're just back from 5 days in the Highlands, so I'll be posting a bit about that.

Yesterday, we went to visit the Culloden battlefield site.  It's somewhere I've always wanted to go but have been put off by the amount of walking.  This time, no walking needed!

I checked the accessibility information on the website before we went.  Like a number of sites, they have mobility scooters available, as well as wheelchairs (which were the typical heavyweight ones found at such sites - fine for someone being pushed).  I asked the very helpful member of staff at the desk about the accessibility and she said the paths should all be OK, so I decided to try it with my wheelchair.

First off was the indoor exhibition.  There are sloped areas inside the building, but they are fairly gentle and weren't difficult to negotiate.  The entrance and car park is below the level of the battlefield site, which has a positive effect when you're up on the battlefield itself, so the slopes seem justified and they're well done.

The displays are excellent and easy to see from wheelchair height.  There are interactive elements which the boy liked and an immersive cinema that puts you in the middle of the battle, which was a big hit with him.  At the end is a display of weapons from the battle and he spent about 20 minutes looking at them.  Thanks to some re-enactors from Canada and New York, he got to try a couple of them out.

And then it was out onto the battlefield itself, in our case armed only with GPS enabled audioguides.  

The paths are gravel, but well compacted and fairly smooth - even in April and at the end of a fairly wet week.  The site is not as flat as it first looks (using a wheelchair makes you reassess your definition of "flat"!)  But I made it the whole way round.  The boy gave me a couple of "boosts" (I think he's using Mario as an analogy here!) on some hills, but I didn't really need them.  There was one very small section, by the Well of the Dead, which felt a wee bit tippy, but I made it up that on my own so it can't have been too bad.  


It's a large site and we chose to walk the longer route round (but we didn't walk any of the side paths, which lead to memorial stones).  Google tells me it's a distance of about 2km and includes the areas that the National Trust for Scotland have been returning to moorland - as they would have been in 1746.  

This route takes you along both the Jacobite and Government Lines (marked by blue and red flags respectively) and past most of the main memorials, including the cairn shown at the top of the post.  It was clear there had been some fans of Outlander (which just arrived on TV here) visiting recently, as the Fraser memorial was the only one with wee stones on the top, though some others had flowers (we visited the day after the anniversary of the battle).


It was by the cairn that I hit the only real problem with access - a section of path that had been resurfaced mere minutes before (there was a tractor there when we started our walk) and hadn't had enough footfall to compact it.  Luckily, the surround grass had been compacted so I could wheel across it instead.  I did get a bit stuck first, though - you can see my attempts to get across on just back wheels before I gave up! 

The last section took us past the Well of the Dead and the audio guide didn't satisfy the boy's curiosity about it.  Not sure I did either.  

Finally, it was time to bribe the boy so I could get a picture with me in it - this is outside Leanach Cottage, which is the only building on the site which dates from before the battle (Culloden House itself is about 3km away). 

All in all we had a great visit and I was really impressed at how they have managed to make an outdoor, historic site accessible.  A couple of bits would have been easier with something like a Freewheel (particularly the soft sand by the cairn as it was my front wheels that got stuck.  I plan to buy a Freewheel when I have some spare money, but it wasn't essential at Culloden.  

Saturday, 28 March 2015

"Oh, you're double jointed, I know someone who has that but she doesn't have your problems"

I hear this a lot.  I know I'm far from the only one.  Through my work I know how often Type I diabetics hear all about someone's Auntie whose (Type II) diabetes is controlled through diet alone.  Hypermobility is another of those conditions where various forms of it exist and in this case the benign form is much more common.  You won't believe how many times I've been told I should be good at gymnastics.  Even the medical profession don't seem to always know the difference.

This NHS page is a good basic guide to Joint Hypermobility Syndrome and explains how it's way more than just being able to bend your thumb backwards (in fact, I can't do that), even if they do illustrate it with a picture of a thumb being bent backwards.

This page goes on to describe the diagnostic criteria - the Beighton Score and the Brighton Critera (I'm pretty sure they did that to confuse people).   It was on that basis that I was diagnosed and the main issues I have now is with partial dislocations, bursitis and joint pain.  The pelvis and hip joints are what are most disabling and why I can't manage hills or steps or walk long distances.  And yet, I can still put my hands on the floor with my legs straight!

Friday, 27 March 2015

Hotel review: Novotel Créteil le Lac

I ended up writing a Tripadvisor review on my hotel in Paris and I felt guilty doing so, but I think I have been fair.  It is a nice hotel.  Just look at the views from the restaurant.

But it's not really accessible.  Here's what I wrote:

This is a nice hotel. It's in a lovely location, with views of the lake and town centre, handy for public transport and the road network and the rooms are very comfortable and well equipped. Unfortunately, despite being advertised as accessible on several websites, it really isn't. 

The room itself was great - large and comfortable with plenty of room for a wheelchair. There was a separate bed area which was slightly too narrow to access with a wheelchair. The bathroom, however, was completely unsuitable for someone who was non-ambulatory. Luckily, I can walk quite a few steps unaided, so could manage. The toilet is in a separate room and there would be no way to transfer from a wheelchair onto the toilet. The walk-in shower was good, but there was a step of about 20cm and no hand-rail. Transfer from a wheelchair would have been tricky and stepping in and out was bordering on dangerous. 

The building itself is barely accessible. The main entrance is up approximately 20 steps, but there is a ramp down to a fire exit through which you can enter the lower ground floor. This ramp is too steep - I could only just get up it and I am a relatively fit user of a very light-weight chair. It was difficult to maintain control going down. It would not have been appropriate for someone with an ambulatory disability. The lift doors were almost exactly as wide as my chair (a 44cm frame with standard wheels on a 3 degree camber). A standard chair would not have fit. 

All in all, I'd recommend this hotel, but not for someone with a disability.

Product Review: Quickie Caddie - Plus the Airports

So, I said I would do a post about my experience using my own chair in airports for the first time.  It was mixed.  First, though, I need to review my latest wheelchair accessory - a pair of Quickie Caddy thingamajigs.  As previously, I bought these myself, this isn't a paid review, etc.

One of the things I'd been thinking hard about was managing luggage with the wheelchair.  I think I am best described as stubbornly independent, but for the last few years I've booked wheelchair assistance at airports.  What I hoped was, with my own chair, to regain some independence at airports - particularly in those long boring hours between check-in and boarding.  On our trip to NZ last year this meant forgoing wheelchair assistance and using crutches to get through the airport.  On previous trips I've found us spending long periods waiting in very dreary corners.

The other place I had worries about was getting from the car to check-in and again from the plane to my accommodation at the other end.  You can't sling a heavy backpack over the handles of a Quickie Helium, because it's so light.  And in my case, it also has no handles.  When I saw the Quickie Caddie it seemed a good solution.  This picture, from Dutch blogger Leven Op Wielen, had me convinced it was viable:

So I bought a pair.  They're not cheap - at over £40 - and I was surprised how light they were when they arrived.  I was also worried about them getting in the way when I was using my chair day to day.
When I unpacked them, this is what I found:

That's one - there are two but I forgot to take the pick before I installed one.  They were easy to fit - apart from the fact that as Quickies are made in the USA they use non-Metric hex keys.  I had to buy a set of those (3 quid from Wilko).  When not in use, the spike thingy (seriously, what's a good name for these!) folds up parallel to the fork of the chair and they weigh next to nothing.  They fold down easily so you can use them for a basket in a shop or, for example a box containing a loom (which was my first use of them!)  I did discover, with the loom, that if you're travelling over bumpy ground, down slopes, or on cobbles, it's best to use a strap of some sort to secure the load.  On a flat smooth surface, for example in a shop,  you don't need to as there are non-slip grips you attach to each one.  For my trip to Paris I invested in a pair of Velcro straps which I wrapped round each wheelchair fork and round the case.  I got 68cm ones and joined together they worked on my carry-on sized case.  Separately they'll be good for smaller loads.

I have to say the Quickie Caddy worked great - I was able to get myself from the disabled surface parking area at Edinburgh Airport to check in (including a diversion back to the car to affix a temporary disabled parking pass to it!) and I would have managed through security and all the way to the plane but I'd opted to check my luggage.  I would have struggled to flick up a kerb because of the extra weight at the front (my case was approximately 10kg) but I didn't feel unstable at all and the manoeuverability wasn't massively impaired - my chair was still much easier to manoeuvre than the Red Cross one I had on loan last year!  There is a ramp from the parking area to the terminal at Edinburgh and I managed that OK.  At Charles De Gaulle I managed to get myself from baggage claim to the minibus which had come to collect us without problems and when I returned to Edinburgh I got from baggage claim back to my car on my own.  I got one of my colleagues to take a picture when we got back:

All in all everything went well - apart from a snag on arrival at both airports.  Even though I'd gate checked my chair, it didn't manage to make it back to me at either airport.  In both cases I was met at the door of the plane by someone with a wheelchair and they took me to baggage claim, where I found my own chair, but I haven't got to the bottom of how to ensure they bring me back my own.  I remember having the same problem with the buggy a few times when L was small.  In Edinburgh they kept assuring me "you'll find yours on the carousel" which had me slightly panicked.  After the third time I said "it's two and a half grand worth of kit, I'd rather it didn't go on the carousel" someone went to intercept it!  I think the lesson is to get it tagged as fragile at check in (they tag your chair at check in, just like other luggage, even though you're gate checking it).

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Paris(ish) on wheels

This weekend I've been on my first overseas trip with the wheelchair.  I was a bit nervous, but did it in a way in which I knew I'd have a bit of support.  I've been working with our local twinning association ever since I moved to Scotland, so when I was invited to take part in a trip to the Festival Filmes des Femmes in Créteil I jumped at the chance.  Because the trip was being organised with the help of Créteil Jumelages there was someone arranging things for us  and they would be with us for the whole trip.  I was travelling with two colleagues as well.

We stayed at the Novotel le Lac in Créteil, which I'll do a separate post about and I'll also cover my experiences at the airport separately.  Most of the visit was a mixture of official visits (to schools, their fabulous new Mediatheque and the Conservatoire), excellent food and films at the festival.

Créteil itself is a new town on the edge of the Paris suburbs.  Most of the city has been developed since the 1960s and it is fairly flat, which made it easy to get around.  The town centre has a very 70s raised town square area, with carpark under, which is surrounded by the Hotel de Ville, various civic buildings, some flats and the Maison des Arts de Créteil (MAC) where most of the festival took place.  Access to this part of town was quite good, although the route from the MAC to the single lift into the carpark was a bit circuitous.  The MAC itself was accessible and had a lovely cafe.  There was plenty of room to move around.  Wheelchair access was to the bottom of the cinema, at the very front, which is normal, however we left the wheelchair at the door and I used my crutches to get down the top couple of steps to get a better view from the front.

Connected to the town square was an enormous shopping centre, which we visited briefly for some shopping and ate at on two evenings (once at a creperie, the second time at Flunch).  It was a good shopping centre but again it only had one, small lift, at which queues formed on a Sunday) not as accessible as it should have been.

The festival's other venue was a small cinema, La Lucarne, which was located near the Mediatheque in an area of Créteil built in the 1960s, one of the poorer areas of the city.  Unfortunately the 1970s building was not very accessible - there was no disabled toilet and it was the only place I absolutely needed to get someone to help push me up the hill (apart from the ramp at the Novotel, which I'll cover in a separate post).  However I managed to get into the auditorium for the film, so everything worked out.  The mural on the outside of the building was painted by a Chilean artist who fled the Pinochet regime.

The films we saw were Todos estan Meurtes, which eventually one the Youth Jury prize; Sol Branco, the winning short film (which we saw twice); Notre Enfance á Tblisi; the Grand Prix winner Objects in the Mirror and a Beatrice Dalle film, Bye Bye Blondie, which I need to try and watch with subtitles.  It was the only one with no subtitles.  Todos estan Meurtes and Objects in the Mirror both had English subtitles.  Sol Branco and Notre Enfance á Tbilisi had French subtitles which I could sort of follow, so Bye Bye Blondie was the only film I really struggled with.

On our "day off" on Sunday we were taken for a brunch at La Bellevilloise it Paris itself.  The meal was *amazing*.  The venue was wheelchair accessible, in that there was level access and a disabled toilet, but very busy so I was glad I had taken the crutches and could use those instead.  I ate way more than I should have (including two desserts!) but look at the food!

The venue was pretty good too.

Our hosts then very generously drove us on a tour of the main sights of Paris, which is as amazing a city as it was last time I was there.  I plan to go again.