Published: 23 April 2023
I've just read a thread on Twitter:
I stayed overnight at a conference this week for the first time since becoming a 👩🦼user.— Dr Aimee Grant is #ucuRISING 👩🦼 (she/they) (@DrAimeeGrant) April 22, 2023
This is a thread about accessibility...
My (Access to Work) support worker checked (& rechecked) I had #Disabled parking & #wheelchair accessible room, as it wasn't clear on the invoice.
Reading it made me think back to my last business trip that involved an overnight stay. Completely by accident, I've now found a way that works better for me... a way that avoids all the stress-points... a way that should work. But even that isn't simple. I'll compare the two...
Cars, Hotels and Restaurants
I'm going to describe an average journey. Okay, not everything is guaranteed to happen on every journey but many do happen pretty regularly.
The stress begins a couple of hours before I leave home. I won't bother talking about loading the car because I have to load either vehicle and usually Neil is home and helps me with it anyway. The first stress is that I have to stop drinking. This isn't a problem in winter but if it's warm, I begin to dehydrate and then start getting a headache. I often have the headache before I even leave home. Why do I stop drinking? Because I know I won't be able to go to the toilet when I need to and the less liquid in the system, the longer I can wait without having a full-on accident.
I get on the road. I like driving but sitting in a driving position for too long makes my back and legs really ache, so I try to stop every 45 mins to an hour. I pull in at a service station. I find the blue badge parking spaces and start unloading my wheelchair. I check that my radar key is in my pocket and then unload Liggy, putting her jacket on first. We make our way inside.
At this stage, any number of things can and have happened:
- I arrive at the entrance to find the automatic doors are broken and there's nobody around to open them. I fight with heavy doors that stick at the half-open position, hurting my shoulders and squashing Liggy as she tries to 'go through'.
- I get to the toilet but it's engaged. I sit and wait. It's the only accessible toilet, even though there are dozens of cubicles in the ladies. I wait... and wait... between 30 and 45 minutes isn't uncommon.
- People pass me and go to the toilet and then see me still waiting when they come out. Several look at me like I might be confused about how toilets work and ask me if I need some help with the door. I used to explain. Now I let them try. They leave, after telling me I won't have to wait long.
- When I get in, it stinks and the floor is soaked. I try to find a dry spot and tell Liggy to sit. I fight with the grab rail to get it in the down position. This hurts too.
- I eventually get back to the car but somebody has now parked on the yellow hatchings, next to my car, so that I can't fit between their car and mine. I take Liggy round the back of the car and load my chair first. Then I fight with holding the door open to load her, trying not to let it scratch the badly parked car.
- As I pull back onto the motorway, I feel like I need to pee again. I try to tell myself it's just a response to feeling stressed but my bladder doesn't buy into this story.
I always check my journey on Google Maps before setting off. It tells you how long it should take. My journey is going to take longer. That toilet stop that took everyone else about 10 minutes took me almost an hour.
I continue the drive, stopping several times for more toilet visits. Towards the end of my journey, I have a small drink. I'm really thirsty now. I'm also getting hungry and my tremor is very noticeable. In my peripheral vision, I can see my hands shaking on the steering wheel. It's rather distracting but I try to relax. We're nearly there.
Okay, so this could happen at any time and it might not happen at all. Sod's Law says that it will happen when I really can't cope with it. I've come off the motorway, I'm following my SatNav instructions through city suburbs, which are busy but we're nearly there. Then there's a road closure.
The police have closed a main road. That means there's probably been a serious accident. I try to think about the people involved. I hope they are okay and being cared for. I hope that somebody hasn't just had a life-changing injury that means they are about to join my world. I'm grateful that I'm safe and try not to be irritated by the road closure.
I try to work out where to go next. The SatNav hasn't heard about the road closure yet and keeps trying to divert me back onto my original route. I eventually find somewhere to pull in and check a map. I find an alternative route. It doesn't look great but it will get me there. I wonder where the nearest toilets are. That drink I had is going through me... I drive off.
By the time I arrive at the hotel, I am desperate for the loo and even with reduced sensation, I'm conscious that I'm already quite wet. I unload my wheelchair and Liggy and go to check in. I go to the lower height desk, assuming I'll have to fill something in. There's no queue but the two members of staff just continue their conversation, ignoring my presence.
I ask them where the nearest toilets are. They tell me their toilets are for customers only. I'm tempted to be quite rude and remind them that I would be a customer if they could be bothered to check me in, but I need them on side, so I smile and tell them I'm booked in for a couple of nights. I stress that I really need to use a toilet now though, if that's possible.
They explain where the toilet is and then remember that there's a cleaning trolley in there, so one of them comes with me to help. On the way, they keep tickling Liggy's ears, telling me as they do, that they won't distract her. They've been trained not to.
Eventually, I get checked in and ask if there's anyone who could help me unload. Ah, they are not allowed to lift stuff, as they haven't had training for that. Sorry.
It takes me several trips to the car to unload all mine and Liggy's stuff and get it all into the hotel room. The corridors have thick carpet, which is really difficult to wheel on. It feels like superglue on my wheels. The bedroom door is heavy and I have to open it, force it over the carpet and then hold it open while Liggy goes through.
I decide to leave Liggy in the room whilst I do the next trip to the car. I get to the car but my tremor is terrible by now and as I unlock the car, I drop my keys. Liggy will pick them up th... Oh no, she's inside the hotel. There's nobody around, so I have to pick them up myself. My back hurts so badly, I'm beginning to feel sick and dizzy.
Eventually, we get everything in and sort ourselves out. I know I should log on and check my emails but I'm so tired, I just lie on the bed and fall asleep.
At 5:00, I feed Liggy in the hotel room and then we go and find the restaurant for dinner. They offer me a choice of tables and I find the one with the least amount of food on the floor. Right now, the last thing I need is Liggy eating something she's allergic to and being sick.
Liggy knows the routine. She helps me take my jacket off and then settles down on her mat for a snooze whilst I eat.
I browse the menu and try to work out what I can have and what I fancy. I decide that salmon, potatoes and seasonal veg sound nice but it depends what the seasonal veg is. When they come to take my order, I ask what the seasonal veg is. The waitress seems a little uncertain but says she thinks it might be peas, carrots and broccoli. I'm allergic to carotenes, which is the colouring in some fruit and veg, like carrots. So I dig a little deeper. I ask if the veg is separate or cooked together. She asks if I have an allergy.
I start to feel anxious, as I know what might happen next. I tell her I'm allergic to carrots. She walks away without any explanation and returns with a manager and a large folder. They explain that they'll need me to sign a disclaimer so that if I have an allergic reaction, they won't get sued. I sigh but agree to sign it.
They ask me what I'm allergic to. I tell them carotenes. They repeat it slowly...
Keratin? I explain what carotenes are. They look down their allergens list several times before informing me that they don't cover keratin and they won't be able to serve me.
It takes a lot of arguing and explaining about blood sugar issues and the length of my trip and how exhausted I am from the journey, but they eventually agree to serve me just for tonight. I can have salmon and potatoes but no veg because they can't guarantee that any veg is safe.
Apologies for the very long spiel to get to this point. Are you tired of reading? I was tired too! And remember, I hadn't actually done any work at this point. This was before I had to go into an office and be productive.
I've only done one business trip in my motorhome but I'm now going to describe it in the same detail to compare it with the car/hotel experience.
Loading up is pretty similar. Neil helps. I take my time and make sure everything we need is in the motorhome. Well, actually, it is a bit easier because things like Liggy's bed and some of my medical equipment live in the van the whole time, so I don't have to think about those at all.
I pull away and hit the road. I haven't got a headache this time, as I didn't need to dehydrate myself. I have a toilet on board, so no matter what happens, if I need a wee, I can have one.
I don't get as far before needing a toilet break but I pull off at a service station and follow signs for caravans. At this stop, caravans are with coaches. I pull in and turn off the engine. I don't even get out of the vehicle. I slide off my seat, check on Liggy and give her a quick treat and then walk the 2m to the toilet. It's vacant. Well it would be, wouldn't it? It's my toilet. I have a wee, wash my hands and get back in the drivers seat.
The stop takes approx 5 to 10 mins and then, I'm back on the road.
The diversion is less likely to happen because I'm less likely to be going into built up areas. It's more likely to pan out like this...
I'm now off the motorway and on a country road, driving towards my campsite. I see breaking ahead and slow down. The traffic grinds to a complete halt. After a while, people start turning their engines off. It's clear that something big has happened and the sudden presence of blue lights and sirens confirms this.
I'm beginning to need the toilet again and I'm getting a bit hungry. I weigh up the situation ahead. Several emergency vehicles are now visible in the distance. It looks like we could be here for a while. Everyone's engines are turned off. Nobody is going anywhere. I decide to sneak back for a quick wee. As I come back, I can see that nothing has changed, so I grab a snack bar out of the cupboard and a bottle of cold water from the fridge. I give Liggy another treat as I get back into my seat.
Eventually, a police officer starts walking down the road, turning cars around and sending them back the other way. When they get to me, I ask how long it's likely to be. It's not far off dinner time for Liggy and for me. They give me an estimate of about 3 hours. I check a map. My campsite is less than half an hour away but if I take a diversion, it could take over an hour, and the traffic is likely to be busy. It will be stressful. I can see a few lorries up ahead, that haven't turned around. I ask what my options are.
After talking to the police officer, and clarifying that I'm allowed to wait it out and turn the gas on, make hot drinks and food... and take Liggy out for a walk and a wee, I decide to stay put and just have dinner here instead. Once the situation clears, I'm nearly there.
I take Liggy for a leg stretch and a wee. There's a caravan up ahead and they are doing the same as me. We check with each other that we've got everything we need. They are fine but the kids have drunk their last bottle of water. I've got loads. I give them a couple to keep them going. They offer Liggy a treat. I thank them, but explain about her allergies. They give her a tummy rub and we all go back to our vans.
I make dinner and a cup of hot chocolate to warm me up. I give Liggy her dinner. She's happy. I'm happy. Nobody's stressed. I send Neil a WhatsApp message to let him know what's happening. He calls the campsite to let them know I'm running late. They already know. The caravan up ahead called them too.
As suddenly as all the chaos started, I notice movement ahead. I quickly turn off the gas, close the roof vent, fasten Liggy in her seat... and we're off.
Four units all arrive at the same time. Yep, we were all in the same road closure. Nobody is stressed. We've all eaten and had a drink. Nobody needs the loo. We're just sharing stories about the closure. We're mostly just happy that the people involved are okay and there were no serious injuries or fatalities.
I get my wheelchair out of the garage and go and check in. They had a note on my file that I'm a wheelchair user and they coned me off a space, as it was getting full and they assumed I'd want to be near the facilities block. The warden, noticing I'm travelling alone, asks if I need any help. I thank him but I'm fine right now.
I get pitched up, plug in my electric cable, turn the gas on and take Liggy for a quick walk before checking my emails and looking through the agenda for my meeting the next day.
I had dinner earlier, remember. So did Liggy. I get some bread rolls out of the freezer for tomorrow's lunch and check that my fish (tomorrow's dinner) is defrosting. The fridge is quite cold and my fish is still frozen so I pop it on the work surface for a couple of hours to thaw out.
It doesn't take a genius to work out which trip I enjoy the most. Nor does it take a behavioural psychologist to predict which trip will be most successful in terms of me being fit for work the next day.
It sounds like a perfect solution. There must be some drawbacks though. Well, yes, of course, nothing is ever as easy as it sounds. So here are the drawbacks:
In order to use my motorhome in this way, I legally need to have business insurance. That can't be a problem though, surely? You just ring your insurer and add it on, right?
Wrong! I rang my insurance company and asked them to put class 1 business use onto my policy. Apparently that isn't a thing with leisure vehicles. Having explained the situation, they gave me a dispensation (with a lot of conditions) for one trip. The trouble is, that trip turned to out to be the best work trip ever... so easy! So now, I want to do it again.
After several evenings of ringing insurance companies and trying to get motorhome insurance with business use, I found one company that would do it... only one! I got a quote and it increased my existing premium by £150 per year. That's a lot of money but at the point of being refused dinner in that hotel, I'd have paid twice that to not have to go through that journey and arrival and hotel and... and... and... again. So I paid it.
This is always the issue with a big vehicle. My motorhome is 7m long and 3.2m high. It doesn't fit in a normal parking space and it doesn't go under height barriers. So I do have to plan more carefully to organise parking. There are some of our offices where it just wouldn't be possible. However, the one I want to visit most often has a huge car park and after speaking to security, they have agreed to cone me off a space for a visit. So I'll see how that goes.
Of course, having my motorhome parked onsite has some advantages too. If the toilets are engaged, dirty, too small, etc., I can just go back to the van and use my own. If I get hungry or have problems getting food from the cafe, due to my allergies, not a problem. I have cupboards and a fridge full of food that I can eat. If it rains and I get soaked, I have a change of clothes in the van.
Normally, work trips are booked through an online system. Work pays for them and you don't have to pay for accommodation up front. Meals can be claimed back separately. The booking system (obviously) doesn't do campsites. There is nothing set up for this kind of travel arrangement. The nearest I can get is claiming an overnight friends and family allowance. That won't cover the cost completely and I can't claim for meals. However, it all goes back to the argument about insurance. What value do I put on stress reduction? Even if it costs me, it's worth it.
I have a trip planned very soon. I hope it goes according to plan. I hope it works. If it doesn't, it will have been an expensive experiment. If it works though, it will open up opportunities for me to travel again for work. I could consider attending conferences again. I could visit some of our offices, deliver training.
I think the main difference between the two types of trip is that one disables me. The other enables me. When I travel by motorhome, I don't feel like a disabled person very much. I feel safe, healthy and happy. I have everything I need with me. This really does demonstrate the social model of disability so well!