Silver Linings of 2020

Guess who’s (finally, over a week in) back blogging for 2021?! Now, if you follow me on Instagram, you will have seen my New Year’s Eve post. In that caption I talked a little bit about the bright spots and silver linings for me in the mess that was 2020, so I thought I’d  discuss those silver linings in a blog post here too. Don’t get it twisted, this post isn’t me ignoring the fact that 2020 was hell with an extra sprinkle of awful for the majority of the world and the majority of the year.  This is just more of a personal post to hopefully change things up and stop me being in that mindset of “if things are terrible now, they will always be terrible”, reminding myself there is always light in the darkness. To quote Albus Dumbledore: “Happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light”. So I guess this is me turning on the light when it comes to my view of 2020.

Made It Into National News & Radio

Let’s start with (I think) the most exciting silver lining. I made it into the national news AND radio! Firstly, I was the lead quote and photo on a BBC Business News article where I discussed my struggles finding employment as a disabled person in the midst of the pandemic . Then I was LIVE on BBC Radio 4 speaking about the positive impact that a fully accessible rail system would have on me, and specifically on my ability to find  employment. As I said, these opportunities were really exciting and I feel like these are opportunities I wouldn’t have had the experiences or time to take if I had not made the move to Birmingham and been in lockdown with no reasons to say no to these opportunities. One thing I have taken from this is that I should just take such opportunities because what’s the harm in saying yes?

Moved Into My Own Place

As I eluded to above, I also moved into my own place that was not student accommodation. I actually wrote a blog post of this process detailing my experience of house hunting whilst disabled and the things I had to consider too. Admittedly, making the big step mid pandemic and leaving myself locked down mostly alone in a city I didn’t  really know was not my best idea. But living with my parents throughout lockdown 1 really solidified the fact that I needed my own space, plus I just started thinking “If I don’t make the move now then when will I?”. I would have just kept making excuses to stay where I was.

Now Live In A City I Adore

I now live in Birmingham, a city I love. It feels like home. I feel comfortable here. I didn’t even feel this comfortable in London, which  is weird considering I lived there for 4 years compared to having lived in Birmingham for “only” a year whilst completing my Masters (more on that in a minute). Obviously given the current situation, I have not seen anywhere near as much of the city as I would have liked since I made the big move. But I have plenty of Birmingham content for you to check out whilst we’re in lockdown, and I’m excited to get exploring again when it’s safer.

Masters Degree

Now about that degree. Yup, I now have a first-class MSc degree (aka Distinction) in Cognitive Neuroscience from Aston University.  I actually wrote a whole blog post on my experience as a disabled student completing this Masters degree. I’m not gonna sit here and say it was easy, because it wasn’t, even before the pandemic kicked off. Add to that universities closing, learning becoming remote and then having my exams changed (with my practical exams being dropped completely and all exams going online) PLUS completing my dissertation online with no in person access to my supervisor for feedback. With all of that going on, plus my personal situation with COVID as a high risk person with shielding family, completing my Masters was DIFFICULT. And I’m not saying that as a ‘woe is me’ moment or because I want your pity. I’m just acknowledging it for the difficult situation was and acknowledging the fact that I. DID. IT. and damn that needs celebrating.

Solidified Friendships

This whole situation has helped to form better friendships and become closer to certain people than I would have been without the lockdown and my move. Who am I kidding, this entire section is just a big shoutout to Lizzie, so all hail Queen Lizzie, saviour of my sanity. Lizzie and her two university flatmates were my support bubble when I first moved to Birmingham as someone who lived alone (so they were the only people I was allowed to see) and that really solidified our friendship. Obviously I adore her but I don’t know if we’d have spent this much time together or be as close as we are if wasn’t for my move and the restrictions. So thanks 2020 for one of the loveliest girls I’ve ever met and a new best friend.

Grew The Blog

This was most likely because the lockdown gave me more time to write posts, promote them and engage with the blogging community, but the blog grew more than I could have ever thought possible in 2020! It was viewed in 31 more countries and had 4,649 views from 2,041 visitors compared to 1,464 views from 871 visitors in 2019. I also hit new daily and monthly blog view hits. I also did more blog post contributions and started collaborating with other bloggers on blog posts for my own site, such as my collaborations with Alex at The VI Critic, Hope from The Hope Chronicles, and Artie Carden. These collaborations also lead to friendships beyond blogging, which have kept me going throughout restrictions, such as my friendship with Alex (whose blog you should definitely go check out over at The VI Critic !).

So there are my silver linings for 2020. Do you have any silver linings from the past year that you’d like to share? Perhaps my fellow bloggers have already written their own version of this blog post that they’d like to share?

Stay Invincible!

Em (Invincible Woman On Wheels)

Aston University: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly: Masters Edition

And we’re back again with the “University as a Disabled Student” chat, possibly for the last time. Back when I finished my undergraduate degree, I did a “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly and The Surprising” blog post on accessibility at my undergraduate university (Brunel University London) which seemed to be really well received. With that in mind and given that I went to a different university for my (now completed) Masters degree, I thought I’d redo the post thinking about the accessibility at my Masters University. So here it is, the good, the bad and the ugly of accessibility at Aston University.

The Good

Well let’s start on a good foot. From my very first interaction with them as an applicant, the  Enabling Team seemed like they were actually committed to making a difference to the students they supported, rather than just paying lip service and sounding like they care (something I was used to from other institutions). I remember when I first saw my potential accommodation and was asked if I’d need any specific adaptations on top of what was already in the room. I said “oh, [insert adaptation here] would be good if you could try” and was told “you’re saying you need it, it will happen, no try about it”. That commitment to getting me what I requested was refreshing and not something I was used to hearing. The accommodation also had more accessibility adaptations than I’d previously seen or heard of at other universities, things such as ceiling hoists and a dog spend pen for assistance dogs. I know these are probably adaptations that should be in every university accommodation as standard, but again it was just refreshing to see them included in the accommodation at Aston. The other plus point about the Enabling Team is that, once my support package was in place, I was emailed a copy of the accommodations/support we had decided I would receive. This is not something I remember receiving a copy of at my previous university and, whilst it seems like a small thing, it really put my mind at rest knowing I had a copy of what I was entitled to, which I could refer to if I ever had issues with my disability being accommodated whilst I was studying at Aston. And I’m not the only one who’s had such good, personal service from the Enabling Team, my friend Becca also said she found it really easy to get into touch with the person in charge of her support plan if there was ever an issue. That personal touch and reachability is one of the good things about having a smaller Enabling Team.

The other good thing was that I felt like the Disabled Students Officer had a lot more involvement in changing things than at my previous university. Of course, that could be an issue of perspective, since for most of my time there I WAS the Disabled Students Officer (I took the role in November until roles changed in July). And by now everyone knows I will just involve myself in making a change to accessibility and the lives of the disabled community, whether you ask for my involvement or not!

In terms of more physical accessibility adaptations, Becca mentioned an ‘all singing all dancing’ accessible toilet by the Great Hall on the upper ground floor. This isn’t something I’ve ever used but Becca says it has an automatic door, an easy flush toilet, hoist, shower and changing bed, which all sounds pretty accessible to me! The only downside is that it’s only accessible to those who have their university cards programmed to open the automatic doors throughout the university, and not everyone’s card is programmed to do that.

The library also has a number of height adjustable desks on different floors in the main area so that those who need height adjustable desks can also study with friends. Again, these aren’t something I ever used but Becca said they were quickly repaired in the past when they broke down and were also accompanied by large signage reminding students to give priority for those desks to wheelchair users (signage which, crucially, was actually followed).

The Bad

Now onto the bad stuff, there were multiple instances of broken lifts encountered by myself and my friends, both in the university accommodation and in the university itself. Now of course people can say “well lifts break, at least there are several so you can just use another one and take a different route”. That’s all well and good but, whether it’s a case of not being able to access a room or having to take a longer route, that’s energy and time that disabled students have to factor in which non-disabled students do not, not to mention that those routes often involve going outside in the usually rainy weather. And this isn’t just the odd occurrence, these issues happen on multiple occasions. There were also ALWAYS LONG L-O-N-G queues for the lifts. I know invisible disabilities exist and there WERE 7 floors so I assume no one wants to take the stairs to the 7th floor, but still these queues always seemed excessive even accounting for all of that. Becca told me, that as a wheelchair user and fresher living on the 12th floor, she would have to leave her flat 25 minutes before lectures to avoid being late whereas her flatmates could leave 5 or 10 minutes before the lecture. I don’t think I need to spell out for you that that is a vast and unreasonable difference in times. The lifts also had signage saying to give priority to those with mobility issues, which effectively meant I could queue jump, but I always felt bad and like I was being judged for queue jumping so I rarely did.

There were also poorly designed disabled toilets, like the one pictured below with a large space between the toilet roll holder and the actual toilet (yes I know about transfer space but the toilet roll holder could have been on the wall beside the disabled toilet instead of on the opposite wall). Design issues like these often make me dread using bathrooms, which is kind of a problem when the bathroom pictured below is next to the Psychology Research labs where I spent entire days almost 5 days a week for parts of my Masters degree. There was also a specific computer room for the use of Cognitive Neuroscience MSc (my degree) students, which had a keypad so only we could enter. However, the keypad was positioned up way too high for me as a wheelchair user to reach. This is despite the room being newly opened when I joined my course and the university likely knowing a wheelchair user was going to be using that room, given that I’d made my disability clear on my application and had only applied in July for a September start. And even if you DON’T know a disabled student will be using the room immediately when it is opened, make it accessible anyway in the idea that a disabled student will use it at some point!

A bathroom. A toilet roll dispenser is visible on the left hand side and a toilet is half visible on the right hand side. There is a large space between the two which is filled by a bin and means that a wheelchair user cannot reach the toilet roll from a seated position

The Ugly

Now for the uglier side of things. I’m quite privileged (is that the right way to phrase it?) that a lot of the worst of Aston’s accessibility issues weren’t things I personally experienced but more issues I heard about through my role as Disabled Students Officer. A lot of what I heard was the same problems from different students across many schools within the university. This was the most frustrating part because it was OBVIOUS the university weren’t learning, or even attempting to learn, from all the issues I was bringing forward as Disabled Students Officer and all the mistakes they were making. These were issues like not adhering to students Individual Learner Agreements (i.e. the accommodations and changes to assessments that a specific student was entitled to on account of their disability). This left the students I spoke to worried about how, or even if, they would complete their degrees. I cannot tell you the frustration that I feel when I realise that a student who could do well in their degree may not get a degree at all simply because the university will not accommodate them correctly. Similar to that, there were issues about information regarding entitlement to alternative assessments not being passed onto the disabled student. This meant the student was stressing and struggling to revise for an exam they never actually had to take. This was obviously extra stress and unnecessary work and effort for the student, which is even more frustrating when you understand that some disabilities are energy based and may mean allocating specific energy to specific tasks at the expense of others. Therefore this lack of communication about alternative assessments could have left the student with not enough energy to do basic tasks like caring for themself.

When given the opportunity to respond, Hannah Bartlett (Associate Pro-Vice Chancellor for Diversity & Inclusion) provided the following statement on behalf of Aston University:

“While we are pleased to hear about the positive experiences that disabled students have had of our dedicated Enabling Team, we are always receptive to feedback about what more we can do to support our community. We encourage students to let us know, via the Enabling Team at enablingteam@aston.ac.uk, or using the diversity@aston.ac.uk email address, of any issues around support, facilities or technology. We will address individual needs on a case by case basis.

With respect to teaching and learning, students are encouraged to contact the Enabling Team, who will discuss individual requirements. Recommended adjustments are shared with the student, Programme team and the Exams and Assessment teams. The Enabling Team will serve as a regular point of contact, helping to ensure that adjustments are implemented. Where students have needs above and beyond standard adjustments, specific requirements will be assessed and implemented on an individual basis. We encourage any students who feel that they are not currently receiving the support they need to contact The Enabling Team for confidential advice.”

Beyond this statement, Hannah also stated that she is very open to continuing a conversation and ongoing dialogue about these issues.

Soooooo, in conclusion, I think there are some things that Aston has done better than my previous university in terms of accessibility. But it is by no means perfectly accessible and there is CERTAINLY much more work to do, work that I hope to help with when I (hopefully) return for my PhD.

Stay Invincible!

Em (Invincible Woman On Wheels)

Lockdown, COVID – 19 and Me: How this pandemic has the InvincibleWomanOnWheels feeling a little less invincible

It was sort of inevitable that I’d be writing about COVID – 19 and the lockdown, let’s face it it’s all anyone can think about right now. So here’s my take on COVID – 19, lockdown and how it’s affected my life.

So let’s start with the practical bits: The events I’d planned to attend have now been cancelled or postponed (fingers crossed this thing eases by October so the rescheduled Cage Warrior 114 card can go ahead and we can celebrate mine and my mum’s birthdays at the same time). My university is now closed with all lectures and exams online AND I’ve left Birmingham and moved back to the family home for the foreseeable future. While this might be a bit of an annoyance as I’m used to my own space and schedule having lived on my own for most of the last 5 years now, but I know it was the right decision. I’m 90% an introvert so staying inside is something I can do pretty easily by choice; I mean I spend most Saturday nights watching MMA by myself rather than clubbing or at a bar. But of course there is no choice in this situation and THAT’S the bit that’s going to be a struggle. Those of you who regularly read this blog will know I spend what feels like half my life on a train, but that isn’t possible right now, so the wanderlust is building up a fair bit right row. So I guess it’s just time to stockpile wanderlust in this lockdown and use it all up when I can.

Now on to the more specific bits: What does COVID – 19 mean for me in terms of my disability? Well I have cerebral palsy which according to the list below would make me somewhat high risk for the virus (but not shielding level high risk) and vulnerable which meant I should stay inside as much as possible. It didn’t specify if it was a specific type of cerebral palsy that would make people vulnerable but I chose not to take the risk and begin isolating/quarantining/whatever the appropriate word is. I have to admit that that scared me a fair bit. I’d never seen my disability as something that made me vulnerable or significantly affected my life before, it was just sort of this thing that existed as part of my life and meant I got a cool set of wheels. But seeing my condition on that list and knowing what that said about the effect this virus could have on me was a reminder that I wasn’t entirely invincible.

COVID 19

The really REALLY scary part about this is not the way it is impacting me, but the way it’s impacting my family. My mum’s autoimmune disorder means she’s at the highest risk if she gets COVID – 19 and has to shield for 12 weeks. I’d known it was coming after hearing that those with autoimmune conditions were high risk and knowing the condition she has, but hearing that she’d actually got the text about shielding still came as some weird kind of shock even though I knew it was coming. We don’t always get on 100%, we’re too similar for our own good and we both drive each other up the wall more often than not, but god do I love that woman. The thought of her getting this virus and potentially losing her, and losing both my parents in the space of 2 years, terrifies the entire life out of me. The reminder that the woman who made me invincible may not actually be as invincible herself as I always thought she was is an eye opening wake up call that I wasn’t expecting to affect me in quite the way it has.

PLEASE stay inside and observe social distancing so I can be close to my mum again and her and other high risk people (and everyone else) can safely leave their house at some point this year.

Stay Safe, Stay Inside, Wash Your Hands and Stay Invincible!

Em (Invincible Woman On Wheels)

Chippenham to Birmingham New Street for Aston Postgraduate Open Day (GWR & Cross-Country Trains)

Here’s another train travel blog. This time, my long overdue review of my trip from Chippenham to Birmingham New Street (via Bristol Temple Meads) for the Aston University (where I’ll be a student by the time you read this!) Postgraduate Open Day back in June.

Outbound

Ticket Buying & Getting On at Chippenham

Tickets were bought on Trainline as per my usual ticket buying method. On the day of travel, I made myself known to staff at the station 20 minutes before train departure and then made my way across to the platform. It seemed that on this day there were fewer staff than usual, but the assistance was still well provided in a timely fashion.

On Train

On the train, there was nothing of note to report as it was only 30 minutes so a short journey. Free coffee was a massive bonus as usual though!

Disembarking & Leaving at Bristol Temple Meads

On arrival at Bristol Temple Meads, the on board staff waited with me until assistance staff arrived with the ramp which was more reassuring than being left on the train obviously. I then made my way through the large station and waited for my next train at the assisted travel desk.

Getting On at Bristol Temple Meads

For boarding my Cross Country train to Birmingham , the assistance on to the train arrived well in time for said train. However, it must be said that the ramp onto the train way steeper and that if there’s some ramp gradient guideline for trains it probably doesn’t meet those guidelines. So, I would be extra careful when boarding these trains.

On Train

The wheelchair space on the Birmingham train was quite small and my wheelchair barely fit. This confused me because it’s a small Motability standard electric wheelchair so surely it should be big enough to fit anywhere?! I was also surrounded by luggage which made for quite a claustrophobic train ride. 

Disembarking & Leaving at Birmingham New Street

I found the corridor really tight to navigate when trying to exit the train. Remember that ramp that I said was steep getting on the train? Yeeeaaaaah, turns out it’s even worse going down, particularly if you add in spatial awareness issues like I have. I have to say that the staff at Birmingham New Street were excellent and really helpful in guiding me down the aforementioned steep ramp.

Return

Getting On at Birmingham New Street

When it came to starting the return journey from Birmingham New Street, I arrived well in time before my train, even more than the requested 20 minutes prior to train departure. I then found that they’d repositioned the assistance desk from where it was last time I visited, so I asked where it was and was guided there by station staff. Being so early allowed me to get food etc. before my train which was a bonus. The ramp was again quite steep, maybe this is a specific problem for Cross Country trains?

On Train

On the train, the wheelchair space was again small and cramped, and yet again I was surrounded by luggage. Is this sounding déjà vu from the outbound journey? It felt like déjà vu.

Getting On at Bristol Temple Meads

Getting off the Birmingham, there was steep ramp down again, which station staff said should be longer (and therefore less steep) when I asked them about it. This made me wonder: why isn’t it a longer ramp then? I’m not saying that’s the station staff’s fault, but if there’s a problem known by someone, maybe we could try and fix said problem?! I must say though that what I thought would be a tight 20 minute connection was in fact not that tight a connection as I was straight off one train and taken straight to the other one.

On Train

On the train from Bristol Temple Meads to Chippenham there was really nothing to report. There were some concerns from on train staff that Chippenham was unmanned due to my late travel time but these worries turned out to be unfounded as Chippenham WAS manned. I must say that I was glad for the ample space in GWR train wheelchair spaces after the cramped Cross Country.

Disembarking & Leaving at Chippenham

When it came to disembarking at Chippenham, station staff got me off the train with the ramp and I was able to make my own way home.

I hope this gives an insight into my journey from Chippenham to Birmingham and particularly insight into what it’s like getting connecting trains as a solo wheelchair user!

Stay Invincible!

Em (Invincible Woman On Wheels)

Brunel University Experience as a Disabled Student – The Good, the Bad, the Ugly and the Surprising

Photo Credit: Holly Ashby

Those of you who’ve been following my journey, either personally or just through the blog, recently will know that I just graduated with a BSc in Psychology and Sociology with Professional Development from Brunel University London. Here, I’ll be talking about my experiences as a disabled student at Brunel, the good, the bad, the ugly and the surprising. This is something I’ve already sort of discussed in the Guardian, but I thought I’d discuss it a little more, particularly with the new year starting and freshers about to make the move to university.

The Good

So, let’s start with the good. Firstly, the BIGGEST shout out has to go to Brunel’s Disability and Dyslexia Service (DDS). The amount of help they gave me from the minute I rolled into Brunel to the minute I left was unreal. From setting up my support profile to contacting lecturers for me about access issues when I couldn’t get to lectures, to giving me the details for who to contact about access complaints, to generally being a sounding board when I was frustrated with access and university and life in general. It’s amazing how comforting it can be to have someone say “yeah that’s definitely a problem” when you bring up access issues, otherwise you just begin to think you’re overreacting. I will always be grateful for the support DDS provided.

Another good side of Brunel was of course the degree I earned there, and what I learned in an academic sense. It’s broadened my academic knowledge more than I ever thought possible, opened doors to new areas of psychology that I didn’t even know existed and allowed me to achieve my dream of getting a degree (a dream I’ve had since I was 14). It’s also led me onto further things academically, specifically a Masters degree in Cognitive Neuroscience at Aston University, which I’ll be starting in September.

It’s also led me onto other things outside of academia, specifically in this blog, there are entire posts on various parts of my Brunel experience on here, and there have been blog opportunities I wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t been at Brunel.

As cliché as it sounds, my experiences at Brunel have shaped who I am, for good or for bad. I know I wouldn’t be this willing to fight for change and better access for disabled people if I hadn’t constantly had to fight for it for myself. Brunel turned me from a self-advocate into an activist because it showed me that issues I encountered weren’t just issues for me but for others as well.

The Bad

Now here comes the bad, despite Brunel’s status as a fairly flat single campus university, there were still issues. In the end it began to feel like a pretty constant battle alongside trying to get a degree. If it wasn’t broken library lifts or lecture centre lifts, it was fire safety issues (being left in a fire refuge area with no information as to whether there’s actually a fire or not is REALLY great, not). If it wasn’t either of those it was campus “updates” altering accessible routes around campus and in some cases making them LESS accessible, or other minor access issues like automatic doors being turned off. All of these sound like minor issues on their own but it all builds up and having to deal with issues like these constantly is draining.

The Ugly

AAAAAANNNNNND onto the ugly side of things, the reason I say ugly is that these issues are the ones that impacted me the most, because they directly impacted my ability to involve myself in the degree I went to Brunel to achieve. What were those issues I hear you ask? Being timetabled in lecture rooms upstairs without a lift in the building (meaning the room was inaccessible to me) and simply being told to go home (I didn’t pay £9k a year to GO HOME). Oh, and there was that time the only lift in a building broke the night before one of my final year EXAMS with no backup plan, meaning I couldn’t get to my exam room and had to take the exam in a ground floor office. I hope you can understand now what I mean when I say this is the ugly side of Brunel’s (in)accessibility. My access needs should not stop me from attending my degree but there were occasions at Brunel when they did.

The Surprising

Now for the surprising side. One surprise for me (a good surprise) was that my lecturers were as angry as I was about the broken lifts or inaccessible lecture rooms which stopped me getting to lectures. The reason this was a surprise was, and this might sound a little upsetting but it’s true, when you get used to the kind of blasé “that’s just the way it is” attitude to accessibility that I seemed to be getting from Brunel, you begin to think that attitude extends to everyone in the institution, but my lecturers reactions to these access issues showed me that it does not.

The other surprise was how easily and instantly procedure changes were mentioned or I was brought to meetings to discuss access issues once I started raising complaints every time an issue arose. The surprising thing here was why did it have to get to this point? Why did I have to make myself heard constantly to get someone to listen?. I don’t want to be the girl that yells about access all the time, but I’ll yell until I’m listened to. This could have been so much simpler if access issues were recognised WITHOUT me having to yell about them.

So, now everything’s said and done, Brunel: You were an experience to say the least, and while I made some of the best friends and learned a lot in an academic sense, you certainly could have made my experience easier from an accessibility standpoint. Having said that, these experiences have shaped me and shown me how much of a self-advocate I can be. So, for that reason, I’ll always be oddly thankful for these 4 years of experience. Next Stop: Birmingham for this Masters degree, to the next adventure I go!

Stay Invincible!

Em (Invincible Woman On Wheels)

Venture Competition Pitch Speech

A certificate stating i (Emma Dobson) was a finalist in the Venture Competition 2019

Recently, I entered the Venture Competition at Brunel University London (my university) in the hopes of acquiring some funding to take the blog to the next level in terms of reach and impact.  I was selected as one of the 9 finalists from 52 applications. Below is a transcript of the pitch I planned to give (it didn’t go quite like this, as is often the case with these things):

InvincibleWomanOnWheels is a blog that gives a realistic view on life with a disability through blog posts discussing disability issues, disabled traveller guides and accessibility reviews from the viewpoint of a wheelchair user

Where did this start?

So where did this story begin? If we’re talking about my personal journey with disability, it started with a cerebral palsy diagnosis around the age of 1 or 2. But that’s all I’ll say on that because InvincibleWomanOnWheels isn’t just about me or my diagnosis it’s much bigger than that.

InvincibleWomanOnWheels itself sprang from a girls trip to Palermo in Sicily. During this trip, we encountered many obstacles to be overcome, some were general holiday issues, but most were more specific accessibility issues. The sort of situations where we were under the impression that somewhere was accessible but arrived to find it actually wasn’t. In the course of overcoming these obstacles we came to refer to ourselves as “The Invincible Women”. It was from these experiences that my friends encouraged me to begin writing about the issues I face as a disabled person and the approach I take to life, as my “can do” attitude was not the attitude they were used to seeing about disabled people and they felt that my stories could help others. I’ll admit I was a little hesitant at the idea to begin with, mostly because, as the can-do attitude is the one I was always raised with, it was difficult for me to understand how there was any other attitude to have. It’s always a little difficult to step beyond your own perspective and see things from a different viewpoint.

But this idea of attitudes is the crux of the problem, disability is always painted as a negative thing, the world of sympathetic head tilts and “oh I’m sorry’s”, but it doesn’t have to be portrayed in this way. And I want to be a leading light in showing that disability doesn’t have to be seen in this way. Not just for society as a whole, but to support other disabled people in ensuring they know they’re right to not view their disability as a bad thing, and for parents of newly diagnosed children, disability isn’t the negative raincloud everyone makes it out to be, it’s the thing that’s led to me to stages such as this one.

Now, just a quick question to contextualise those issues that I face that I mentioned early: what percentage of the London Underground do you think have step free access [wait for answers] it’s actually just over 25%

Where are we now?

So, with that back story in mind, where does the blog currently stand? The blog currently has over 1.8k views from over 1.2k viewers in 26 countries, which I think speaks for the impact that it has already had on changing the problem around attitudes to disability that I discussed earlier.  It currently comprises content including disabled traveller guides (from the viewpoint of trips I myself have taken to those places), venue accessibility reviews (from the largest venues such as Alexandra Palace to the smallest venues such as Koko in Camden) and blogs about wider disability related issues such as language around disability and behaviour around disabled people.

These posts have allowed me to start discussions with venues around improving their accessibility and opened discussions with big companies and institutions such as National Rail and Great Western Railway about the way they treat their disabled patrons. It has also opened up engagement with well-known musicians and some of Europe’s top mixed martial artists

Where do we go from here?

Now this dear reader is where I paraphrase, because of course I’m not asking you for money, with that in mind, here are the improvements I wished to make to the blog if I had received funding:

I have one overarching goal from this and that it is to turn this labour of love into something bigger, something more professional and something that goes beyond just me, because, as I’ve said before, this is more than just my story.

With that goal in mind there are two smaller aims going forward, the first of these is to expand and develop InvincibleWomanOnWheels as a brand, this will include connecting with more businesses to establish the blog as a more credible entity. This will also include more technical things such as upgrading the current blog site subscription to allow for improvements in content, or securing a non-subscription site and domain name, as well as finding ways to improve the SEO, all of this would also entail hiring a web designer to design a professional website.

I also want to branch beyond the written word to begin vlogging and using photographs, which would require the purchase of a good quality camera and editing software.

The second aim is to represent that global readership in 26 countries that I mentioned earlier. This means two things: firstly, travelling to other countries to review venues there and the general accessibility, suggested posts in this vein would include a trip to New York to review the accessibility of the Subway in comparison to the London Underground (which I have already reviewed to a degree). Secondly it would mean connecting with other disability bloggers in other countries and with other disabilities to provide a more rounded view of venue accessibility the world over.

Even though I was unsuccessful in my bid for funding this time, I hope that this experience of pitching to a panel of judges gives me the confidence to enter further funding competitions and develop InvincibleWomanOnWheels into a brand that changes the world, which I know it can be.

Stay Invincible!

Em (Invincible Woman On Wheels)

TEDx Speech

Further to my earlier blog post about my experience of the Brunel TEDx talk auditions, here is a transcript of the speech I gave at my audition. I tried to keep the actual speech as it was written here, so you can get the full effect of what I said.

20 years ago, the doctors told me something that would change my life, or at least something they thought would change my life. 20 years ago, I was diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy (a neurological condition that, as you can see, means I ended up with a snazzy set of wheels). I’ll come back to why I don’t see my diagnosis as life changing at the end of this talk.

I run a blog called InvincibleWomanOnWheels where I write venue accessibility reviews, disability travel stories and discussion of disability issues, but this talk is less about what I write and more why.

So, since InvincibleWomanonwheels is MY blog and these (points at chair) are wheels, that must make me the Invincible Woman, right? Wrong, if I AM the invincible Woman, I’m the second generation, the first is my mum. She was the one who sat and willed me through being 10 weeks premature and the size of a stuffed snake toy, to being the tough as nails, stubborn as hell, will “not give up until she reaches her goals” 21-year-old invincible woman on wheels that I am today. She heard every no as no’one’s done it yet, because these doctors never knew the world from my viewpoint, and for that I’ll always be grateful.  And that “we’ll figure it out” has sort of become a mantra. The amount of times I’ve answered, “how are you going to…” with “I’ll figure it out” I’m starting to sound like a broken record.

You see, the problem is that everyone focuses on this idea of disability as negative or limiting, it’s in all the definitions, so disability needs to be redefined. and I’m not saying that InvincibleWomanOnWheels is the whole solution, I’d never say that, but I certainly want to be part of the solution!

The point behind InvincibleWomanOnWheels is to carry on those messages that my mum taught me for the next generation, to be a guiding light for the parents who don’t know where to turn when their child is diagnosed, for the children who don’t know how they’re going to overcome their disability and achieve everything they want, because when every “expert” says no or can’t, you’re likely to believe them right?

But you don’t have to, anything is possible. Surely you can’t live in the capital where only 26% of the underground network is accessible? Watch me, surely a girl’s holiday with no parents can’t happen? See me drive up the side of Mount Etna, to quote Sinatra: I did it my way, and you will too.

you’re probably wondering why I write a blog rather than do speeches like this, and to me it’s because “seeing is believing” and, as disabled people, we spend so much time having so many different “experts” tell us many different things that you don’t know who to believe and so it’s easier to just see the message rather than hear it.

Now seems a good time to come back to what I said at the start, that for me this disability isn’t life changing, and that’s because life changing suggests that something has to be different or that something is different from before. But my life doesn’t HAVE to be any different from anyone else’s and I’ve never known anything different.

So, to those parents whose child has just been diagnosed with a disability, know they can still do everything they wish. And for those children with disabilities, be invincible, be phenomenal, do everything you ever wished and don’t ever let anyone tell you can’t. Think of it this way: I’m taking the exact same life journey as everyone else, I’m just doing it in a customised car.

 Thankyou

Given what I said here, I’d like to thank my mum and everyone who supported me with my audition.

Stay Invincible!

Em (Invincible Woman on Wheels)

Brunel TEDx talk

This blog post’s a little different from my usual posts. This time I’ll be talking about my experience of the Brunel University (my university) TEDx talk application and audition process.

Well firstly, what is TED and TEDx? TED is a “non-profit organisation devoted to spreading new ideas” through events with speakers and presentations on various themes, and TEDx is simply the local, self-organised version of the wider project. When Brunel University announced they were holding a TEDx talk on the theme of The Future of Us, I jumped at the chance to apply, given my belief that Invincible Woman on Wheels can genuinely inspire a change in the wider community in the future.

The first step was to fill in the application form. On that form there were 4 sections: my name, the title of the talk I wanted to give, a short 500-word synopsis of what I wanted to talk about and the impact of my brand/topic on humanity. Now, while my name is a very straightforward answer, the talk title and synopsis were more difficult. For the talk title I decide to use the same title as the blog (Invincible Woman on Wheels), this was because I’d decided to talk about the meaning behind the blog and what I meant to achieve with it and therefore linking the blog title and the talk title seemed the simplest nod to the basis of the talk. Despite knowing I wanted to talk about the meaning behind the blog, I still found the synopsis writing a little tricky, it was difficult to distil the mission and ethos of Invincible Woman on Wheels into just 500 words. Also, even though I knew the change I wanted to inspire with Invincible Woman on Wheels, it was difficult for me to think of it in the wider context of an impact on the whole of humanity, purely because I did not expect this blog to have the global reach it now does!

Then my application was sent off, and after much anxious waiting I was lucky enough to be selected for the long list (from which the two student speakers for the event would be chosen). Now, while this may not seem like much to those who are well versed in the art of public speaking and do things like this all the time, it was a huge deal to me, particularly considering the blog is self-run by me alone and was (at the time of the application) only six months old!

Soon it came time to prepare my long list selection talk, a five-minute-long version of my full talk that would be delivered to a panel of judges who would then decide which two student speakers would speak at the event.  I had to write my speech down (which meant yes, my talk was completely scripted, don’t judge me!) because I am (or at least hope I am) better with the written word than the spoken word. I was also difficult knowing how much of my story to include in the talk. That’s because Invincible Woman on Wheels is about me but also not about me, it’s about the difference my stories can make to others and how my stories inspire others. The final part of my preparations was a run through of the talk with my editor extraordinaire Nikki who I felt understood the meaning behind the blog and the message I was trying to get across in the talk best.

When the day of my actual audition talk came, I was super nervous because, as I’ve already said, I’m not very good with the spoken word and am much better with the written word. Knowing this about myself made me very aware of what a major step I was talking by even doing the audition, and as a result I stumbled over my words frequently and was very jittery. I felt in the end that I didn’t do the blog justice, so it was no surprise to me when I didn’t make it through to the full talk (although I want to offer my congratulations to those that did. Despite falling at what was essentially the final TED talk application hurdle, it was still an honour and a massive learning experience to be anywhere near a platform like TED.

I hope this provides an insight into my experience of the application and audition process for the Brunel University TEDx talk (and please let me know if you’d like to see a full transcript of my audition talk!)

Stay Invincible!

Em (Invincible Woman on Wheels)

Being Questioned Academically

This blog’s a bit of a weird one. And not something I’d usually talk about. This one’s about what it feels like to be questioned academically because of things connected to my disability, along with a little story of when I felt like that.

The first thing I need to make clear is, I have Cerebral Palsy. It is a neurological condition which DOES mean it affects my brain, however, (as I discussed in “Disability & Language” when I stated why I don’t like referring to Cerebral Palsy as the neurological condition it is) it also DOESN’T affect my “brain”, in that it doesn’t affect my intelligence or my ability to participate in academia like everyone else.

Another part of the reason being questioned like this can hurt is because I pride myself on my academic ability. It’s the one thing that just seemed to click with me. Everything else I’ve had to work at and gain confidence in myself and my ability to do it, but books and academia just seemed to make sense from the start.

Now onto story time and the reason why I decided to write this post. Most of you may well know by now that I’m heading into my final year at university in September, and THAT means it’s time to start thinking about dissertation. I knew I wanted my dissertation to involve FMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) so I went to my personal tutor to ask if the university would be willing to let a lowly undergraduate like myself use the big fancy FMRI machines (because they are rather technical, and I heard several things from different people about whether undergraduates were allowed to use the FMRI machines. Yet right after I’d asked this question, my tutor’s response was: but they’re magnetic so *looks at chair, then at me, then back at chair* how are you going to…?  what they meant, without finishing the sentence was: how are you going to take the giant metal thing in which you sit near the magnetic machinery? And don’t get me wrong, this is a valid question, it’s just more of an “ugh, I’m here asking if my dissertation idea is too advanced for you to let me do it (spoiler: it was) and you’re questioning how I’m going to take my wheelchair near the machine like I haven’t possibly thought of that before this meeting, really?!”

For those of you wondering about the solution. Transferring out of my wheelchair is a thing that I can do. This odd assumption that a wheelchair automatically means you’re paralysed needs to stop, for some people like myself, a wheelchair just allows you to do more and live life more. Also, even if transferring out of my chair wasn’t an option, I’d figure out a way to make this situation work, I always do. Academia is the one area where I don’t see the impact of my condition, and I’m determined to keep it that way.

Stay Invincible!

Em (InvincibleWomanOnWheels)

Brunel University London Blue Badge parking policy

I know I said I wouldn’t post about university issues often on here, but this parking policy and its enforcement is an ongoing issue for disabled students at Brunel and this blog is a platform for issues to be voiced so voice issues I shall.

Now, first thing’s first, I use the term ‘policy’ loosely when discussing Brunel’s disabled parking because policies are defined as involving action and, as far as I can tell, there’s very little action happening when it comes to the enforcement of this policy.

Before the inevitable comments roll in, I understand that disabled parking issues aren’t entirely the university’s fault and there will always be people who park where they want, when they want, regardless of whether they’re Blue Badge holders or not.  What really needs to change here is how that’s dealt with and how the policy is enforced as a whole.

The first issue is that, when the policy’s enforced, it’s only enforced between 9am and 5pm despite security officers (who enforce the policy) being available on campus 24/7, like disabled students don’t need their Blue Badge after 5pm or I can just hop out of my wheelchair and go for a stroll past 5pm?! Disability isn’t time constrained, so I don’t see why disabled parking policies are, particularly when there are people who can enforce the policy.

You, like me, are probably wondering why the policy isn’t enforced after 5pm, well, students have been told that the policy can’t be enforced after 5pm as there is no machine available for parking tickets after this time, this is, however, known to be untrue as student have seen the machine in use after 5pm when they’ve persevered and made security use it, so it seems not enforcing the policy after 5pm is more an issue of won’t than can’t.

When it is mentioned to students that they’re parking in a disabled bay without a badge there tend to be 2 main responses. The first is “I park here all the time”, that’s the problem, you’re not supposed to, so just don’t, those spaces are meant for those who physically don’t have the mobility to park elsewhere, not those who physically can’t be bothered to walk a few extra feet (and with the layout of Brunel’s halls parking it really is no more than a few extra feet).

On the subject of not being able to park elsewhere, the other response is “You can park somewhere else”, no no no, the entire point of a Blue Badge is that you are judged to need to park in a Blue Badge space. There are Blue Badge eligibility criteria, and if you meet those, there’s no argument about it, you NEED that space, and I bet if you asked Blue Badge holders if they’d swap their Blue Badge for the mobility to be able to park anywhere, I’m pretty sure they’d say yes, I know I would.

You’re probably asking, “Why not just say something?” or “Why not just bring it up with the university?”, and the short answer is, the issue has been raised but it’s been acknowledged and ignored. Brunel’s viewpoint on this (and other disability issues) seems to be, as my friend Sean put it, “it’s a problem but it’s not my problem”.

I never want to bash my university and expose their faults, but I hope this post opens their eyes as to how much of an issue disabled parking is at Brunel.

Stay Invincible!

Em (InvincibleWomanOnWheels)