All’s well that ends well

Finding somewhere that works that doesn’t break the bank

summer

So after my London jaunt I moved up to Suffolk to visit my mum, who lives in Beccles. Here’s a pic of the lovely Southwold lighthouse in summertime. Sadly we hadn’t quite got those temperatures last week.

cold

A steamy 15 degrees was about as good as it got last week – which is as good as freezing when you’re used to 30 degrees+ every day. The beach and the North Sea weren’t looking too inviting either. Not even a local dipping their toes.

beach

But I did find myself an excellent place to stay that didn’t quite reach the lofty price of the Marriott at the Premier Inn, Lowestoft

After my earlier problems in the capital and a Facebook rant or two a friend mentioned Premier Inns had done the job for another disabled friend of his. And so it proved here. All the bells and whistles you’d want in a disabled friendly room. And the staff were great too.

I’d never come across them before, but there are two within spitting distance of the Marriott – one at the curiously named former ‘Lying in Hospital’. Lying in cos you’re too lazy to get up? Lying In cos you’re too sick to get up? Or maybe Lying In cos you’re just enjoying hospital food too much? The mind boggles.

Actually I just looked it up –  Lying In Hospital it was originally a maternity hospital. Lying In cos you’re too exhausted from giving birth then, I guess.

I’ll check it out the next time I’m in town.

But a few more holiday snaps – of the local wildlife you can find in these parts 🙂

teeth

fox

And there’s a whole bunch more wildlife at Africa Alive, and it’s got good disabled facilities too 🙂

Disabled in the Palace…

Buckingham Palace, that is…

buckhouse

I wouldn’t aim to post so soon after my last Blog, but watching the Queen’s carriage cross the forecourt of Buck House this morning on her way to the House of Lords for the State Opening of Parliament, I couldn’t help but think: I was right there wheeling over the gravel just last week.

I was there to see my father receive a MBE award for his work campaigning for pensioners affected by the Equitable Life financial scandal.

Right now I can’t perceive a reason why I might ever return, so this was a once in a lifetime opportunity. And how wheelchair friendly would the Palace be?

I’ve politely declined the offer of a Royal wheelchair,  figuring my own personal Royal seat would be more comfortable.

As my wheelchair makes tracks across the pink gravel my Royal assistant tells me one of the groundsmen has spent time raking it neatly that morning (and it was only 9.30am)

Maybe you could tarmac it? I comment.

Maybe, but I don’t think the boss would be too pleased, he replies.

There’s a small step up to the doorway and there’s a slight step but a row of ramps ready and waiting. I’m not the only wheelchair user here today.

There are 90 recipients this morning and each awardee can bring three guests.

Once inside I’m diverted away from the Grand Staircase. I’m going up the servant’s stairwell fitted with a wheelchair lift. I’m sceptical. It reminds me of the contraption at the consulting rooms of my London Neurologist in Queens Square (also at the backdoor because the building has listed building status).

Now here is where disability gets you a rare bonus. Front row seats to the Investiture. So close I can hear the conversation the Duke of Cambridge, Prince William is having with each honoree.

I’m lined up in front of the Equerry where the next recipient stands while William is talking to the current one.

It means I’ll be in every shot of the video being made of the event. Sorry folks. 🙂

William’s chatty today and spends several minutes talking to everyone. Cyclist Chris Froome is the ‘celebrity’ in today’s list with an OBE for services to cycling, so some two and a half hours after being wheeled into the State Room I’m in urgent need of the Royal ‘throne’. Non-Brits please look up the slang.

We weren’t allowed to take pictures inside, so here’s a shot after the ceremony was over, with my Dad and sister. A magical day.

outside

 

I’m happy to say the facilities were exemplary. And if her Majesty can get it right there’re no excuses elsewhere people. I now know the meaning of the Royal We… 😉

And on the way out…

gates1

 

 

 

Needing a Plan Ermm…

Yeah, you really couldn’t make this one up.

steph london

I suppose I should have known this was not to be an ordinary trip if my arrival into the UK for the first time in over two years was to be the judge.

As my plane pulled into the gate at Heathrow T4 the captain announces we cannot leave because we have a security issue.

First thought that comes into my hack mind: Funny time to hijack a plane as we’ve already landed.

The threat becomes clear when three burly coppers appear trying to arrest a man on the other side of the plane from me. He complains loudly of harassment for just trying to expose child abuse among Jehovah’s Witness followers.

‘Just because I’ve jumped bail,’ he protests, apparently failing to concede that this might be the very reason police are here to arrest him. I think: How was he allowed to get on the plane in the first place? Security fail.

A few hours later the morning’s entertainment was a faded memory as I tried and failed to find somewhere to stay. This was no mere Plan B adventure. (Blogs past) more of a Plan C, D and E misadventure.

Arriving at my pre-booked Novotel Lambeth Palace  I had to wait several hours before access to my room (so much for requesting early check-in Agoda.com).

And somehow my request for oatmeal porridge with soy milk was lost in translation when a jug of the cold stuff arrived with a bowl of dry oats. Still the chance of a hot shower and a lie down couldn’t be too far away could it?

Oh but it could.

Moving up to my disabled friendly, walk-in shower room I instantly spot a problem – the raised lip at the edge of the shower area. Presumably designed to stop water flowing out, sadly preventing me from rolling in.

Ok no problem. Been here before. On to Plan B. A quick call to my mate Susy who identified the far classier Park Plaza Westminster Bridge just down the road at Waterloo.

She’s called them, there’s a disabled room available, deposit paid on Agoda and we’re off. As far as the bathroom door – not even the shower this time.

A steep ramp’s in the way. Now while two and a bit years in a chair has given me ‘great guns’ according to my American friends, but more realistically boxers biceps, I cannot negotiate the barrier. I’m not a pro-wheelchair user and have had no training. I’m just a middle-aged hack who’s starting to lose patience.

So then, I ask, can your night staff come up several times a night to help get me to the loo, when I need to go?

Errm Ma’am no I don’t think we can.

Errm ok then Miss I need my money back and somewhere else to stay.

Onto Plan C. Let’s go to our sister hotel Park Plaza County Hall, just over the road, says the front desk manager. My friend Sam has joined me by now. We trundle down the road and up to the disabled friendly room.

Progress.

No ridge.

No ramp.

No nothing into the room or bathroom. 🙂

And no bleedin’ shower chair. 😦

Plan D then.

You havin’ a laugh?

You might ask.

Sadly I was not. Definitely.

Approximate time awake by now – approaching 36 hours. Approximate time before completely losing it – approaching five minutes.

I think Park Plaza is feeling a little guilty. A few phone calls later and I had a mates’ rate deal for three nights at the Marriott County Hall, where I’d stayed before.

A definite success.

After that the rates shot up, so I foolishly, foolishly booked five nights at the Mercure on Southampton Row. I’d stayed there before too, what could possibly go wrong?

But I digress. The stress of trying to find somewhere to stay, severe dehydration and a total lack of sleep meant the only place I was sleeping my first night in London was St Thomas’ hospital on a drip.

Definitely not a five star experience and the health care was less than stellar too.

So two nights only in the Marriott. The hotel has had a multi-million pound makeover since I last stayed. The room was great but there’s a problem – I see a hotel fashion this year. A mattress cover so thick it’s a mattress in itself. Same problem as at the Ibis Singapore. (Blogs past)

If this doesn’t come off I’m screwed again. Fortunately it does. Relief. “Yeah, we’ve had other people ask for this to be taken off before,” one of the staff tells me. Yep, it really shouldn’t be a princess and the pea moment.

And we still had to fit the bed rail.

Sadly 48 hours overlooking Big Ben and my two-night stay for the cost of three was over too fast. A taxi ride across the river and I’m outside the Mercure. Plan E is in motion.

My fifth hotel in four days.

“The disabled ramp’s just around the corner, through the café,” I tell my friend Susy, who’s come to help. She reappears seconds later. “No it’s not,” she says.  Three years and a renovation has also taken place.

I eye the steps at the entrance.

“Ermm, how am I going to get up that then?” “Ohh we’ve got a ramp ma’am,” says the doorman.

I’m beginning to get that sinking feeling, and once inside (after being carried up the steps) my unease increases. I call for the lift. The doors open and I wonder if I can even get through them.

A knuckle scraping push and I’m in and that’s about as good as it got.

Up to the exact same room I’d stayed in when I made my doco on MS three years ago. The walk-in shower was great. Note the key phrase: walk-in. Three years and a wheelchair later not quite the great shower it used to be.

The feeble shower stool and another bed with 15cm mattress cover sealed the deal.

An urgent Plan F was required.

Again, dear reader, insert expletive of your choice here, and repeat at will.

Four hours and many, many phone calls later and it was back to the Marriott. The mates-rate deal had gone. Marina Bay Sands (Blogs past) was looking like budget accommodation.

There comes a point however, when money ceases to be an issue. Safety, comfort and accessibility are the priority for those of us in chairs.

How is it though hotels large and small seem to get it so badly wrong?

I’m very fortunate enough to be able to afford expensive hotels…(well my credit card has enough stretch left in it for now) the majority of people, probably less so.

London accounts for nearly half of all tourist dollars spent in the UK, more than US $43 billion a year. Tourism accounts for about 10% of the country’s GDP.

It’s difficult to find any figure for the number of disabled people who travel, but a very unscientific check of London hotels, who claim to have disabled facilities, brings up more than 1300 places, so the hotel industry clearly thinks there’s a market.

Hotels need to make improvements. The de-facto ‘disabled friendly’ cheat sheet is flawed. And I suspect it’s because no-one thinks to even ask a disabled person what’s needed.  I’m happy to offer my advice.

As a postscript I really cannot fault the Marriott (well ok, the strange lack of shelves, or railings to hang the towels in the bathroom was a bit odd).

There were the pull down railings around the shower and toilet.

shower copy

Alarm cords for emergencies (though only one on one side of the bed, the opposite side to the one I sleep on) and space to put my wheelchair by the bed.

We even installed the mobile bed rail

And of course the staff was fabulous and the view of Big Ben inspiring.

Bigben

Now if we could pervert Listed Building statutes and have the hotel make the entrance disabled friendly too, instead of having to use the back door on Belvedere Road, that really would worth the money.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Disabled in… the water

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Yes, the disabled can dive…

So this weekend I found myself getting up insanely early for a Saturday and dragging out my very dusty dive gear from the cupboard to help out a great organisation called Diveheart.

Diveheart began life in the USA to help the disabled get their life mojo back, by showing them disability does not mean inability.

Here’s a link if you want to know more: Diveheart

I met its Malaysian organiser Syed Rahman at the Singapore dive show ADEX last month and agreed to come along to help out as I’m a qualified PADI dive instructor, although I’ve not been diving myself since losing my ability to walk in 2015.

So we trekked out to Kuala Lumpur’s suburbs to give a group of disabled people a scuba ‘experience’, to show them what it’s like to breathe underwater and the sensation of weightlessness being in water provides.

Water therapy – or hydrotherapy – is often used in rehabilitation medicine anyway, so it’s a win-win. You get to do something fab and benefit by doing it.

Now if you’ve never scuba dived you don’t know what you’ve been missing. The underwater world IS amazing. I’ve personally dived all over Asia and Micronesia, and spent four months working on the Tahiti Aggressor dive boat in French Polynesia. I found the turtle pictured above in the Maldives. But I love the big stuff, the small stuff, the colours, the currents.  And I’m not afraid of sharks!

Here’s a leopard shark in Thailand’s Andaman Islands for good measure…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

But learning to dive can be pretty challenging even if you’re perfectly able bodied, so for the disabled it might appear quite daunting.

We had a range of disabilities – neurological (me), a tetraplegic guy who’d lost the use of three limbs through a road traffic accident, amputees and even one who was visually impaired.

While you might ask how can a person who can’t see dive, Charles Rowe, who brought Diveheart to Singapore and Malaysia, insists blind divers can make great commercial divers in places where visibility is zero. For example because the water’s really murky or because it’s dark.

And because the visually impaired often have a greater sense of touch they can excel at things like underwater welding where touch and sound are vital. Imagine being asked to weld shut a hole in the side of a sunken boat for example. They get their air from the surface, not a scuba tank, so there’s no danger a blind diver will ever run out of the important stuff.

Normally when you’re doing something like a scuba try out you’d have one instructor to several students. With Diveheart it’s the other way around – one student to an instructor and two assistants. So there’s plenty of help. Just getting in the water needed two!

pool

scuba

After a quick briefing on signalling (Up, Down, OK, not OK) and some pointers on how to clear a mask, it was time to take the first breath. Non-divers find this a bit weird as you’re breathing through your mouth not your nose.

surface2

But once you’ve got the hang of that, it’s face down and away you go. Lots of splashing, oohs and aahs later and lots of happy faces.

uwater2

While this wasn’t a full Discover Scuba dive, it did give our would-be divers a feel of what open water diving is like. And with the right support anything’s possible.

uwater3

For  organiser Syed this inaugural event went off perfectly. “The smiles on their faces said it all.”

And should those who took part want to take it further dive centres around Asia are beginning to cater for the wheelchair bound.

(Ok here’s the ad part)

Utopia resort and spa in Puerto Galera, Philippines has one wheelchair accessible room. Utopia Resort and Spa  Owner Kelvin says PWDs (people with disabilities) get special discounts. (Do you really need a reason to try it out?)

And just round the headland also in Puerto Galera El Galleon resort El Galleon Asia Divers is about to upgrade two of its rooms to suit those in wheelchairs.

Owner Allan was inspired to create more disabled friendly spaces after a visit by a Belgian teacher, who only learned to dive after becoming disabled.

Allan told me: “John was an incredible inspiration and someone who ignores his handicap and shows no sign of giving up, [and] this is what I found amazing. He showed no sign of frustration having to do what he has to do, to do what he wants. If I had to work so hard to get into a wetsuit as he did, I think I would have given up, but not him!”

I know Puerto Galera very well. It’s where I learned to dive 16 years and 850+ dives ago, and you can see some pretty cool stuff there.

Over in Indonesia the NAD-Lembeh resort in Sulawesi NAD Lembeh Resort is also in the process of renovating some rooms. That’s run by my old Tahiti Aggressor boat colleague Simon and his wife Zee. And if you like taking photos Simon can show you some fantastic things underwater.

So no excuses people, get out there and take the plunge. You won’t regret it 🙂

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA