………………..all journey’s have to begin somewhere, our lives are one long journey broken into much smaller chapters, each with it’s own journey to tell. The latest chapter or journey if you like began for me when I was in the depths of despair. Having had chronic pain for 14 years now the depths of despair are nothing new to me. Each chapter usually goes through the cycle of huge success and failure, real triumphs or periods of despair and can be a year in length or a week. That’s to say that each of my chapters usually go through journey’s with extreme highs followed then by extreme lows the big difference however is that each chapter or journey is over an unknown period of time, so sometimes I have people around me to celebrate my success, sometimes it’s a minor thing to others too insignificant to others to notice and it soon becomes sad, and when it is a period of sustained pain and depression I am lucky and usually have more time to adjust, more people around me to support me, and more people who are starting to notice the extreme moods and self loathing.
My pain was off the charts, I was unable to work and I had, had no choice but to accept ill health retirement as the last resort to attempting to control my pain to a level that enabled me to even function on a semi-bearable level. I could not help at home, my wife was working 3 jobs one full time social worker one full time carer to me and one as a home maker! I felt worthless, like sh!t on a shoe, I couldn’t even be left alone with my LG as my medication made me too drowsy. Life really was spiraling towards the very deep, dark dungeons of my mind that have trapped me and taken many years and memories from me since my car accident.
To compound my misery, and trust me at the time I was very miserable, and everything seemed personal, the new £100,000 play area that my council was so proud of building, despite my comments during the planning stages that where it was being moved to was making it inaccessible was duly opened and lo and behold the path that the Town Clerk had emailed to say they would look to put in was nowhere in sight. In fact the first time I tried to make my LG to it I was unaware of this, I got out of the car got into my wheelchair and realised that the park was so far away I couldn’t even make out what was on it and there was no way of accessing it. I then had the unenviable task of trying to console and reason with a 2 year old who was crying and screaming in the car all the way home.
The first time I got help accessing the park it was obvious it had not been thought through, yes there were pieces of equipment designed for disabled children but there was no way they would easily move independently around the pieces. They wouldn’t be able to wheel after their friends the ground just isn’t suitable. When I was pushed through the gate less than a month after opening of the park it was in such a bad state of repair that I was catapulted forward out of my wheelchair and it was more through luck than judgement that I managed not to eat dirt. I had been in contact with Equal Lives a charity that works with disabled people in a number of ways, empowering them to live as independently or Equally as others. I discovered there was nobody to help me. Norwich has an Access Group (NAG), Dereham and District has an access group (DDAG) with over 50 years of helping disabled people among them, Wymondham well we’re still a backwater with a council office that was until recently inaccessible, and a council that holds meetings unless requested otherwise in rooms that are not accessible.
I decided at that point that things had to change and started speaking to Equal Lives about how to set up an access group in Wymondham. What issues would I face, how should I publicise it and so on. There was no illusion it was going to be incredibly difficult, barriers would be put in place, scaremongering about our “purpose” would happen and an incredible amount of time, dedication, drive and enthusiasm was going to be needed. I wasn’t sure I had the strength of resolve to do that with all the other turmoil in my life surrounding my disability.
Then at the turn of the year my town council proposed moving equipment from the one accessible play area that they owned (they own 6 all with large playing fields so you can take a picnic play ball sports, throw a Frisbee the sort of thing that makes the difference between a quick trip to the park and a spoon sapping day-trip to the park more worthwhile) to the most inaccessible play area that they owned. Now there are all sorts of processes and assessments that need to be considered under the Equality Act (2010) and the Public Sector Equality Duty that they have as a public body that makes this decision ludicrous let alone the legal implications. The park had been saved from an Asda development a few years earlier after huge community involvement. Following which was a consultation about the site, overwhelmingly the public wanted to keep the meadow green as was the slogan and to expand the playground. I then sat at a council meeting where the good old excuse you hear in the House of Commons time and time again was rolled out, we’re having to correct the previous councils mistakes.
The previous council following the consultation had a £75,000 refurbishment and expansion project, well documented in the press at the time completed on the park, and like Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams, if you build it they will come. Surely enough families came as there was a decent park, with decent access, next to a huge car park and near town perfect! Except these children having fun caused noise, far too much noise so that at the meeting we heard there was frequent anti social behaviour (a FOI act request listed 4 reports to the police 3 in a 1 week period and one more for the entire 14 month period) and the horrendous noise of children playing made lives unbearable and gardens unusable. It was claimed the only action at a cost of an estimated £60,000 (of reserve funds) was to rip up the new equipment and plonk it elsewhere at a teenagers park! Despite pleas from some level headed Councillors for exploring other options this was a done deal and the vote was passed.
Now that night, totally out of my comfort zone I sat in my wheelchair in a room of over 100 people (terrified and being seen for the first time by many in my chair) and pleaded for the one accessible play area, the play area the town clerk had told me to use when I was fighting for a path at Ketts Park as it was accessible, to be left alone. The proposer was the same Councillor who told me no money was available for a path for access said for the sake of the lives of 5 complainants households it was the right thing to do. Without trying to get too political one household is a Councillor, who just so happens to be good friends with the proposer and I felt I was seeing a dictatorship under the guise of democracy in action that night. The mayor was stating how he was going to vote, and how he felt others should vote like the role of the party whip in the House of Commons. A complete disregard to the Equality Act and the overwhelming feeling of the public and boom. I snapped, the red mist descended, the fire inside of me that my car accident had extinguished was once again ignited. I knew at that moment I could not just sit in my chair and allow this to happen.
Two days later the park was on the front of our local newspaper and when my LG saw it and I explained why it was on there she burst in to tears shouting but daddy that’s the only park you can take me to. A 3 year old could see the significance of a decision that supposedly grown adults had missed. That day in February I knew I was going to put all the time I could physically cope with (about 5 hours a week) into making things change.
I met a core of able bodied (not that it makes a difference to me as I believe in access for all) people who started supporting me, making FOI requests, starting an online petition which has over 1000 signatures more than double the number of respondents of the councils shaping Wymondham survey, and keeping the pressure on. I was following the Councils complaints procedure for discrimination on the grounds of disability (which never got responded to merely forwarded to the Councils solicitors and now I can only address my questions to them), other people complained and they never got a written response but a knock on the door and a little chat, after all where’s the evidence of those chats, I never said that m’lord, can you prove that m’lord.
Mixed in with all this I was mounting a campaign to create Wymondham Access Group. An initial meeting was held in March with over 20 attendees and an overwhelming yes we want and need this group. NAG & DDAG have been superb in helping us, and sharing their documents and constitutions and so on, and on the 26th April 2016 Wymondham Access Group (WAG) was formerly created with a mission statement and constitution and I was proud and honoured to be elected the Chair of WAG in its inaugural year, and I hope for many years to come. I have grand schemes to have this rolling out across all of South Norfolk and really bringing Norfolk into the 21st Century. London 2012 may have done some work but like so often is the case Norfolk remains many years behind the capital.
I am sure I will make mistakes along the way, I am human and new to all this, I am also somewhat relaxed in my approach to things so it takes a long time to wind me up to the point of exploding (in this case over a year from when I first raised an access issue during the planning stages of a play area (a path which would benefit parents with pushchairs too) to the creation of a group. My blog whilst mentioning WAG will reflect my own personal views and these may be separate to the views of WAG. I at least know I will have the right amount of integrity and professionalism to keep personal views and relationships apart from the work and direction of WAG even if my own view differs to that of the group, as any good responsible Chair should. WAG is open to all as access issues can affect anyone at anytime and we want to support people whether they are disabled or not, we have a train platform that many parents with pushchairs, disabled and elderly cannot access, we can all at any point need help or signposting and we hope overtime to provide all this. It will take time but with community support I am sure we will get there.
At my lowest, and when backed into a corner I felt I had two choices give in or fight on, my 3 year old LG made me see I really only had 1 choice and that I had to stand up to people who were ignoring the rights afforded to me under the Equality Act and so it seems many other disabled people in the town. Together we are stronger, together we will make positive change, together we will educate people, together we will consult with people, together we will help businesses expand their customer base and together we will make Wymondham somewhere that people regardless of what barriers they face in life will be able to visit and enjoy. A large goal, a lifetime’s work, a legacy perhaps for others to learn from, but above all else a new Journey and chapter for me………………………….