After spending three weeks touring the pubs, palaces, and parties of London, I Found only one place a wheelchair traveler should avoid a cobble stone street on a full bladder.
I know to the general public the phrase “wheelchair traveler” may seem like an oxymoron-they don’t belong in the same sentence After all, there are no elevators at the Great Pyramid of Cheops and the ramp to the bottom of the Grand Canyon is a very steep one. But people in wheelchairs go to even more inaccessible places. For example, disabled NPR correspondent John Hockenberry once took a donkey into the mountains of Kurdistan during the Gulf War-and he was riding in first class (rimshot).
So when my brother invites me to visit London where he’s living the life of the rich and famous (literally right down the road from the Duchess of York), I think “No problem.” I have friends there. I need a break from LA. I’m curious as to how my American brand of standup/sit-down comedy will fare overseas. He sends a frequent flyer ticket and I go.
It’s Sunday morning and I’m at LAX wearing my travel uniform, a Star Trek T-shirt emblazoned with the motto: “Disability Rights the Final Frontier. To Boldly Go Where Everyone Has Gone Before”. And I am going. Federal law man dates that airlines treat disabled people just like any other passenger. Of course, this means we get to wait in the same long lines, eat the same terrible food, and have our wheelchairs sent to Cleveland. But I’m early, flying business class. Everyone calls me “Sir” and “Mr. Ryan” and caters to my every whim. I feel like a bigshot executive.
I have to admit-flying makes me nervous. Not being up in the air. getting on the airplane. They have to strap me into this skinny little lug gage cart and wheel me down the aisle. I’m always afraid that they’ll get confused, stuff me in the overhead compartment, and I’ll end up riding around and around on the baggage carousel. I also make sure I never take a rearward-facing seat. I made that mistake once on a Southwest flight to Chicago and on takeoff fell face down into the lap of the pretty young lady sitting across from me. (Reminiscent of that Michael Douglas-Kathleen Turner scene in “Romancing the Stone”) Maybe I should reconsider.
I change planes in Dallas because it gets me out of the airline seat, back into my wheelchair, and lets me use the restroom. All the stalls are empty except for the handicap one which, as usual, is occupied by a non-disabled traveler and his luggage. I mutter a few unprintable words, and go in search of another.
I don’t look forward to my 10 hour transatlantic flight. The main reason I can’t use the lavatory on an airplane. You’ve seen those anorexic bathroom doors. Getting a wheelchair through there is like squeezing a teenage girl down a hallway full of naval aviators. It can’t be done. By the time we land, my legs are permanently crossed and my face is frozen into one of those “Jimmy Carter smiles.” Never mind the pillows and blankets, I need some shrubbery.
So when we land, I more than casually inquire about the facilities. I don’t expect much. Imagine my surprise when I’m escorted to a “dis abled only toilet. 1 Separate but equal. What an interesting concept. Even more amazing, it’s not already occupied by a two-footed person changing clothes, camping out, or playing racquetball.
The best part is the little box on the wall with a sign “In event of emergency, break glass.” I really want to try it. I envision the entire Royal Navy coming to rescue me. But unfortunately, it’s well out of my range. If I was able to reach it, and strong enough to break the glass, I’d have no business being there in the first place.
Transportation. Getting from one place to another. The biggest complaint of disabled people in London (or anywhere else for that matter). It’s hard to be a “man about town” when you can’t get on the buses and subways to get around town too. I love the open top double decker buses. They’re just missing on thing an electric winch to hoist me up and drop me in, or just hang me out in front like a giant hood ornament. There are a few accessible taxis with lowered floors and fold out channel ramps but they just leave me and my scooter feeling like a third wheel.
Trains are even more interesting. Ramps are available to get me on and off but only at certain stations, only by reservation, and only at certain times of the day. I finally figure out that I can take the train into town on a Tuesday morning, but only if I come back the night before. And there’s another problem. I can get on the train with no trouble, but on the return side there’s no exit the street except for a steep flight of stairs leading to a bridge going up and back over the tracks. I guess they mean it literally over here when they say that cliché “You can’t go home again.”
But that doesn’t stop me I take the train into London with some strong friends on a fine summer day (VJ Day) and we sit in sidewalk cafes, drink Belgian beer and watch jugglers and fire eaters in Covent Garden; we eat pasta and drink wine at an Italian restaurant in the theatre district, we tour the sleazy sex shoppes of Soho, most of which are upstairs. Why is all the good stuff always on the second floor? But on VJ Day, it doesn’t matter-it’s all happening in the street: drinking. Fighting, sex, dops, crooks, carousers-and that’s just the royal family (rimshot). I enter where I can, don’t where I can and keep moving.
But I am pleasantly surprised at how wheel chair-friendly the London streets are. They have plenty of curb cuts so there really isn’t a problem-unless you actually want to go into a store. Then the one step rule is in effect one step to get in, and one to get out. And not the easily jumped mini-steps or door jam raises. No. we’re talking the fall grown, rim breaking, six inch 1-dare-you-to-try me variety. Not for those short on courage, or spare parts. My scooter just whimpers and goes the other way.
Then, at the last minute, we decide to pass on the VJ Day parade and go to the theatre to see that marvelous musical “Crazy For You” We’re late, the curtain is going up. There are tickets, but no wheelchair seating. Undaunted, we convince management that I can be carried up the stairs to a seat and my wheel chair safely parked in the lobby. I know, some of my disabled friends. are frowning at my being carried upstairs like a sack of potatoes. All I can say is-when it comes to Gershwin, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.
Let’s not forget my grand London comedy performance One week into my trip. North London. ten o’clock Saturday night you can cut the silence with a knife. I’m sweating as I squint into the glare of the harsh spotlight. Half in the bag after 3 or 4 English beers, pinned in on all sides by wild-eyed drunks, I have to come up with a surefire punchline: “We have the same stereotype as black people. They think every disabled person is somehow related ‘Oh, you must know Christopher Reeve.’ That’s like me walking up to a hooker and saying ‘Oh, you must know Hugh Grant.’ Big laugh and I’m rolling again. When in doubt, do a Hugh Grant joke.
Making the rounds on the party circuit, the next afternoon finds me at a “Pimms Party”, named after a vile liquid that, when mixed with lemonade, tries to pass for something drinkable. I try one and realize that I am making the same face (sucking in the cheeks and scowling) that you see stuffy upper crust English do at garden parties in the movies. Now I know why.
My final day in London is a picnic with some new friends at the infamous residence of Henry VIII— Hampton Court. We tour the grounds, have brunch by the river and get hopelessly lost in the castle maze (reminds me of my first dealings with Social Security).
Since I didn’t have time to check out accommodations in London, anyone visiting there can just do what I did stay at my brother’s place on the golf course in the upscale town of Virginia Water.3 It’s four star all the way, meals are included, and Fergie’s place is in spying distance (BYOB. bring your own binoculars).
Three weeks go by in the blink of an eye. I can’t believe I’m on the plane heading home again. American Airlines bumps me into first class. This means all the wine I can drink (and my bladder can hold for ten hours), all the videos I can watch, a delicious meal, and more attention than I’ve received since the day I was born (the rich really do know how to live). We land. I get my wheelchair back in one piece (just barely), and once again I make a beeline for the airport restroom. Of course, the handicap stall occupied by a non-wheeled per son and his luggage. It’s good to be back home again.
1. Toilets are normally locked but you can buy a RADAR (Rail Association Disability And Rehabilitation) key that gets you into all the dis abled bathrooms.
2. After returning to the US, I found out about Station Link-a bus with a lift that does a constant loop between the railroad stations for about a pound. It also goes to the air ports.
3. If my brother is out of town or in a bad mood, you can always try: The Copthorn Tara near Knightsbridge at $200 per night is expensive but very accessible and high tech.
The Ibis Euston Station is cheaper and serviceable at $90. If you’re more adventurous and on a very low budget there’s a youth hostel by the Tower Bridge with two accessible rooms and even a roll in shower. For a more complete guide pick up a copy of Wheelchair Through Europe by Annie Mackin, $12.95 to Graphic Language at P.O. Box
270, Cardiff, CA 92007.