Sunday, 17 June 2012

Sitting in the Mud

This weekend I tried to go to a music festival for the first time since beginning to use the wheelchair. And this happened.


Ground beginning to be muddy on arrival but navigable in the chair on arrival and departure.

Went to the Catton stage tent, and were helpfully shown to the disabled ‘safe area’ by a steward who was marking it out by spraying paint on the floor. Four or five of us in chairs, plus our carers who set up their chairs (trust me, if you had been pushing me around a muddy field all day, you too would need to sit down!).  For most of the afternoon/early evening the tent wasn’t packed and the safe area worked well, even though the lines on the ground were hard to see.

Then it was time for Chumabawumba followed by Oysterband - and everything became quite seriously unpleasant for the rest of the evening. People wanted to form a mosh pit, and to get closer to the stage with their chairs. “Can’t you move forward a bit?” was the most polite comment we got. The lines on the floor were totally impossible to see now - no barriers were erected - and not for the whole evening was any steward anywhere near us to see that the safe area was maintained. Nor was a clear path out of the tent created, so trips to the loo were nigh on impossible.

We ended up with the chairs only inches apart (which besides being rather unpleasantly claustrophobic I suspect breaches Health and Safety Guidelines) and we and our carers constantly fending off people who wanted to come into the safe area ‘because there’s a space’ or to go through it (walking on our possessions) rather than the few extra steps it would have taken them to walk round. Our requests to have the space respected were met with everything from martyred sighs and eye-rolling (you know, the ‘sheesh, better humour the bitchy loonies in wheelchairs’ kind?) to aggression and swearing. One highly pleasant individual even tried to climb over our chairs.  It was deeply shocking and very very intimidating.

Oh, and I have a newsflash for the people who behaved like this and then cheered when Wagner at the Opera was played.  Guess what other groups besides Jews were persecuted by the Nazis? Your fake social consciences are showing, you ignorant  hypocritical arseholes.

I’m not really sure how you go about explaining to someone who doesn’t understand why disabled people need a safe area why we do, but I’ll have a go.  Remember when you were little, and being in a crowd was like being surrounded by giant strangers who randomly bump into you and  buffet you with handbags, briefcases and the like, at head height?  Well imagine that...and now imagine your ankles are tied together. Congratulations, you are now in a wheelchair in a crowd. Think it’s much fun?


Ground far muddier today, very hard for Anth to push me about the field in the chair.  By the time we leave, it’s almost impossible for him to do so, we have to detour a lot from the main areas, and fairly often pull the chair backwards rather than pushing.  Nothing has been put down on any part of the ground to make it more navigable - not sawdust, not carpet, not bark chips, not roll-out mesh.

Today people with wheelchairs don’t even try to set up in the Catton Tent ‘safe area’ - we just park quite near to one of the marquee doors. This is a lot pleasanter, and for most of the time, it’s possible to get the chair in and out of the tent.  It’s so hard to navigate outside that we just stay in here and listen to some great music. Oh, and I buy a very silly hat.

Then I make the mistake of trying to go for a wee.

By now, people have been allowed to set up chairs behind us, so getting the wheelchair out would involve asking two rows of people if they would mind disrupting themselves. Bearing in mind that, how very difficult getting the chair through the mud is, and the fact that the disabled portaloo (yes, there’s always ever only one - didn’t you know people stop having gender when they start to use a wheelchair?) is fairly close, I decide I’ll just try to make the short walk using my stick.

It’s not easy, my balance issues are bad enough when I’m not ploughing through mud, and I arrive just to see a young boy run into the one disabled loo and shut and lock the door. I’m very shaky now, and I lean on my stick and wait.  Five minutes pass, someone else comes along and tries the door.  “Occupied” I say.  “I’m going to just sit down on the floor to wait soon.”  Which sadly is true, but the queue for the ladies’ loos next to me seems to take it as ‘making a fuss’.

“You do know there are other toilets?” one woman ‘helpfully’ points out to me, indicating the normal portaloos, up their mud-covered set of steps. The ones that might as well be at the top of Scafell Pike, for me.

I point out to her that they are up steps, why does she think I am leaning on a walking stick?  She makes a sound rather like ‘tcha’ and turns her head.

Two other ladies very very kindly ask if I would like them to try to lift me up the steps, so that I can go to the loo before I wet myself.  I thank them, but say I don’t think it would be a good idea to try. I don’t add the reason - which is that them trying could easily cause me to wet myself - because I think that would have embarrassed them as well as me. It’s also not a good idea for untrained people to try lifting another person - in wet and muddy conditions the chance of such an attempt resulting in an injury to someone are fairly high, and I’m no lightweight.  I also don’t want to be manhandled by complete strangers, however blessedly kind they are (and those ladies  were).

“Well if you don’t want anyone to help you, stop making such a fuss!” snaps the 'nice' lady who pointed out the inaccessible loos to me  earlier.

The disabled loo remains occupied and locked.  I sit down on the floor in the mud, not just because my legs and arms are shaking too much to stand, but because I now am beginning to wet myself a little and it’s easier to disguise that sitting down than standing up. The entire queue looks embarrassed. Half of it also looks disgusted with me.

An adult woman arrives to tap on the door, asking if the occupant is ‘all right’.  I ask if she can get them to come out of the disabled toilet, as there is only one and the kid has been in there ten minutes.  I am glared at. “He is very sick, the medic sent him to go in there.”  “Well I’m sorry, but the medic shouldn’t have done that. This is for people who have limited mobility and cannot pee anywhere else. I’ve been waiting here ten minutes, I’ve had to sit on the floor, and I need them to come out or I will have to pee here in the mud.”

Looks of shock and disgust. It’s a sick child. How can I even ask such a thing? I repeat that I am sorry if anyone’s child is sick, but the only disabled loo is not an extension of the medic tent.

One of the medics arrives.  He too is absolutely disgusted with ‘my attitude’. Again I am told how very seriously ill this child is. Which to my mind begs the question - if so, why was the child sent unaccompanied to lock himself in any toilet, where he could have passed out and/or choked on his own vomit? Where no one checked up on him for ten minutes?

Eventually though, they do persuade the boy to unlock the door and come out.  I climb up my stick to standing - no, neither the medic nor the woman with the boy offered to help me - and I ask the medic why he sent someone to occupy the only disabled loo.  “Go and have this pee you apparently want so badly, and we’ll have this conversation when you come out love” he says. “We certainly will,” I say.  But when I come out again, he has vanished as has his patient and the woman (who was apparently ‘not his mother’).

(I cleared up the child’s vomit in there, by the way. Neither the medic nor the woman with the child had seemed to think they should offer to do so.)

Then I make my way back in tears to the Catton tent, and we decide to simply come home. I’m far too distressed to stay and watch Martin Simpson, who was one of the main reasons for buying tickets.  We speak to a steward on the way out of the tent, and he’s horrified - but can’t do anything.

I speak to one of the organising team at the main gate as we leave the site. Again, horrified but insistent there is nothing she can do. “What do you want me to do about it?” As a former professional event organiser, I make several suggestions:

“Ideally, have more than one disabled toilet.”  Too expensive.

“You could put a steward nearby to check the disabled loo is used properly”  No, she can’t, she hasn’t enough volunteers to ‘send one to just police the disabled toilet’.

“All right, I’ll volunteer. Give me a hi-vi and I’ll do the job” No, she can’t do that, we’ve paid for tickets.  (One of which apparently we needn’t have paid for, because it turns out in conversation with other disabled attendees that if you ring up and ask you can bring a carer free. But they don’t advertise that  anywhere, so unless you have telepathic powers, there’s no way to find out in advance).

“You could put an extra notice up on the toilet, asking your customers to please not use the disabled loo if they are not disabled, as you have had complaints.  You could also ask in the programme next time for people to be aware there are disabled attending and ask for some basic compassion and courtesy”.  She doesn’t seem to think this would help (and frankly, having experienced the behaviour of some people at this festival, neither do I).

“And you could tell the medics they must not do this again.  If they want a private area for people who need to vomit, tell them to bring a toilet tent.” If I can describe the medic in question, she says, she will do this. I describe as best I can someone I saw while distressed and sitting in the mud. Eventually, she agrees to go and have a word with all the medics.

Once again, I am subject to the ‘but the poor child’ argument.  “What about the child who was ill? Was he supposed to just vomit in the field?”  Well, no. Presumably he could have vomited into a bucket in the medic tent. Or - being about a quarter my weight - been carried to the normal loos.  I tell her I am sorry and feel for any child who is ill. BUT. A child needing to throw up does not alter one very basic fact:  if i want to pee at this festival, my choices are the disabled loo or the open air in the middle of the field. Which, I ask, would she prefer?  She looks mildly revolted. Yes, that is a nasty, disgusting choice to ask someone to make.

Isn’t it?

(Or perhaps I was just supposed to quietly piss myself? After all, what’s a disabled woman thinking, expecting any right to dignity, eh?)