As a wheelchair user there was quite a lot of work involved in my going to watch the Commonwealth Games. Rearranging my carer so I could leave early enough. Booking assistance with a ramp for the train. Hoping they’d actually turn up with the ramps at all the stations. Building in extra time in case of problems. There’s a lot that could go wrong. And then after a two hour journey we were in Birmingham and making our way the mile or so from the station to Arena Birmingham. It was looking good and I was getting more and more excited.
As I arrived outside the venue, volunteers were signposting the way and quick to come over and suggest we went a different, more accessible route. We were let through a security area that wasn’t open to the public to save queueing and told of a quieter route to our seats. It was still looking good and I was impressed how helpful they were.
With 20 minutes or so to spare we went to find our seats. The volunteer usher said she didn’t know where the wheelchair space I’d been given was. I was slightly confused because we were at the door on our tickets and I could see other wheelchair users. Then someone more senior came and explained that the DJ had been set up in the seats I’d been sold.
Unfortunately it’s not unusual to arrive at places to find the disabled toilet or the lift being used as storage or that the ‘level access’ has a step. But it’s always painful and any form of discrimination is always an unexpected punch you don’t see coming. And this was a new type of access failure.
My Dad had gone with me and he told them to move the DJ. The staff laughed. But it wasn’t funny. Sadly it’s not the first time I’ve talked to someone about an access problem and had them laugh. I don’t know what it is about discrimination that’s funny but apparently it is.
The first alternative place they suggested had a horizontal bar across it that was right in my eyeline so I refused that, as I wouldn’t have been able to see. They asked us to wait by that space then disappeared to find a solution. Barely a minute later another staff member, unaware of the situation, asked us to move as we would be blocking access in a fire. Wheelchairs are always fire hazards it seems, adding to the dehumanisation. I also don’t understand why they always think I would just stay in the way if they fire alarm went off rather than get out.
Eventually, as the event was starting, my Dad pointed out an empty wheelchair space and asked if we could sit there. It was obvious they didn’t know what had and hadn’t been sold. It turned out that another wheelchair user had tickets for the space I had declined. It took 25 minutes and multiple members of staff to find us somewhere to sit.
Everyone we spoke to said they were sorry. But then they blamed it on someone else so I’m not sure they really were sorry, just sorry they to deal with it probably.
Certainly from the stories of other problems with access at the Games which I’ve seen online and from their failure to respond to my online complaint (which I know they saw as they asked me to DM further details), they don’t seem to have talked to actual disabled people about access in advance.
The gymnastics we saw was really impressive. England won several medals. The entire venue burst into song when it was announced it was competitor Giarnni Regini-Moran’s birthday. There was a nice atmosphere and it could have been a really nice day. But it wasn’t.
Because those aren’t the only memories I have. It’s all mixed up with the problems I faced and the attitude of those who had to sort it. I had to try very hard, once we had a seat, to put everything aside and focus on enjoying the sport even though I’d been treated as an unwelcome nuisance. It’s difficult and it’s probably not very healthy to compartmentalise like that. But it’s something I keep having to do. Birmingham 2022 didn’t need to cause any wheelchair user access difficulties. Least of all for something as unnecessary as a DJ.
Ed: This is not an isolated problem. Another wheelchair user told Emma that she had had the same problem a few days earlier and was assured it would be sorted. Also an ITV report told a similar story.