When a café up the road opened, I hoped for a social lifeline, somewhere to meet work colleagues and friends. The reality of visiting the Café, though, left me with a sense of alienation and rejection.
Earlier this year a new café opened near where I live with a hipster-type vibe, with a 10pm licence, so it becomes a kind of a wine bar at night. The nicest thing about it is it just up the road, and it has some outside seating, somewhere I can go and meet friends in a public place … a social lifeline. It’s a big deal because of the chain of events which led me to effectively become locked down again.
My dad died in June in Bradford, and I was going to drive down to the funeral in my adapted van. As I hadn’t done a long drive in it, I did a test run, over to Carlisle and on the way back I crashed and totalled the van after swerving to avoid a dog. Good test!
My van is my lifeline, it gives me independence and control, I can decide when I want to go out and where to. My adapted van is a feat of engineering, as I can only use my left hand, so I drive with a joystick, like a computer game. When I got a call from “Motability” who supply me the van, they told me the van was a right off, and it would take 18 months to get a replacement. Imagine a year and a half.
My travel options are limited because of my condition, and I can’t go on public transport. Taxis are an option although an expensive, very unreliable (you cannot book a wheelchair taxi) and often unpleasant and dangerous, when they don’t seatbelt you in or their equipment is not working. So I am affectively in lockdown again, similar to many disabled people who have also returned to their lockdown places.
The Social Lifeline
So imagine my delight when this café up the road opened, it appeared to me to be a social lifeline, somewhere I could meet work colleagues and friends for coffee. My family live close, so when my sister asked if I wanted to go for a drink to the café on a Friday night, I thought ‘brilliant’. The weather is nice still, and I haven’t been out for ages. I said I would phone the venue to see what the situation was regarding access.
Here’s what they said:
“We have wheelchairs in all the time” (I don’t think they did)
“Our ladies is quite wide, and you might be able to get your wheelchair in … there’s quite a big space between the sink and toilet”. (I don’t think it was accessible, but couldn’t get in the door with my power chair to look).
Okay, well that’s no big surprise they are not accessible inside, they are a local outfit in a converted small office-type building on the street with neither the money nor space to build an accessible toilet.
I told my sister, she said:
“That’s terrible” [not having a toilet]
I shrugged, it’s always like this. But, we all really wanted to go, so I said I’ll just go and sit outside, for as long as my bladder will let me. If I go immediately before I leave, then I will have approximately two hours… if I have limited my liquid intake during the day.
So off we go to enjoy our two hours having a drink sitting outside on a lovely autumn evening with a beautiful sky. I am stoked and really looking forward to it.
When we get there, the café is buzzing, lots of people inside looking like they’re having a good time, chatting, being friendly … a nice Friday evening scene. Still stoked.
As usual, when I rock up, it’s all eyes on me. First off, the bartender comes over to sort out tables [he had to ask a group of people sitting around two tables to split their tables and give one to us]. After my group sat down, I sensed the energy change in the venue slightly change, from a totally relaxed happy-go-lucky vibe to an uncertain and observing happy-go-lucky vibe.
Okay, so a mild dampener as the entire café is looking at what’s going on, I feel the non-disabled gaze on me but no bother. I’m still stoked.
After a while the owner comes to take our drinks order and immediately talks about why the venue is not assessable and why they don’t have an accessible toilet, that they have no money and there’s so little space. As I did not bring this up, I just nod. But I am sensing a non-friendly approach from the owner, he does not smile when he looks at me, which I think is weird for an owner, and he is slightly on the defensive. After a while, I just get into my group and talking and drinking, and forget about everyone looking, let them look.
When 8 o’clock comes around when the licence says seating must be taken off the street, the owner comes to take our tables in. Most of the people go inside, but some go home, my group included, and there are some farewells from the owners to those leaving. But for us there were no warm farewells, I think there were a few ‘thank yous’ but that was it. I do think I picked up a sense of relief from the owners and other people who were in the front of the house when we left.
We got home quickly, and I go to the toilet. Great. But now for some reason I felt kind of deflated and almost disheartened. When I thought about why this is, I realised that it was because I felt excluded from a new, really enjoyable looking and fun thing to do in my community.
It’s like someone said:
“You know that lively café on the road where loads of people look like they’re having a great time? It’s not for you, or people like you.”
I felt like I leaned in to my community, and a gap opened up around me.