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Wheelchair Access At The O2, Shepherd’s Bush

Photograph: Kirk Edwards Trombone Shorty Photo may be subject to copyright.

Photograph: Kirk Edwards
Trombone Shorty
Photo may be subject to copyright.

Unable to blog whilst relapsing and getting treatment, I’ve a small backload of ‘interesting’ access experiences to relate. The first of these was at the O2 in Shepherd’s Bush a couple of weeks ago.

We’d got tickets to see Trombone Shorty, one of our London Jazz Festival bookings for this year, because we’re huge fans after hearing his music on Treme and really wanted to see him live. (Photograph above: Kirk Edwards: Trombone Shorty. Image may be subject to copyright.)

Upfront, I’ll admit I was worried as, having driven past the venue now known as the O2, Shepherds Bush many times, it doesn’t look very wheelchair accessible.

But, it said there was access on the site and they were very reassuring on the phone: ‘No problem, rock up, we have a ramp and you roll right in …’

Sounds a breeze, right? And yet, as so often … it’s all in the detail.

On the night, I came across from the hospital, shaky and fragile after having treatment, desperately hoping for easy access.

D hopped out to check the ramp out, returning, uttering those dreaded words: ‘It’s do-able.’

My heart sank. That’s Stiletto Wheels speak for ‘you’re gonna hate doing it but do it you can.’

I really was not in my best ‘conquering fear with a laugh and a smile’ mood but, damn it, we really wanted to see the man and we were so close. So, off I rolled.

And, Jesus, it was a scary beast of a ramp.

Not too bad at the start – a reasonable width ramp, I had a few inches to spare each side of me – and a straight run up from ground level to a level platform, 1-1.5 metres high off the ground.

However, whilst there was wall as a guide up the ramp on the nearside, there were no side railings on the outer edges anywhere and a gap big enough to lose my wheels down by the wall where I had to turn, sharply, at the top.

The tight, square, level platform at the top that I had to turn 90 degrees on – zip in the way of railings around it – then roll down a short, steep – maybe half a metre – ramp in to the venue was the stuff of nightmares for me.

Unless you’re using a power wheelchair, I’m not sure you’d get why but basically it’s all about sight lines, manoeuvrability and response times plus, if it all goes wrong, you really don’t want to be falling feet to the ground in a 230kg wheelchair equivalent of a ten ton truck.

And, to all the nice guys saying, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll stop you coming off.’ I’m thinking you’re more likely to get crushed underneath me and my chair. Not nice.

It seems to me that access ramps, and Access generally, is way more geared to the self-propelling manual wheelchair – who are those most likely to be out and about, it’s true. I do get why this is so.

The problem with that, for us power wheelies though, is that we are longer, heavier, sometimes wider and our chairs cannot be physically handled in the same way – certainly not physically stopped and pushed and turned by others when we are in it.

The wheels on our chairs also work differently – they spin and fishtail when we turn, stop and start. Our turning circles are mechanically different – my wheels need to be in a different place to turn than those of a manually operated chair. My chair cannot be tipped and turned as a manual chair can be. It uses a different spatial dynamic.

So, whilst the ramp at the O2 is, undoubtedly, fine for manual, self propelling or not, wheelchairs, in a power wheelchair, it is tricky.

Tricky because when on the ramp, I couldn’t see underneath me to know where my wheels were in relation to the sides of the ramp. Basically, I need a visual gauge to be in the right place both to roll and turn.

Of course, other people can be your eyes but they don’t get how your chair responds to command nor how much space, and where, in which your chair is able to turn. If they have familiarity with wheelchairs, it is almost always only with the self-propelling kind so they try and position me where that kind of wheelchair usually goes … I can’t turn like that. D does get it because we’ve done this a lot which is why I don’t really trust anyone else to help me.

At the O2, I went motoring up the ramp, with D and O2 guys helping – I asked them to be my outside edge wall, given I had an actual inside edge wall in place.

At the top, unable to see where my wheels were, high above the ground, black empty space all around me, I had to turn before I was on the level (not enough room for me to get level and turn) and drop immediately down a slope before my back wheels lined up to come down it.

Man, it was scary, for me and the guys helping. I swore a lot – not at my helpers, more, ‘F**k, I’m terrified.’  They didn’t swear at all.

And, yay, I made it. No tears, just a lot of stress and delicacy of touch and movement by me in my chair.

Inside, it was level rolling to an elevated platform which was rather great as the place was heaving and jumping and I’d have hated to be in a wheelchair in the middle of that. We had a great view and Trombone Shorty was brilliant. Our concert of the year to date (last year, it was St Germain at the Jazz Fest).

Getting out was way easier than getting in, mainly because I asked a man to stand across the dangerous gaps on the ramp by the inner wall and used his body as my pivot point to drive around. I knew, given the ramp width, that if I steered close around him, I’d be safe on the ramp especially with D, and others watching my wheels.

Overall, it wasn’t quite as described: ‘No problem, rock up, we have a ramp and you roll right in …’

But, was it worth the stress? Oh, yes. Trombone Shorty 👣

Would I do it again? Possibly.

Nothing is ever as bad the second time, is it? But it would need to be someone I really wanted to see. And, I’d definitely do the man-pivot thing to get in as well as out next time.

Ya live and learn, right 😉

 

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