Tuesday, 25 June 2019

Powerchair Update | What Happened To My Old Powerchair?

Disclaimer: The upgrade to my own powerchair and my old powerchair being donated was provided by Quantum for free, but I am not paid by them. 

In a powerchair update last year I shared with you the exciting news that Quantum (the company who make my incredible powerchar) had kindly offered to upgrade my Edge 2.0 powerchair to the newer model, the Edge 3.0. I actually ended up being the first person in the UK to have the powerchair and the upgrade has been incredible for me. I was hesitant to accept it though since I had fundraised for my powerchair and I only had it because of the kindness of others, so I wanted to make sure that I was honouring that if I went ahead with the upgrade. Well, between Quantum and I we came up with an idea, they offered to take the base of my old powerchair and add seating and anything else needed so we could donate it to someone. It's so important to me to pass on the kindness shown to me and so this was the perfect way to make sure that the gift given to me would not go to waste, to me I was seeing it as being able to change not only my life but now someone else's too. It's taken a while to organise but I am so over the moon to say that we found someone and have delivered the chair!

I've known Faith online for a little while, we'd talked occasionally and I was aware of her situation with her own NHS powerchair from our conversations when I got my new chair. She was an example of how even when you receive NHS help, many people end up with the wrong chair. She hadn't been measured properly so it didn't even fit her, causing a great deal of discomfort. It defeated it's own purpose, a wheelchair is something that is meant to give you more freedom but like with my own first powerchair, Faith's was limiting her. She needed something that was measured to her, designed to fit her life and her need's and something that would enable her to enjoy the things she loves doing most, like going to concerts and festivals. It's not much to ask for, but the NHS just couldn't deliver. So, she was a natural choice when I was trying to find someone. My situation prior to receiving my current powerchair was very similar to hers and so I knew how much of a difference a new powerchair would make to her life. I was so excited to be on the other end of things!

Once we'd offered Faith the powerchair Quantum were able to get someone out to her to measure her properly, making sure the powerchair was right for her life and then we got the ball rolling! Finally a month ago myself and a few of the Quantum team travelled up to Leeds to deliver the chair to Faith, a day I'd been looking forward to ever since we made the decision. I will remember that day and Faith's reaction to seeing the chair, and sitting in it, for the first time for a long while. The joy and relief was clear to see and I immediately knew that it was going to the right home. Almost instantly she said she was sitting differently because it was made to fit her. Like me, Faith really puts her wheelchair through its paces in what she does and I know for sure that this will enable her to do things that have been difficult or impossible before now.

Faith's powerchair also has the iLevel function, something I now use on a daily basis to help me do everything from give standing ovations in theatres to hugging my girlfriend. It has made an undeniable difference to my life and I'm over the moon to see it change someone else's life too. I already know that it will transform her experiences at concerts and festivals, as well as in her everyday life.

I truly knew we'd made the right decision when Faith sent me a text a couple of weeks back after she'd gone on a 5 mile trip down to her local canal and shop, the joy was clear to see. Sometimes it's the simple things, going to the local shop was one of the first things I did in my powerchair. Whilst it doesn't compare to the things I do on a weekly basis now it proves how much of daily life disabled people miss out on when we don't have the right equipment.

I will keep you all updated on how Faith is getting on with the chair across social media (@shonalouiseblog on Twitter and Instagram). I'm so excited to see all the adventures she goes on! Look out for another powerchair update from me in a couple of months too, it's almost 18 months since I received my chair! I can't wait to share what I've been up to in the last 6 months.

Friday, 31 May 2019

All My Sons at The Old Vic | Review

These tickets were kindly gifted to me by The Old Vic.

My third play of the year! This time last year I would not have guessed for one second that I'd be going into June having seen 3 plays in just 5 months. I've always insisted that plays aren't for me, and whilst I am definitely more of a musicals person I've really surprised myself by how much I have enjoyed branching out of my comfort zone and appreciating some different shows.

It is also always a joy to visit The Old Vic, the building work to make the theatre more accessible and add more toilets is still ongoing and it is so exciting to see how much work has gone into it and how much they clearly care about accessibility. I cannot wait to visit this Autumn when the work is completed! Although, I've at least one more trip before then to see Andrew Scott in Present Laughter, but for now, let's talk about All My Sons.

I will admit that I didn't know much about Arthur Miller prior to seeing two productions written by him this year, but I am definitely glad that I now feel as though I've learnt a lot through my own research and watching the plays. It's interesting to watch something that was written so long ago, very far from the kind of writing I am used to in the productions I see.

'You don't realise how people can hate Chris, they hate so much they'll tear the world to pieces... '

America, 1947. Despite hard choices and even harder knocks, Joe and Kate Keller are a success story. They have built a home, raised two sons and established a thriving business. 

But nothing lasts forever and their contented lives, already shadowed by the loss of their eldest boy to war, are about to shatter. With the return of a figure from the past, long buried truths are forced to the surface and the price of their American dream is laid bare.' - The Old Vic

We have to talk about the set first, I am amazed every time I visit The Old Vic by their flexibility in how the stage and seating can be configured, every show I've seen has been set up in a different way. Sometimes there's been seating on stage, once there was a revolve and other times the stage has come up through the middle of the stalls! I'd seen photos of the set prior to seeing the show and had already been blown away but when that house came on to the stage at the start of the show it really took my breath away. The skill and preparation that had gone into the set was astounding and I applaud everyone that made that happen.

At school I was always fascinated with 1900s American history, whether it was the roaring 20s, the great depression or the years that followed after, so this kind of story was right up my street. Act 1 to me felt like context, you learnt a lot about each character's background and how they ended up where they are, which is of course important but I felt as though this didn't need a whole act to do. The story picked up pace quite quickly in Act 2 though, it was higher energy and I felt myself being a lot more engaged and invested in the story. There were so many raw emotions being portrayed that it was difficult not to find yourself immersed in their lives. Despite the fact that it was a little predictable at times this wasn't something that bothered me as the quality of the acting was incredibly high.

It was such a treat to get to see Bill Pullman, Sally Field, Jenna Coleman and Colin Morgan perform on stage, supported by an incredible cast. They all really made the performance what it is, to have 4 actors on stage who can portray emotional so exceptionally was such a delight and something I'm glad I didn't miss.

It's still true that I favour musicals over plays but the more I visit The Old Vic, the more I'm enjoying watching something that looks so deeply into what is being portrayed. Something that requires all of your concentration. I recommend everyone visits the theatre at least once to experience it, even if you are sure you're only a musicals person!

As for the access, things are much the same as my previous 2 trips. The building work is still ongoing so getting into the theatre is tricky for everyone but for the most part the team are doing a great job of organising things. I was sat in N6 again with a great view of the stage and the staff got me and the other access patrons in slightly earlier to make things easier. I am definitely counting down to when the building work is finished though, when I will finally see more of the theatre and have choice of 10 wheelchair spaces! Yes, 10! It's an exciting time.

All My Sons is playing until 8th June at The Old Vic, tickets are still available for a few performances on the website and day seats are available from 10am at the box office each day.

Thursday, 23 May 2019

Phoenix Theatre (Come From Away) | An Accessibility Review

This week I had the worst theatre experience of my life at one of the most popular shows in London right now, the Olivier award winning musical Come From Away at the Phoenix Theatre. Most people left the show feeling emotional, me included but I was on the edge of tears for a very different reason. The whole experience left me feeling othered and like I was undeserving of the same theatre experience that everyone else had. I have never left a show feeling as gutted as I did on Monday, as well as leaving feeling more disabled than I did when I went in. This was meant to be a review of the show but it's difficult to review something you effectively saw half of, so instead lets talk about the accessibility.

I knew from the start that the theatre didn't have great access, it's the reason I chose not to see Chicago when it was there last year but when Come From Away was announced I knew it was a show I did not want to miss. So, I crossed my fingers and hoped it would be one of those situations where something isn't as bad as it seems. Oh how wrong I was.

I went along to the show with Perry to film an Accessibility in Theatres video where we document and show the access of the theatres and shows we see because as it was the case with the Phoenix Theatre, information online and given to you via the access booking line is not always accurate or clear. We arrived at the theatre's main entrance, which has a shallow step to enter to reach the box office, bar and merchandise stand. Information online said there was a ramp they could place down for me to enter but I began to question that when it wasn't offered. Staff were great and got my tickets for me but I wish they'd offered the ramp, because if I hadn't known about it and hadn't asked for it myself, I wouldn't have been able to see the merchandise stand. I suspect there have been a lot of disabled patrons who haven't known about this ramp and therefore have missed out on accessing the foyer because it isn't something that is offered as standard it seems. A minor issue though that with a few staff reminders can be ironed out, so I was still pretty confident and hopeful at this point.

It was about 5 minutes until the house opened when a member of staff led us round to the accessible entrance which is round the other side of the theatre. I'm never a fan of having to use a side/back entrance but it's something I'm used to as a wheelchair user. We were led in and in front of me looked like what I could only suspect was the box, but instead we were led towards a narrow door. Now I knew from information online that the doors and corridors inside the theatre were narrow but I was not prepared for just how claustrophobic it would feel. There was a door to access the corridor which contained another narrow door to the toilet and another narrow door to the box. But it wasn't just the width of the doors that was the problem, it was the turning space to get through them because the corridor was also so narrow. I think even a manual wheelchair user would have found it difficult.

Since the house wasn't open yet we were led into the space where the accessible toilet is, a circular room that made both me and Perry feel very closed in. The door to the accessible toilet was made to look like the wall, almost like a secret entrance. It was, odd? When I saw the accessible toilet itself I knew straight away I would not be able to turn around in it. There was a bin next to the toilet which meant I wouldn't be able to side transfer if I needed to and because I couldn't turn around I really struggled to lock the door. The lock was tiny and stiff and in the end I gave up, knowing Perry was the only other person outside. My confidence and hopeful attitude was dwindling by this point.

Once the house was open I was led out of the circular room and one of the front of house staff went to open the door to the box, before soon realising I needed to be on the other side of it. So, I navigate through the narrow corridor once again to the other end, turn around and come back down to then reach the door and see that they haven't removed the chair for me in the box. So, I have to reverse back down the corridor again, testing even my driving, the chair is removed and I can finally get into the box. It was a tight squeeze making the turn from the corridor though, despite my wheelchair fitting the dimensions they accept.

My view & Perry's view

It's difficult to describe what I felt when I entered that box and saw my view of the stage. Usually when I take my seat in a new theatre, to see a new show, I go in with wonder and excitement but this time I was left feeling only dread and disappointment. I knew my view would be obstructed, I'd been quoted 25% of the stage, but I was hopeful it was one of those situations where it's not as bad as people say. When in fact, it was so much worse. As you'll see from the photos the obstruction was closer to 50% of the stage. It is by far the worst view I have ever had in a theatre and I could have cried in that moment. Throughout the show Perry and I kept looking at each other as though to say 'can you see what is happening?' and I lost count of how many times I shook my head in disappointment. I spent the whole show lent over so I could see as much as possible and as a result have been in even more pain than usual ever since, it was the only way to get the best view I could. This is the only wheelchair space in the whole theatre, the only view I would ever get.

Gutted is probably the best way to describe how I felt though. I felt like I was watching the show through a window, I could see how others were reacting and I could understand why they were reacting that way but I just could not feel the same things myself. How can I connect with a show I can only see half of? I truly know that had I sat in a better seat, with a better view and in a position where the show is being performed to me rather than past me, Come From Away would have been up there with my all time favourites. I am used to restricted views and poor access as a disabled person (though I shouldn't be) but I have never left a show on the edge of tears because of it. I have never left a show feeling as excluded as I did at the Phoenix Theatre.

The kind of access I experienced at Come From Away is the kind of accessibility you'd expect from a small show/theatre where it's almost more understandable, but still far from acceptable, that access would be poorer. But this is a Broadway transfer, one of the biggest and most well loved shows in London at the moment. You expect better. I was originally excited when I'd heard the show had extended until February 2020 because it's clearly an important story but after Monday evening I feel only sadness as I know for as long as the show is at the Phoenix Theatre, myself and other disabled patrons will be excluded. Getting me through the theatre doors is not good enough, the experience I had is not good enough and for the first time this is one show and theatre I will be recommending fellow wheelchair users steer clear of.
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