As soon as Ant proposed his challenge, I knew I wanted to take it on. Raising awareness of disability in the island is something that’s very close to my own heart. As a parent of a man who has Down’s syndrome, I’m aware of the many issues people with learning disabilities and their families experience on a daily basis. And in my role as Assistant Chief Minister, I meet regularly with service users with a wide range of disabilities, to understand and try to resolve some of the challenges they face.
However the challenge proposed by Ant was broader than this, it wasn’t just about awareness-raising, but was also about experiencing the world from someone else’s perspective. Whilst living with a disability for a day can never truly replicate someone’s lived experience, it did give me some insight into the everyday challenges faced by wheelchair users.
As I had injured my shoulder a few weeks previously, I needed to use an electric wheelchair to get around. This was kindly provided by Shopmobility and after a short demonstration, I was left to my own devices. This in itself added an extra dimension to the challenge. Electric wheelchairs are wider and bulkier than manual ones, and so the chair was even more restrictive in terms of getting in and out of buildings and navigating through tight spaces. Manoeuvring on and off pavements was another obstacle that I found unexpectedly tricky.
The day itself was tough, but rewarding. I was genuinely touched by the response of strangers, and their willingness to help (and also the concerned response of those who knew me, but didn’t know I was taking part in the challenge!). On my way into town, I arrived at a lowered pavement near to a roundabout exit where wheelchair users have to take a risk on a blind corner to make a crossing. This is something that I have now raised with the Minister for Infrastructure. During the afternoon, I took a bus to St Aubin. John the bus driver was exceptionally helpful, taking the time to help me get on the bus and ensure I was comfortable and securely positioned before starting the journey.
Everything I did took a great deal longer than usual. One of my ‘tasks’ for the day was to get to my seat in the States Assembly, this is something I achieved, but not via the usual Members Entrance route. A circuitous trek via the Royal Court entrance to the building got me there eventually however only with the kind assistance of staff. The positive conclusion is that it is possible for an elected member to use a wheel chair and take their seat in the Assembly. However, the same cannot be said for the public, as the viewing gallery is not accessible. One tonic to this in the coming weeks is the imminent introduction of live streaming of States Assembly sittings – so anyone, anywhere in the world will be able to see the goings on via the internet.
Taking on this challenge has helped me to increase my understanding of just some of the difficulties faced by wheelchair users, but the overall message of the challenge highlights the need to raise awareness about disability in Jersey. It also reinforces the need for a disability strategy for the island, which we are currently developing and which (like this challenge) we are doing in partnership with islanders living with disability and with the voluntary and community sector that works so tirelessly to support these individuals and their families.