I’m Becky, from Stourbridge in the West Midlands. My wonderful partner Dan has a rare, genetic, degenerative condition called Friedreich’s Ataxia. As a result, he’s a wheelchair user. Like any couple, we want to be out and about together, and we both lead busy and active lives.
Having to consider the accessibility of everywhere we go can cause anxiety, and the planning required is time consuming. For so many places, accessibility information is, ironically, not easy to access. It can be so frustrating! These are the problems that AccessAble aims to solve. AccessAble is a website and App that provides useful and Detailed Access Guides for locations across the UK, with the number of venues on there always growing. It’s a perfect tool for planning our trips out, even just those trips that people might think don’t require much thought- like shopping!
Christmas shopping... it’s great for any festive fanatics, but a nightmare for those slightly more Scrooge-esque people. Either way, it can have a dose of added stress for someone who has a disability. Negotiating crowds in a wheelchair and considering accessibility, threatens to take the enjoyment out of Christmas shopping (or any kind of shopping, actually!) for even the most enthusiastic amongst us. I was slightly anxious about my partner Dan and me tackling it. Dan is a wheelchair user and like a lot of people, he isn’t the biggest fan of shopping, so there was potential for some serious grouchiness when we had to go gift-seeking last weekend. It was a pleasant surprise when it was a successful trip.
On Saturday, we headed to the Gracechurch Centre in Sutton Coldfield.
Parking is often the most stressful part of visiting somewhere like this and can certainly raise your blood pressure. Needing a blue badge space makes matters worse, as the number of spaces are even more limited. However, the Gracechurch multi-storey, pay-on-exit car park has achieved the Disabled Parking Accreditation. I’ve never seen such well signposted accessible bays, which were really spacious, and there seemed to be a large amount of them. In many car parks, the accessible spaces are not at all easy to find. Unfortunately, when we visited, it was a Saturday lunch time on the run up to Christmas- you can imagine how busy it was! After driving two laps of the car park without spotting a free accessible bay, Dan’s limited parking patience ran out and he used a standard end space. Being an end space, it just about gave him enough room. What we hadn’t realised when parking on the top level, where there’s no accessible bays, was that to access the lift which goes down to the centre, there’s a fairly large step. Getting up the step, which was immediately before two heavy swing doors, wasn’t easy, but with Dan reaching and holding the doors, and me tipping and lifting the chair, we managed it. If nothing else, it was an opportunity for me to work my muscles!
In the centre, there’s a wonderful selection of shops. We managed to get most of our Christmas shopping done in one fell swoop. The high street can be accessed via there too, so everything is in close proximity, yet it doesn’t feel cramped. In the centre itself, there are plenty of lifts, and the floor is hard and smooth, with level access into all the shops, making it easy to get around. There are a few slopes in the walkways, but they’re not too steep and Dan could self-propel his chair up and down them. The only thing I would point out, is that the slope heading to the high street is quite long, and is partly outdoors, so when wet it could become a little slippery. There’s accessible toilets in the centre, and there’s also a Shopmobility service. The location of the toilets isn’t very obvious, but the AccessAble app helpfully describes where they are (as well as providing photos and a description of the space, so you know what to expect and whether or not it’s suitable before you go!).
For a quick break, we went for a drink in Coffee #1 on the high street. They have an accessible toilet here, but as the other toilets are downstairs, the accessible one seems to be abused by people who would rather just use the closest one. Dan was amused when he came out of the toilet to a woman stood waiting to go in. Her response gave away that she didn’t need an accessible toilet. Seeing a wheelchair user come out obviously pricked her conscience and she uncomfortably, sheepishly and hurriedly turned on her heel! This happens quite a bit and Dan and I chuckle at the array of reactions from people.
We had a positive experience at the Gracechurch centre, and even Dan, a reluctant shopper enjoyed it. Having never been before, I’ve decided it’s my new favourite shopping location. We’d definitely have no trouble recommending shopping at Gracechurch!
To take a look at the Gracechurch Centre’s Access Guide simply go to https://www.accessable.co.uk/venues/gracechurch-centre
To read more from Becky, visit her blog https://headoverwheelsx.com