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Disabled Life: Crippled by Confusion, Banished by Barriers

Penny Pepper wears her bloody, beaten heart on her tattered sleeve in this powerful snapshot of the constraints imposed upon disabled people

Photo: True Images/Alamy

Disabled LifeCrippled by Confusion, Banished by Barriers

Penny Pepper wears her bloody, beaten heart on her tattered sleeve in this powerful snapshot of the constraints imposed upon disabled people by society

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Recently, disabled life has weighed me down at a time of other challenges that are personal and emotional. This month, I’m wearing my bloody, beaten heart on my tattered sleeve and hope you will allow me to wallow for a short, frustrated moment.

To say that disability life can be Kafka-esque is a cliché, and the worst of it occurs when you dare to break free of any of the constraints imposed upon you. You fight to collapse those obstacles you did not create and entering the battlefield will always bear heavy consequences. In recent weeks, it’s come close to crushing me.

On this occasion, it is a repeat skirmish with that old adversary, a mainstream chain hotel. I had an encounter at this establishment that is not merely baffling, but one that underlines the tiresome hypocrisy that bleeds through so much of what many hospitality businesses claim is ‘inclusive and accessible’.

Let’s enter the corridors of Kafka-esque bureaucracy; a dark, masochistic game of mine – which is to take on these people, to pin down where things go wrong, and find out why.

Visiting my mother in Devon necessitated an overnight stop to make this viable from Hastings. 

A hotel was chosen. And this is where it becomes exasperating: its accessible rooms are spacious, as are those with wet room showers; and, as far as I can tell, the general facility of bed-raisers should the standard beds be too low (as they are for me) is also offered. 

Before my arrival, I took all the usual steps. Having booked an accessible room with the appropriate shower, the phone calls began to request the hotel’s famed ‘elephant feet’ bed raisers and for my PA’s room to be as near to mine as possible. 

The FundamentalRight to Intimacy

Penny Pepper

This was followed up by at least one message using the hotel’s dedicated access email, resulting in a polite reply within 24 hours. The hotel had been called by the access team, which confirmed that all my requirements would be in place. There there, don’t fret, it’s all taken care of, brave disabled guest!

I was brave, no doubt about it, to arrive at this hotel waving this email under the noses at reception, breath held, a smile in reserve as I paused, tired and thirsty. ‘It’s all done for you, Ms Pepper” I was told by the two receptionists. “We’ll get your keys.”

“So my PA’s room is next door and the elephant feet are on my bed as requested?” The first receptionist nodded. The second looked nervous. “Oh. Your PA’s room is three floors above you.”

I’m exhausted. But I say it – this is not acceptable. I tell the receptionists that these requests were made in advance. Breathing slowly, I promised myself I would not swear, although someone did deserve to hear the depths of my anger. The second receptionist shuffled away. The first told me to go to my room, which she was sure would be fine. 

There was a kerfuffle as they attempted to reorganise my PA’s room nearer to mine and I couldn’t help but push it. 

Why? Why does this go wrong almost every single time? A satirical story began to form in the back of my brain bringing this experience to non-disabled people – who literally take every part of this process for granted.

There were no elephant feet in my room, which meant I couldn’t get in and out of the bed. Incensed and drained, I immediately dictated a blistering complaint to the hotel using notoriously glitchy voice dictation on my phone – if it f**ked it up, they could work it out.

A little later, the manager found me. He was genuine and apologetic, at first offering a voucher for a free breakfast. “I don’t eat breakfast”, I told him, knowing I sounded snappy. But can you blame me? 

Later, the cost of my room was reimbursed. I accepted the gesture and asked the manager why he thought, from a ground-level perspective, that these things go wrong – not once, not twice, but in this shambolic repeating pattern. As I said in my email to the hotel, I was absolutely broken and angry with this inferior treatment, which reeks of the worst kind of hypocrisy. The manager blamed a communication breakdown and new members of staff. He promised, on my return a week later, that all would be well – and it was. 

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Not always, but mostly, these access failures are likely institutionalised and rarely to do with individuals. Even then, it’s down to poor training. And the bottom line is likely money, low wages and fast staff turnover. But that is no excuse to cancel-out my needs.

Talking of money, as a child, my specialist ran a clinic at the internationally famous Great Ormond Street. The hospital is now blessed with the hotel chain’s financial benevolence of many millions.

Strange that I grew up out of my cute crip-kid phase into a working adult who needs to travel. How much further can I spell it out? How hard is this? 

The hotel chain needs disability equality training led by a disabled trainer and not ‘disability awareness’, which I have seen it mention in one of its public apologies to another disappointed disabled guest.

All of this in the same month that the Sun ran a front page story on TV personality Sophie Morgan appearing on BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing, its first wheelchair-using contestant. The headline proclaimed ‘Cha-Cha-Chair’ – so excruciatingly inappropriate I’d need another whole column to deconstruct it. 

It does reflect the casual way we are banded about, often with no control or equal comeback. I am tired and furious at that, at it all. 

When will the world grow up? When will it let us in?

Premier Inn was asked to respond. Its silence is deafening.

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