So, yesterday I was asked if I would like to go up to London to address a group of law students who were doing a module addressing the law and assistance animals. I should point out here that I have done this kind of thing before so it wasn’t the scary sweat-inducing endurance event that it appears on the surface.
However, it is still a bit of a boost to be asked!
My particular assistance animal is a ditzy chocolate Labrador called Eider and we, as a team, belong to Dogs for Good on these occasions.
I often go up to London for pleasure, and for work in the past, so getting the train to go up is something I’m quite familiar with and I know that I have to drive twenty minutes past four local stations to find one that’s accessible from both platforms so I can get back to the car afterwards.
Anyway, I got to Surbiton Station which has several platforms and lots of trains to choose from and normally I would not use the machines because I will need assistance from a ramp to board the train. This time though I used my Oyster card and went straight to the platform.
The system that South Western Trains use dictates that, as a wheelchair user, I should ring ahead of time and book assistance for a specific train. i.e. the 12:47 to Waterloo. However, I consider that to be discrimination so I like to just turn up the same as everyone else. So, I’m sitting in my BIG powerchair on the platform with Eider and out of the corner of my eye I notice a flash of uniform dashing up the stairwell. Unfortunately, I can’t follow up the stairs so I hollered along the platform and the guard froze on the steps.
Once I was on the train I emailed my experience to SW trains in order to inform and advise them of my experience. It’s good to share!
At Waterloo Station the train was met promptly and I was quickly through the barriers. All I need to do now is catch a London bus!
So, now I have found the right stop to get me to Holborn Station (Wheelchairs can’t use the circle line to get there) out of the eight or so in the vicinity and my bus is the next one to come and I wave furiously to the driver to get his attention. Fortunately, there are no buggies or wheeled trolleys on this bus to negotiate and I am boarded easily. Well relatively. Do you know I can’t turn my chair on a London bus? I found that out the hard way. Now I know that I have to board the bus backwards. This time there are no people in the way, which is good because I can’t see behind me, and I whizz up the ramp followed by Eider who then tucks herself in between my chair and the wall so that she doesn’t get trodden on accidentally.
Parked in the space provided means that I now can’t see the display which shows the next stop and I need to listen really carefully to the announcer so that I don’t miss my stop.
Once I’m at Queen Mary Universityreception which is where I’m meeting the chairman from Dogs for Good, the nerves kick in. I’m imagining a vast lecture hall with hordes of students all waiting to peck me to pieces. This is not helped by the lecturer who tells me that she is really pleased with the excellent uptake for the session. I’m bricking it! I’m only wearing a thin shirt and I’m hot flushing like fury.
In the lift up I’m told that there are students already waiting for me. This is no help at all.
Peter, the Dogs for Good chairperson, is speaking first which gives me a chance to get a grip before the spotlight is on me. He outlined the ethos and history of the charity and their aims for the future. From the therapeutic and socio-economic benefits of dog ownership to the ways reward based behavioural training has evolved. He followed the journey that the dogs undertake from puppies, to training and partnership and eventually retirement, and how the charity are involved in each step of that journey.
Then it was my turn … and once I start speaking the nerves melt away. I have a story that rarely varies by much even though I have never practiced it or written it down. The honest truth doesn’t need rehearsal.
“Eider is my assistance dog from the charity Dogs for Good. I’ve had her since 2015 when we were matched by the charity and we haven’t looked back. She wakes me up when the alarm goes, gets my clothes from the various drawers and wardrobe and helps me dress. Once we’ve had breakfast she will help sort the laundry, fill the washing machine and empty it into the basket when it’s done. She will fetch the phone or mobile when it rings, open and close doors and pick up all the million things I drop every day. All of which gives my children and husband freedom to do their own thing and not have to be at my beck and call every five minutes.”
“By far the biggest benefit for me has been being able to leave my house unaccompanied. Out and about she will call the lift, press traffic crossings and fetch things from the bottom shelf as well as helping me on and off with my coat and picking up after me. For the first time since I was disabled I was able to go out spontaneously. Being able to pop to the shops for myself or travel further afield if I choose is still such a buzz. Having Eider has given me a fantastic level of independence and bolstered my confidence whilst safe in the knowledge that she has my back.”
My part was done so then the lecturer went over the laws around assistance animals and access including how a disabled person is described and assistance animals in UK and EU legal jargon. There are lots of questions about my experience of having an assistance dog and how the law sees all service animals and access (which it basically doesn’t recognise except for under taxis!). To be perfectly honest I was completely left behind by the speed they moved at and the complexity of the language used. Although the bits I understood I found interesting.
And before I know it three hours have passed and I’m doing the journey all over again except this time it’s rush hour and the buses are heaving which makes boarding that bit trickier and Waterloo is a mass of important people all wanting that last seat or inch of space on the train.
I watched from the sidelines while I waited for assistance to appear, humanity swarming and it reminds me of the Starlings I watch in the sky from my garden.
Blog by Heather Farley
Disability Today Volunteer
For more information on Assistance Dogs check out the following link: https://www.dogsforgood.org