How did disabled people manage before the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA)? Twenty years on since its introduction, the author reflects on the pioneering efforts of disabled people in the 1970s, struggling with unproven technologies and inept planning laws. In particular, the author considers how his mother as an MS sufferer struggled to become independent and freed from the house. The account is set in Tenterden, a town on the Kent- East Sussex border.
What japes we had, didn’t we Jamie, purloining the power chair, as it sat invitingly in the garage? You were 10, my older brother by two years, and perhaps you should have known better. But the temptation was too great. We unhooked the contraption from the mains and you began tentatively to manoeuvre it around the garage. The machine itself was an early disabled power chair: a carbuncle of lead acid batteries, surmounted by a roughly welded seat and unforgiving wheels. You grabbed the unfashionably straight handlebars and proceeded to clench the lever. The response was unpredictable to say the least. A choice between go go go and a dead man’s break. Then it was my turn. I was not quite as adept as you. I seesawed out of control, bashing paint pots and garden tools. The smell of creosote and oily rags seemed to serve as a ‘legal high’. We did our best to put things straight after our antics, but dad, on returning from work, knew what we had been up to. I know it always alarmed him to think of us kids sitting in the wheelchair: one shouldn’t tempt fate.
But the power chair wasn’t so much fun for you was it mum? It was a white knuckle ride up the hill into Tenterden town. The wheelchair batteries took a day to charge but were sapped within an hour of travelling. That could leave you stranded in no man’s land – and often did. Your disability meant that the chair and you had to remain as one. If the shops had an unfriendly threshold, your weren’t going in: no parking up and jettisoning into a nearby coffee shop for you.
The power chair was a rarefied sight in the town. It appeared like a lunar landing device negotiating the disobliging pavements of Tenterden town. At the time, the town had acquired a celebrity status, having the best kept toilets in England. Coachloads of pensioners would visit the town, knowing in full confidence that the public convenience would be ready at hand, immediately the coach doors swung open. It proudly announced its presence in three different languages: Toilet; Toilette; Toiletten. Such a cosmopolitan town ready to emerge from the dark ages – and only a stones throw away from the English Channel. The world had suddenly become a much bigger place, welcoming our continental cousins. And what a coup for the local planners who had faced stiff opposition to this seemingly extravagant use of council money.
I realise that I have told a half-truth. For the fact is my mother didn’t visit the town: she was only able to visit half the town. The omission of a ‘drop curb’ halfway down the High Street prevented any further progress along mum’s escapade. So she got as far as Norris’s, the greengrocers (now a hair salon), and beyond that the town experience could only be imagined. The power chair was no match for that robust immovable curb.
What followed was a protracted petition by my dad to incorporate a drop curb outside the greengrocer shop. This involved countless appeals to the town council that eventually led to tarmac on the ground. Suddenly, Tenterden in all its tree-lined beauty, was now able to reveal itself.
That’s a special drop curb. It’s still serving its purpose today, with pedestrians and disabled passing over it, not knowing its significance to my family. To me it represents liberty and reminds me of the fight that disabled people and carers went through prior to the advent of the Disability Discrimination Act. Those were unenlightened days indeed.
Perhaps I did tempt fate as a child. I have now been using my very own power chair since the age of 48. Somehow though, it no longer gives the same thrill. Unbeknownst to my mother (who died when I was 17), I also acquired this affliction of Multiple Sclerosis. Yet, things are different now. We now live in an age of enlightenment it seems. Between then and now, the Disability Discrimination Act was conceived, some 20 years ago this month. I can celebrate the drop curb outside the greengrocers: it is a perfect memorial to my mum. It’s also my memorial to the Disability Discrimination Act.
So join with me in celebrating the power of the pavement. It connects communities, liberates people from their cars, and empowers the young and old, parents and disabled alike.
Below you can see the very same drop curb in Google Street View!