I’m a wheelchair user and that means I’m often obliged to get into places through the back door because there’s no step-free front entrance. Most of the time I’m frustrated and annoyed at having to use a separate door that’s usually on the other side of the building (let’s face it, who wouldn’t feel let down at having to make a last minute detour?).
So let’s agree that separate entrances can never be “equal”. However, from time to time searching for alternative accessible routes can be intriguing and even enticing.
Take for example my recent visit to “The Old Lady” aka the Bank of England; it moved to Threadneedle Street in 1734, a time when most disabled people would have been in the Workhouse or Infirmary.
Disabled visitors today who can’t scale the front steps are helpfully requested to ring several “assistance bells” and circumnavigate the building entering through a rarely opened colossal rear entrance.
These doors are clearly meant to deter bank robbers and ram raiders, so they are hardly going to welcome in disabled people through ease of access.
However, they also provide a fascinating insight into how the bank used to be. I heard the sharp crack of bolts being drawn back as the doors slowly eased open under the manual control of two security guards. The creaking and rumbling finally gave way as the inside revealed itself as a level but very worn surface, aged with years of heavier wheeled traffic.
Once inside the Bank, wheelchair users have to be closely escorted through private areas passing what I imagine will be very little known treasures such as the ornate Roman mosaic flooring discovered during the previous renovation works, and some portraits of previous governors and staff. It was a fascinating and (in a way) privileged experience that I felt went some way to off-set my segregation from the general populous.
One frequent visitor to the Bank of England, as you can understand, is the current Chancellor, George Osborne, and I suspect that from time to time he might also benefit from using my route; for example should he ever want to tiptoe inside without the world’s media watching. He would also see some unspoilt and rare history. Not that I’d recommend he holds out until such a time as he needs to get into a wheelchair, of course.
Mentioning George brings me to my second story in the ‘far side’ theme, though. This goes back a few months to just before the budget when I was invited by the London Chamber of Commerce to be in the audience to hear the Chancellor’s speech on his “Long Term Economic Plan for London”. Driving to the venue I realised I had plenty of time to chance entering via an obscure and little-known accessible entrance down a side street. Unbeknownst to me, however, George, Boris and entourage would have the same plan of arrival and were following on. So as I cruised into an immaculate Blue Badge bay and got out I was surrounded by security staff fit for the next Bond movie. But instead of trying to wrestle me back into the car, as I’d half imagined would happen, I was bombarded with offers of help and courtesy, my bag was carried in and I was asked if I’d like breakfast and the chance to ‘freshen up’ before the speeches! How nice! Well I wasn’t going to tell them – would you?