Special Report: How a ‘wheelchair warrior’ deals with city’s seven hills

The never ending hills of Sheffield are challenging
The never ending hills of Sheffield are challenging

Writer lays bare the reality of travelling around the city’s challenging geography as a disabled person and how Sheffield folk are willing to give you a push - even if it is in the wrong direction...

Living in a city notorious for being built on seven hills may not seem like the most sensible option if you rely on a wheelchair to get around it.

Kerbs, like many things that may seem trivial to an ambulant person, can be major barriers. Pictures: Marisa Cashill

Kerbs, like many things that may seem trivial to an ambulant person, can be major barriers. Pictures: Marisa Cashill

This is Sheffield so we don’t have to bother doing what the Romans do, but wherever you are being in a chair gives you an unusual perspective on life, the lowdown on it, so to speak, where things that may seem trivial to an ambulant person can prove to be major barriers.

It can be hard sometimes to curb your anger when you can’t cross the road because nobody has bothered to install a dropped bit of kerb.

This city however isn’t too bad, certainly compared to some other places I have visited, although there is certainly still a lot of room for improvement.

Sheffielders in general are often friendly and willing to give you a push – even if sometimes it may be in the wrong direction.

It was ironic you had to negotiate a step into a disability charity shop

The first rule when helping a disabled person is always ask. Not only if this particular person actually needs or even wants help but if so the best way to give it.

The second is accept their answer, even if it is ‘no thanks.’

You may be surprised how many ‘helpers’ think these rules don’t apply to them. Yes, I have been pushed over a road I had no absolutely no intention of crossing. More than once.

It’s wheely annoying. See what I did there?

Some of the city’s streets are too steep for the likes of me to even go near – try getting up Blake Street, Hagg Hill or Hunter House Road using only the power of your arms.

Or rather don’t unless you really fancy doing yourself a nasty injury. It would take a gang of fitness fanatic pushers to propel you up there.

It might be fun coming down though, but only if the council saw fit to install soft crash barriers at the bottom.

Luckily, away from the outskirts and suburbs, the city centre is more or less on the level, With The Moor and Fargate both being pedestrianised, you don’t have to watch out for traffic, which is always a relief, especially when you’re trying to avoid being rattled by the cobbled bits.

And you can access most retailers on these precincts, albeit with a bit of difficulty in some cases.

It was quite ironic that you had to negotiate a step to get into a disability charity’s shop.

There are certainly steps being made towards making Sheffield city centre more disability-friendly, and not just for people with mobility problems.

Recently, 15 stores joined together to provide special early-opening sessions for people with autism , set up by local charity Sparkle Sheffield to mark World Autism Week.

These shops turned down the music and lighting, offered sensory rooms and personal shopping, sessions.

Hopefully that won’t just be a one-off as disabled people - despite the Government’s best efforts - do have some money to spend, and although online shopping has certainly made things easier, many of them enjoy looking round for and trying out potential purchases for real rather than just seeing them on a computer.

There can be a problem if you fancy a snack or just feel you deserve a drink after your shopping though, as a few of the city centre cafes and hostelries are all but inaccessible to those with mobility problems.

As are many others in the wider area.

Of course, some of these places have been there for years – long before disabled people were allowed outside – and steps etcetera were often part of the original design, but in some of these cases ramps and other aids could be installed at minimal cost and would help attract more punters in – which is surely the aim of any establishment worth its salt.

If a disabled person really wanted to be difficult they could start quoting laws (specifically the Disability Discrimination Acts of 1995 and 2005, which have been superseded by the Equality Act 2010) about access and ‘reasonable adjustments.’ These laws are full of loopholes but sometimes prove effective.

In most cases though there are alternative and more accessible venues nearby which are more than happy to take my cash – although it still seems to be the case that many disabled toilets are used as storage cupboards.

These places are really taking the…well, you know the expression…

There may never be much chance of creating a totally level playing field - disabilities can vary so much in type, severity and effects on an individual that there are always going to be those who are not catered for - it may not be the Italian capital but those of us with impairments should surely have the right to roam the city centre and beyond as anyone else.

Disability Sheffield offers a voice to the community

Disability Sheffield, based at The Circle on Rockingham Lane in the city centre, is a user-led organisation which promotes choice, control and independence for disabled people in Sheffield.

It aims to offer advice and practical help for people with all sorts of disabilities, and has a range of staff and volunteers with expertise in many topics.

Among the services offered are advocacy, training on different types and effects of autism, employment support not only for disabled people but also for employers and personal assistants, the Cycling4All project, which provides regular sessions with a range of accessible bikes, the Sheffield Voices group which is a self-advocacy group for people with learning disabilities and the Disability Hub, part of the city-wide Equality Hub Network, which aims to help under-represented communities in Sheffield have a say on issues that affect them and influence decisions.

It also liaises with Sheffield City Council on creating ‘Accessible Sheffield’ teaming up with Nimbus disability consultancy for the Access Card, designed to offer an easy way to show shops and venues what an individual’s particular needs are. There is also a Carer Card which, like the access card, can be used to gain discounts and special offers from participating retailers.

To find out more or volunteer visit Disability Sheffield or call 0114 253 6750, or emailing info@disabilitysheffield.org.uk