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Posted 30/07/2015



Have you ever wondered how easy it is to move around a modern town centre in a wheelchair? Cheltenham disability charity St Vincent’s and St George’s Association asked just that question of 12 able-bodied people on Friday.
They were tasked with completing a circuit of the town in a “Wheelchair Challenge”. Cheltenham town centre manager and former editor of the Echo, Kevan Blackadder joined them and described what he found.
“I was delighted to have been asked to join the Wheelchair Challenge, as I knew it would give me a very different view of the accessibility of the town centre.
As the rain continued to pour throughout Friday ahead of the 3pm start, I was starting to wish I was somewhere else. But then I put myself in the mind of a wheelchair user. They can’t choose to go out only when the sun is shining. What on earth did I have to moan about?
The 12 on the challenge included Cheltenham MP Alex Chalk, borough councillors, and county and borough council officers. We were split into teams of two - one was to be in the wheelchair and one acting as carer - with the two swapping roles half-way round. I was paired with Gloucestershire Police and Crime Commissioner Martin Surl, who used to pound the Cheltenham town centre beat in his previous life as a police officer. The two of us would surely be able to find our way round the town - and the detailed route - with ease?
From a geographical point of view, we did. But that’s where the comfort stopped. I was pushing Martin as we set off and turned from the charity’s HQ in Winchcombe Street into St Margaret’s Road. A sharp left into Portland Street and we were confronted by our first problem. A white van parked on the pavement. The only option was to go on to the road. Other vehicles parked on kerbs continued to block our way, as did wheelie bins. It was clearly not collection day so why did so many businesses and residents leaving bins out blocking the pavement?
In Clarence Street, another issue with wheelchair use has left me with a painful reminder of the day. As I approached a pavement slightly too quickly, the wheelchair jarred and my left leg rammed into the back of the chair. The bruises are going to take some time to disappear. Getting on and off pavements, even those with drop-kerbs, is a real issue in Cheltenham.
Apparently, this wasn’t a race, but Martin is as competitive as me and, when we saw MP Chalk and friend cutting up a side street we were furious (although it later turned out that they were simply following the correct route), the adrenalin kicked in and the PCC would not have travelled so quickly up Rodney Road if he had been in a patrol car with blue lights flashing. Then came a key task on the challenge. We had to find our way to the disabled toilets in Beechwood Shopping Centre and take a selfie picture to prove it. The good news was that the shoppers were happy to not only hold the lift doors open for us, but they made sure we got to the right floor. A quick snap later and we were on our way up Grosvenor Place.
By now, we’d swapped roles and negotiating what must be one of the narrowest pavements in Cheltenham. As well as the uneven, resurfaced pavements all over the town, the width of many is a real issue. Then came the moment the whole event almost ended in disaster. Martin and I were chatting away as he pushed me across the crossing on Fairview Road but he’d forgotten that he needed to check the lights.
My scream came just soon enough for him to bring the wheelchair to a halt before we were both wiped out by a car approaching from our left. Concentrate. Concentrate. As we completed the final loop via Pittville Gates, we realised that ourselves and MP Alex were out in front.
A final push and we were the first back home. Maybe it wasn’t supposed to be a competition, but we did get a prize! Far more important were the lessons learned. I’ll be talking to colleagues at the county council with far more vigour about the need for repairs to both roads and pavements. And look out if you’re leaving your bins or your car wheels in the wrong place - I’m going to be on your case.
The Wheelchair Challenge was great fun but it has also proved that those of us fortunate enough not to be in a wheelchair can so easily make a difference for those who are.”
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