Wednesday, December 30, 2009

2009 - A Roundup

As usual, the year began with my birthday, which this year was accompanied by a visit from my mother. I also managed to get everything ready for hiring a personal assistant with Direct Payments and finally placed the advert. I found it very scary as I was desperate to be a "good" employer and worried that I'd get things wrong.

Meanwhile Steve and I found time to go on a number of weekend outings, including trips to the National Sea Life Centre, Birmingham and the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre.

There was snow in February and I suffered for it, and I'm sure I inflicted some of that suffering on to poor Steve. I had a another job interview but I started becoming very concerned about whether I was getting all these interviews because of my employability, or whether they were "sympathy" interviews thanks to the Two Ticks scheme.

In March my local council decided to withdraw the accessible Community Transport scheme which had until then provided the only affordable means of local travel to disabled residents like myself who are simultaneously unable to drive and unable to use public transport.

Luckily for me, I had just hired my PA and, although I had a little bit of difficulty getting my head around having an employee to help me (as opposed to struggling on insisting I can manage) we got on well and quickly developed a smoothly functional working relationship, allowing me to participate in the world a little bit more.

April saw a few changes to my working life, as my manager B asked me to take on a few more admin tasks (which meant a bit less of the more physical packing-CDs tasks). I really enjoyed learning the new things I was doing, but didn't want to tell anyone about it because it wasn't a "formal" change, and the main part of my job was still dealing with the CDs. This informality turned out to not be a good thing.

I attempted to argue with the council about the loss of transport provision, but although a number of councillors acknowledged my arguments and promised to attempt to put forward the issues I had raised, nothing came of it. The entire budget has been allocated to over-65s in "rural areas", regardless of their mobility needs - a hale and hearty over-65 who is perfectly able to walk, cycle, drive a car or catch a bus gets help, an under-65 who can do none of these things gets no help.

Once again, May started with Blogging Against Disablism Day. I wrote a post about people who assume the right to make our life decisions for us, followed by a roundup of my favourite BADD posts from elsewhere in the blogosphere.

In June I was far too busy doing things to actually write about any of it. Steve finished working for a while and went off on his motorbike to the wilds of Scotland, although regrettably the "summer" weather meant that the beautiful camping holiday he had planned turned more into a series of hops between B&Bs and cafes where he could dry out a little and get a hot drink inside him. I, on the other hand, went off to Lowestoft to see Pip and the Boy for a week, and came back gloriously sunburnt despite lashings of high-factor sun cream. In fact my only regret about my holiday was that Pip and I could not have the marvellous roast dinner we'd been planning because it was simply too hot to eat proper meals, let alone cook them.

My beloved and trusty laptop finally gave up the ghost after more than three years of almost permanent use. I have a new one, but it runs on Vista (shudder), it's unstable as anything, and try as I might, I just can't love it.

Terror came in August, as the government revealed plans to axe certain "disability benefits" that are given to disabled people to enable us to meet the extra expenses that disability incurs, and instead give the money to Social Services to spend on our behalf.

I made another effort to get the council to consider reinstating some sort of transport provision for under-65s who cannot walk, drive, or use the buses - even if only for medical appointments - but again, while I was listened to and agreed with and notes were made by the councillor I spoke to, nothing has been put in place.

Despite this, it was a wonderful summer and Steve and I enjoyed many lazy weekends, often involving a cream tea in some local beauty spot. If it wasn't for the his'n'hers G1s you'd be forgiven for thinking we'd fallen into the 1950s. My friend Carie won several prizes at her Village Show, but my own culinary skills remain somewhat lacking.

In September my employment status started to become a bit shaky. My line manager B, who had been responsible for moving me to a more admin-centric role, left the company and suddenly I found myself being assigned much more physically demanding tasks by his replacement. I asked for a clarification of my job role and, if I was expected to do different tasks to the ones I was doing at the beginning of my employment, a new Access to Work assessment.

Meanwhile, I started on a second job for a friend of mine, a couple of hours here and there, working from home to top up my income a bit and improve my CV as well as help her out. Steve also went back to work after his "summer break".

October was when things fell apart. My PA informed me that by the end of the year she would no longer be able to work for me, and I got the forms through for my DLA renewal - all 40 pages of it. While attempting to get help with the forms, I got stuck on an outdoor lift which isn't a fun thing to do in October, and I really started feeling like I was drowning not waving...

And then to round the month off, my managers responded to my request for job role clarification and a new Access to Work assessment by telling me that if I couldn't do all the new tasks that I was expected to do, then I would have to start looking for alternative employment. I decided to quit and make it my decision rather than theirs.

Somehow I kept on top of things and managed to work my notice, complete my DLA form, and prepare my employer paperwork for my PA's departure. Once I was no longer at work things got a lot easier and I started seriously looking into setting up my own business. I ran into a lot of barriers because of the disability thing - not being able to "pop over" to Coventry for a day's informal workshop every so often meant that I was left to my own interpretation of online materials. There are a lot of helpful PDFs out there, especially on the HMRC website, to help someone trying to set up their own business. Unfortunately there's no way of telling which ones are the useful, relevant ones, and which ones don't apply to you... the worst day of this saw my phoning my mother's house and opening a conversation with "talk to me about something that isn't tax!!!!!"

My PA was off sick a lot and I found myself gradually going potty from being stuck indoors on my own all day. While waiting for a referral to a specialist "disability" business advisor (which wasn't all I'd hoped) I set to preparing all the Christmas details, which paid dividends as Steve and I were both struck down with Lurgy in the middle of the month and we never would have managed it as a last-minute job.

Christmas was lovely, with lots of gifts and food and relaxation and monkeys. However the Lurgy seems to have reasserted itself, so unless both Steve and myself have a dramatic improvement in the next few hours, our New Years celebrations are likely to consist of little more than being woken up by midnight fireworks and having a celebratory nose-blow.

Happy New Year to all my readers, and especially to all those who have left comments - you've made a real difference to my life.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Monkey World!

Christmas went off without a hitch, very relaxed, lovely presents, saw a couple of people, had plenty to eat, marvellous. Then it was Boxing Day, the snow had thawed and the sun was shining and I really didn't want to waste the day by sitting indoors staring at the computer. We ummed and ahhed over a few ideas, but we didn't especially want to brave the sales, and we couldn't be sure of which of our favoured haunts for cups of tea and cake would be open on Boxing Day. So in a rare burst of spontaneity, we decided to go further afield.

orang-utan chewing a sock with yummy treats hidden insideWe came up with Monkey World in Dorset. The idea was that we could spend the remainder of Boxing Day packing in leisurely fashion and doing the three-hour drive down to the south coast, get to a hotel in time for dinner and a good night's sleep, and then in the morning we could get up nice and refreshed, see the monkeys for a few hours, and drive back home again. Unfortunately, while the park is open every day except Christmas Day, the admin office for bookings and information is only open Monday to Friday, so I couldn't phone in advance for the finer details of the access features.

Now here's the thing. Disabled access... well, it can be a bit hit-and-miss. An attraction boasting a blue wheelchair symbol could mean that there's an entire step-free multi-sensory experience within, enjoyable for anyone regardless of impairment. Then again, that blue wheelchair symbol might just mean that a standard-size manual wheelchair can get through the entrance gate and that somewhere on site is a single disabled loo which might be usable once the boxes of cleaning supplies have been moved elsewhere. It is in the interests of any attraction to claim to be easy to find, accessible, value for money and so on. The question is always to what extent the promotional materials match the reality.

Which is why, as Steve booked us in to our hotel for the night, I was picking up as many leaflets as I could see about other winter attractions in the Dorset area. Just in case.

orang-utan inspecting my mobility scooterHappily, I needn't have bothered. The claim on the website that they have "a selection of 25 motorised scooters" was not marketing-speak for "given enough notice, we can hire up to 25 scooters from other companies" - they really have got their own fleet of mobility scooters, charged up and ready to go, in a covered pen right next to the entrance gates. It's still safer to pre-book, especially at the busier times of year, but seriously - 25 scooters! It beats hands-down the one or two ex-NHS wheelchairs that are generally available elsewhere.

Unless you are very fit, I would definitely suggest using a powered mobility aid rather than a manual wheelchair because some of the slopes are quite steep. However, they are mostly surfaced with smooth tarmac, they aren't dangerously steep, and they certainly beat steps.

The whole park is accessible to the scooters with the exception of a "woodland walk" which, as you might guess, is a walk through some woodland. There aren't any monkeys in that section though, so I didn't feel I was missing much. Even the playground has an accessible swing*, and of the two accessible toilets, only one had a baby-changing table fixed to the wall, but... it was at wheelchair height! You may now retrieve your jaws from the floor.

Even more impressively (yes! there's more!) is the acknowledgement that accessibility does not begin and end with wheelchairs. If you aren't a wheelchair user but can only manage a certain amount of walking, there's a liberal scattering of memorial benches throughout the park. If you have impaired hearing, you can request printouts of the keeper talks. If you have impaired vision, you can request information in Braille, and there are also several tactile sculptures to enable you to get an idea of the features and scale of some of the park's residents. They've really thought about things, and you get the impression that they'd be open to other suggestions.

However this has turned into a post about access rather than about monkeys, and it was the monkeys we went to see.

baby chimp taking a ride on an adult's backMonkey World is primarily a rescue centre rather than a zoo, and the focus is very much on the rescue and rehabilitation of primates, followed by the education of humans. For instance, there are scores of capuchins and no gorillas. This is because there were a lot of capuchins needing rescue, whereas there aren't so many at-risk gorillas and there are better facilities available for the few that do crop up. There's no one there going "Bob, we've got to get a couple of gorillas, it'd be a real crowd-puller."

orang-utan looking out of the window at the cameraDo not go if you want to be "entertained", do not expect parades and cartoon characters, and I think if you were so crass as to ask to pet a monkey or have your photo taken with it, you would probably be ejected from the premises. Most of the residents have been rescued from a life where their "job" was to be a photo prop cuddling tourists.

Don't get me wrong, it is very entertaining to watch the monkeys playing, and to hear or read about their adventures and interactions. They even have their own TV show (in fact Steve and I may have been the only visitors not familiar with the monkeys from TV. I've since discovered that the programme is on Tuesday evenings when I go to knitting). But it's also really nice the way everything is done to fit around them being monkeys, rather than them being exhibits. None of it is Disney-ified or over-anthropomorphised. If anything it's the reverse - even the playground areas are set up to mimic the equipment in the enclosures, which I thought was a nice touch.

Adorability Award: Woolly MonkeyMy favourite group was probably the chimps. I loved watching them flying about the place in much the same way as I enjoy watching Parkour. Despite the enclosed space, there is a tremendous sense of freedom and of synchronicity with one's environment. I felt the most empathy with the orang-utans, and my Adorability Award goes to the woolly monkeys.

We had an absolutely wonderful time wandering round, despite the cold weather. I'm shattered now, but that was only to be expected and I think it was worth it.

All the photos were taken by Evilstevie and can be found here.

* No, I didn't.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


I knew there was a reason I'd put so much time and effort into getting ready for Christmas well ahead of time... we went to a big family meal with a handful of children small portable germ warfare agents present, and now Steve and I are both suffering from Winter Lurgy. Yesterday in particular was hideous, with a mother of a migraine that actually made me throw up (usually they only make me feel nauseous).

Thankfully, having everything sorted out already, along with me not being "at work", has meant that I've been able to properly rest up every day so I'm nothing like as floored as I would be if I was still thrashing myself to pack CDs. Since I'm not that wiped out, I'm able to tackle a bit more of the household stuff than I otherwise would, which in turn gives Steve half a chance to recover when he staggers in from work.

It does mean I've had to put the business development stuff on hold. Again. Yup, the hopes and dreams I had for that referral to the Council for Disabled People being the business development support I needed were unfounded. It turns out that this particular project is set up to help "voluntary and community organisations supporting disabled people" rather than helping disabled people set up businesses that intend to serve anyone, disabled or otherwise. It was a completely inappropriate referral and all we can guess is that the person who referred me was just panicking and opting for the first project with "disability" in the title.

So I'm pretty much figuring it out on my own now, with some helpful printouts from Business Link and any number of PDFs on the HMRC website. Most of the basics are in place - including, today, the good news that my PO Box will be up and running at the beginning of the year - but I have kind of lost momentum. I think I may be best off calling it a proper Christmas/New Year holiday and picking it up again after my birthday.

Also in the New Year, I'll be interviewing for a new PA, as the lady who has been working with me this year has gone on Maternity Leave. I'm quite hopeful, and a lot more confident now that this is the second time going through the recruitment process.

Despite the various setbacks, I'm still feeling really positive about things, and as usual I'm very much looking forward to Christmas. So let's round off with my really awful snapshot of my really lovely Tree.

My Tree!

(edit to add title!)

Sunday, December 06, 2009

I am that good

Feeling rather pleased with myself at the moment.

I've more or less stopped flustering and panicking about self-employment (remember that five weeks ago the concept hadn't crossed my mind) and I'm making good, steady progress towards being set up and ready to go. I've completed about half of the online business course, and about two-thirds of my business plan. I've taken care of a number of practical issues (things like the VOA assessment for whether I'd have to pay business rates) and I have some sensible questions to ask the advisor I'm meeting with this week. I've picked a name, set up an email address, installed a suite of office software, done some market research, got some quotes for logo-type artwork... the list goes on*.

On top of this, I'm also ready for Christmas. Steve's having a bit of a trying time at work right now and tends to come home with his brain dribbling out of his ears, so I took charge. Step one, I made a list of people we should buy presents for and a list of people we should send cards to. Once he'd approved these, step two, I wrote out all the cards for him to add his signature. Step three, we determined who we were likely to see during December and dug up addresses for the others, and I sorted out the envelopes all nice and ready for the postbox. Step four was a list of suggested gifts from online retailers for almost everyone on the present list, approved and purchased.

Step five was an actual shopping-centre trip to dig up gifts for those we hadn't found anything for online. Step six, I've been wrapping and labelling the gifts as they have come into the house. We are now at a point where the completed boxes of wrapped presents have been dispatched to the people we're not going to be seeing this year, and there are a couple of plastic boxes of wrapped presents and a stack of cards ready for the people we are planning to see.

We are, in fact, all set for Christmas, which is pretty good considering that we're still in the first week of December. Steve isn't sure whether to be amazed or disturbed, but is presenting it as concrete proof of my abilities to anyone who asks him what it is I'm planning to do and whether I'm any good at it.

*by the way, one of the items remaining on the To Do list is finding someone to hold my hand through the website process. Any takers?