On Wednesday, I went to Naidex National at the NEC, Birmingham.
I have to say, Naidex itself wasn't as good as last year. Last year, I saw all sorts of innovative products and came home with lots of literature and a wish-list as long as my arm. I also picked up goodies like the National Trust's Access Guide, and was able to have demonstrated to me how much more comfortable an ergonomic office chair can be. A number of stallholders were communicating on Twitter, having actual conversations with people who said they were going to Naidex, encouraging them to come and say hi at their stall, and I dropped in on several of them. There were also a few inventor/entrepreneur types there, interested to hear ideas about what products we'd like to see in the future. I felt like I was the target market as a disabled adult in charge of her own home, equipment and finances.
This year was different. Only one company - PoolPods - engaged with me on Twitter. Their product, while I'm sure it's lovely, isn't really relevant to me - but I thought I would say hello anyway. Except I couldn't find them! Step One was easy, finding them in the list of exhibitors, they were listed under "P" for "PoolPods", simple. Stall G82. Step Two was slightly more difficult, trying to find Stall G82 on the printed room plan, but after a bit of hunting I spotted it tucked somewhere at the back of the hall. But Step Three, actually finding that stall? Couldn't do it. There were frequent traffic jams because a small cluster of two or three people standing in front of a stall could block half the aisle. Add to that the lack of signposting or labelling of the aisles (would it be so hard to have North-South aisles numbered 1, 2, 3, and East-West aisles labelled A, B, C?), the manoeuvrability issues of many attendees (wheelchairs don't tend to sidestep well, mobility scooters are often quite long) and the usual pedestrian traffic flow problems (people stopping for a chat on a busy intersection), and it was nigh-on impossible to follow a planned route to a particular point on the map. Nor was it possible to just wander up and down the aisles until you found what you were looking for - the layout was confusing, the aisles weren't continuous, and stalls faced all directions. There were several stalls I saw twice or three times and others I didn't see at all.
The small, interesting vendors with "everyday" disability products (such as Trabasack and DisabledGear) didn't seem to be present this year. I also felt that there were fewer stalls aimed at "people like me". For instance, I saw umpteen companies offering incredible, amazing off-road wheelchairs, powerchairs, hand-cycles and suchlike. We're talking massive knobbly off-road tyres, aggressive-looking LED arrays and exciting metallic paint finishes. That's great, but these aren't the sorts of chairs you can use for your everyday needs. You couldn't ride them into Starbucks, or a high-street shop, or a work meeting, or your kid's school for the parent-teacher evening. They also probably won't fold down to fit in the boot of the average Ford Focus, either. They're aimed at people who are disabled but who also have TENS of THOUSANDS of pounds to blow on leisure equipment over and above what they use every day. This made me feel sad. I mean, on the one hand it's terrific that disabled millionaires have so many choices of how to spend obscene sums of money, but on the other hand, products like comfortable wheelchair jeans are going to be far more relevant for far more people.
But! That was only part of why I went. The other part was to have the opportunity to meet up with other disabled people, and that was managed with great success. One is a very good friend who I have met before on several occasions, and we had a much-needed cup of tea together that in itself made up for the disappointment of the exhibition. Another person I have "known" and considered a friend for many years, but only online, and my PA tells me that my face lit up like a Christmas tree when I saw her for the first time. Others had familiar names and I'm pleased to be able to add faces. Eventually our group - consisting of two powerchair users, two manual wheelchair users (myself included), one person using a mobility scooter, and two people without any visible mobility aids at all - made our way into a well-known pub/restaurant chain for lunch.
Incidentally, I still get a thrill from that. Us being able to go and have lunch together in a pub is concrete proof that campaigning for equality works, has worked, and can continue to work. There's still a way to go, but it would have been unthinkable thirty years ago.
The meal was not spectacular. The company and the conversation were. There's an unusual sense of freedom when socialising with other disabled people, because you can actually go ahead and talk about disability issues without having to draw a diagram of the welfare/social care systems, and without being pitied, and without having to listen to any ablesplaining about how surely X doesn't happen any more, and the real problem is Y, and if you try Z it'll all be sorted out. No one feels the need to make the stupid jokes about running over people's toes and there's no sense of being the "odd one out". For me, it's also really refreshing to socialise in a role other than as "Steve's wife" - Steve is a nice person and so are his friends, and I like spending time with them, but it's a completely different thing to socialising as purely myself.
Of course we're all rather wiped out now. For spoonies, a look around an exhibition followed by a couple of hours having lunch and a chat with half a dozen friends can have repercussions for days on end. It's embarrassing to think about how long it's taken me to write this post. Nevertheless, I still think that despite the disappointment of the exhibition itself, the day was worth it.