At last we found the fish fingers, then our wheels jammed: For Sandra Tong, with her wheelchair strapped to a trolley, the supermarket run becomes a marathon

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Indy Lifestyle Online
It was Wednesday, so it was shopping day. I heaved myself out of Anne's car and into my wheelchair. The air was chilly and damp, full of the promise of rain. A woman passed me then stopped, turned and stared. I organised my cushion and got my legs into a comfortable position;

all the while she stared at me and I

stared back. 'Can you manage?' she asked, eventually.

'Yes,' I replied sharply. She shuffled her feet a bit and went off to find some other entertainment.

Anne, my helper, locked up the car and pushed me over to the disabled trolleys. They really were disabled. Two of them were strapless, so could not be attached to a wheelchair. The last one had one strap about 30cm long and the other a metre long. She looped the straps through the arm-rests of the wheelchair and hooked the ends back on to the trolley bars. We were now an articulated vehicle. The pathway to the small entrance door was decoratively cobbled, so we rattled along, the front edge of the trolley hammering my left shin. It was always the same. I remembered, too late as usual, that I should have worn one of my son's rugby shin pads. We swung to the left, the trolley strained to the right, and we barged in through the door.

Anne negotiated the other shoppers and their trolleys while grabbing the items that I called out from my list. Where were the fish fingers? We couldn't find them anywhere. Up and down the rows of frozen food cabinets we went. As if supermarket shopping wasn't harrowing enough, the management, in its wisdom, keeps moving things around so we all end up playing a version of hunt the thimble. If you're lucky, you can find an assistant who will let you know whether you're hot or cold. By now Anne was definitely hot and I had to hold her jacket while she negotiated a huge wire hopper full of Special Offer Malt Loaves placed strategically in the centre of the aisle.

In the end we found the fish fingers in an overhead cabinet. Then the wheels jammed. One of the trolley wheels had interlocked with one of the front wheels of the wheelchair and we ground to a halt. Anne kicked them apart and we moved on to the checkout. Unfortunately, we were beaten to it by a woman with a trolley groaning under the weight of at least pounds 100 worth of goods. We had no choice but to wait as this was the only checkout out of 15 that was wide enough for a wheelchair to go through.

Tired and frustrated, Anne and I discussed the trolley situation and decided to speak to the manager. We explained our difficulties to a short man in a dark suit with a stomach that threatened to burst out of his white shirt.

'If there had been one other wheelchair user in the store when I came along, I wouldn't have been able to do my shopping because the other trolleys have no straps. Also, the trolley wheels jam with the wheelchair wheels. In the other supermarket across town they have newer trolleys, which don't jam.'

'It's impossible to suit everyone who uses a wheelchair,' he replied. 'The problem is your disability, but you do have my sympathy.' He thrust his hands in his trouser pockets and looked down at me. I insisted that all I wanted was straps on the other trolleys so they could be used.

'I'll look into it,' he said and thanked me for bringing the matter to his attention.

I left feeling tired, defeated and furious. Back home I decided to give him a month to sort out the straps. The dull days of January came and went and nothing happened, so I wrote a sharp letter to the head office. At the same time I wrote to my MP, urging him to support the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill, which has its second reading on Friday.

His reply was that, as a Conservative, he thought education was better than legislation. I would love to see him spend a day in a wheelchair in a shopping centre and see whether he could survive the experience without losing his temper or bursting into tears.

Then, finally, a few weeks ago, I received a telephone call from the panting dark suit. It was all a misunderstanding on my part. He did not mean to be patronising. He had nothing against disabled people. In fact, in his last store he had organised carol singing at Christmas for disabled people. He insisted on coming to visit me and brought a huge bouquet of flowers.

Two weeks later, all three disabled trolleys stood twinkling in the sunshine. Polished, oiled and with brand new elastic straps. What a triumph] We zoomed up and down the aisles. It still whacked my shins, but never mind. And this week we were lucky at the one and only accessible checkout. There was just one small basketful in front of us.

I handed my Switch card over to the checkout girl. She looked at me, leant forward with the receipt and asked, very slowly and articulately: 'Are you able to sign this?'

'Yes,' I replied slowly and articulately. I know how important it is to make allowances for these people.

(Photograph omitted)

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