Inside I'm cursing

A new film shows two wheelchair-bound men embark on a spree of clubbing and dating. When Corinne Sweet took Rudi and Kamran for a night on the town, they found the reality was rather different
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The Independent Online

This weekend, Inside We're Dancing, the new film from director Damien O'Donnell (East is East), and the producer of Billy Elliot opens. It's a powerful portrayal of two young Irish blokes in wheelchairs (Rory O'Shea, played by James McIvor, has muscular dystrophy and Michael O'Donnelly, played by Steven Robertson has cerebral palsy), who move from dependence on a state-run 'home' to finally finding independence through rebellion.

This weekend, Inside We're Dancing, the new film from director Damien O'Donnell (East is East), and the producer of Billy Elliot opens. It's a powerful portrayal of two young Irish blokes in wheelchairs (Rory O'Shea, played by James McIvor, has muscular dystrophy and Michael O'Donnelly, played by Steven Robertson has cerebral palsy), who move from dependence on a state-run 'home' to finally finding independence through rebellion.

Although the pair get into difficult venues with ease, there is a drily humorous scene where Rory blags them into a club, highlighting the fact that disabled people now have EU legislation on their side. Indeed, the film could not be more timely. Since 1 October, the final and biggest stage of Part II of the Disability Discrimination Act has come into force, meaning every business, every public service, has to become more user-friendly for Britain's 10 million disabled people.

A recent NOP survey conducted for the Disability Rights Commission found that in four out of five city centres, disabled people encountered major problems such as inaccessible steps, heavy doors, narrow entrances and bad store layout. Nearly a quarter of all 88 major high-street outlets surveyed were rated as poor or very poor by disabled shoppers. Businesses are actually losing out as disabled people have a spending power of £50 billion a year, according to the DRC.

These are situations that Kamran Mallick, 32, director of Hammersmith and Fulham Action on Disability (HAFAD), and his colleague Rudi Breakwell Bos, 51, a disability equality consultant, know only too well. I'm delighted when they invite me to join them for an impromptu after-work drink - particularly since a night out for them normally involves planning of militaristic precision.

7.10pm: Crown and Sceptre, Shepherd's Bush. Rudi is in the pub when I arrive. The Crown and Sceptre is tucked away down a backstreet in Shepherd's Bush, West London. But it is one of the few pubs that Rudi can get his wheelchair into, "even though the landlord had to move several tables and chairs when I arrived," he explains with a grin. He is quadriplegic from a skiing accident he suffered at 17, and uses an electric wheelchair. To get into the pub he has to manoeuvre it up a short wooden ramp over two large steps. Chris Buckley, 38, the new general manager of the Crown and Sceptre is proud of his ramp, large-print menu and disabled loo - and intends to instal a bell outside so the heavy doors can be opened more quickly. But Mr Buckley is not just being a thoughtful landlord, he is bound by the Discrimination Disability Act 1995 to make his pub accessible to disabled people. "Fuller, Smith and Turner are determined to do everything we can to improve things," he says.

7.20pm: Kamran arrives to find the Victorian front doors are now closed. Kamran, in a wheelchair as a result of childhood polio, sits outside in the rain patiently batting at the doors. It is not until I open them for him that he is able to whoosh himself up the ramp. All eyes turn as he makes his grand entrance. "You get used to being stared at," he says.

Tonight we are having a drink, something to eat and perhaps going to a club or live band in the local area. This is not a wild night out "up West" or clubbing till dawn - both activities which are often barred to wheelchair users for a variety of reasons - but a simple, everyday activity most non-disabled people take completely for granted. Overdrinks, Rudi and Kamran recount endless tales - humorously told - of disastrous nights out. A cultured, social being, with an impressive CV, Rudi loves theatre, concerts and arts events. At Browns in Covent Garden, he was told: "Yes, we're wheelchair accessible - we've got a nice table at the back." Kamran, who is both very sociable and fiercely independent, was recently refused entry to a restaurant. "It was a friend's birthday, so it was very embarrassing. In the end, everyone decided to leave with me".

8.50pm: start to leave the pub. After some pub grub, the guys decide to try out the new jazz club nearby for drinks and music. Before we leave, I ask if they need the loo. There is a large disabled toilet on the ground floor, but it is blocked by tables, chairs and people. "No," they chorus. I'm surprised they can hold on, especially after a pint or two. "First, it's embarrassing making a big palaver about getting to the loo," explains Rudi. "Second," continues Kamran, "I've simply got used to holding on. You can never usually get into a loo, so you just wait - and make sure you don't drink too much." I am amazed at how long it takes us simply to get outside. It takes nearly 20 minutes to get through the room, moving tables and chairs as we go, then it's down the ramp.

9.10pm: Finally get outside. We are accosted by a gang of youths, fascinated by Rudi and Kamran's wheelchairs and Rudi's customised Chrysler Voyager. "Has he got any legs?" one shouts at me as Rudi lowers his car's automatic ramp, which takes a good 10 minutes. As we clamber in, about six crowd round the car and gawp. Two hang off the passenger door. "Is he sitting in his wheelchair?" one says to me while Rudi turns the key. Rudi answers their questions confidently and with humour, and they melt into the night. I feel appalled by their rudeness, but neither Rudi nor Kamran are fazed.

9.30pm: on the road. "Kids are fascinated and I don't mind them asking straight questions," says Rudi, phlegmatically, once we're on the move. "You get it all the time - name- calling, rudeness, talking over your head," chips in Kamran. "You just learn to put it to the back of your mind, but you do feel particularly vulnerable getting into your car with your back to the pavement." "Especially round here," agrees Rudi. "Shepherd's Bush is a nightmare."

9.45pm: arrive at Blue Jay jazz club. The Blue Jay is a nightmare too, we discover. A narrow door leads straight on to two flights of rickety stairs into a basement. While Rudi and Kamran sit in the rain on the doorstep I go in to hunt down the manager, Brian Lucas. "I knew this would happen to me some day," he says, clasping his hands. Upstairs he surveys the scene. "If our bouncers were here you could be lifted down," he says. When I ask what he intends to do about the situation, Mr Lucas blanches: "It's very difficult, we're a new club ... come back another night and we'll carry you down."

Politely, both Rudi and Kamran decline his offer. "It's utterly humiliating - and dangerous - to be carried," explains Kamran afterwards. When he went to Hertford University to do business studies, he was carried - and dropped - by well-meaning students. "I saw a poor woman dropped off the steps of a BA plane," recounts Rudi. "Not only do you risk injury, there are health and safety considerations, too. How do you get out of a basement in a fire if you've been lifted down like a sack of potatoes?"

10.15pm: leave jazz club without getting in. Before we try anywhere else, Kamran needs cash. After negotiating kerbs with some difficulty, we find a cash dispenser, which although at the right height, exposes Kamran to attack, being unlit and hidden behind a pillar. "I've been mugged twice and pushed over in my chair," he says. Indeed, we are accosted several times as we walk along the patchwork of broken pavement with its obstacle course of barriers, roadworks, cones and bin bags.

10.40pm: arrive Shepherd's Bush Empire. We've been turned away from the jazz club but we're still keen on trying to hear some music, so we head for the Empire theatre on Shepherd's Bush Green, a favourite venue of Rudi's. Tonight, Delirious are belting it out and the doors are manned by green and red clad bouncers with ear-pieces. Two big steps up to the door bar Rudi and Kamran's way. "I'll just get the manager," chirps a friendly doorman. Bill Marshall is affable and clearly concerned about his staff being helpful. "We can take about eight wheelchair users," he says, "and it's near the bar and cloaks." However, the only entrance is down a dark side alley and up a rickety ramp. Reluctantly, Kamran and Rudi decide against going in. The band has started and they're not keen to go through all the hassle. "They're lovely guys," says Rudi, "and I often go, but I do get sick of always going in the back entrance along with the tradesmen. Plus, inside there's a handrail which goes along exactly at eye level when you're sitting down."

10.55pm: back to the car. Having been thwarted on the music front, a non-disabled punter might pop into the next pub for a nightcap (our next choice has three big steps and a narrow folding door), or hop on the Tube and head for Soho. Not our lads: neither can get through the barriers at the Tube, nor do they fancy waiting in the rain for a bus, which may not be wheelchair accessible. Public transport is a sore point - Kamran recently sat in the guard's van all the way from London to Wales.

Taxis? Forget it. It's hard to find wheelchair-accessible ones, and piling in two wheelchairs is a non-starter. I also discover that Rudi's electric chair is less flexible than Kamran's, which he dismantles to get in his car. They both depend on their adapted cars (Kamran's is a Fiat Punto), but despite the blue disabled badges they display at all times, they regularly collect parking tickets - 26 to Rudi, eight to Kamran so far this year. "It was never like this in California," says Rudi, who worked as an executive director of a medical research foundation in Palo Alto in the late 1980s. "You could go out without feeling limited, without being stared at." Rudi says Britain is 30 years behind. He is infuriated by the limits placed on him. "In the States I could hire a car with a selection of hand controls - here, I can't even hire a car."

11.15pm: Back at the Crown and Sceptre, where Kamran picks up his car. We are heckled again by the youths. "Look," says Rudi, as he whizzes me to the Tube, "I absolutely detest feeling like I'm here to make other people feel good about themselves. It's not my disability that hacks me off, it's people's attitudes towards me, plus a hostile environment that on a day-to-day basis is a perpetual, mind-numbingly arduous struggle." Like Rory and Michael in Inside We're Dancing, Rudi and Kamran, don't want pity, or even much help. They just want things to change - fast.

CONTACTS

* The Disability Rights Commission offers advice to anyone who provides a service to the public. For more information, visit www.open4all.org.

* If you encounter access problems, explain to the manager/staff member what would help you; write to their head office, explaining the incident and that it breaches the DDA 1995; contact your local disability group, local council access officer and CAB.

* You can phone the DRC for help on 08457 622 633, text 08457 622 644 or fax 08457 778 878

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