Dancing on Wheels: Using a wheelchair in London

Laura Dajao out in Hackney for her ELL interview Pic: Yara Zeitoun

Dance artist and wheelchair user Laura Dajao Pic: Yara Zeitoun

Sitting in the back of Laura Dajao’s car, we struggle to find a disabled parking spot on a sunny Saturday morning in Hackney. She drives around in circles before finding a one.  She parks, and gets out of the car, doing her usual routine of getting herself onto her wheelchair.

The pavements are too high at times for us to use, so she pushes herself on the street, careful of cars passing by.  Dajao, a native of east London who works at Richmix in Tower Hamlets, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis about eight years ago, and has been adjusting her life since then.

“I used to get public transport all the time, I used to love it. But after using a wheelchair, I would have to get three buses to get to work in Tower Hamlets and it would take me an hour, an hour and a half, to get to work.  It was a bit of a mad, crazy time.”

She recalled a problem with TFL’s understanding of wheelchair users. “The jubilee line is really accessible – to a certain point, and I used to love going to the South Bank because it was really accessible. But one time, I fell asleep on the jubilee line and ended up having to get off at Kilburn, because it’s the only accessible station on that line – well, it was the only station with the wheelchair sign on it symbolizing that it’s apparently accessible.

“I got there, and the platform was really high. From the train to the platform, I couldn’t make it. I had to ask the help of two strangers to help me get off the train. So I asked, ‘why is this station accessible?’ It’s because it had a lift going from the platform to the street, which technically is not accessible for the wheelchair user who’s on the train already!”

“And to get back on the train, it was the same problem. So when I asked the guys that worked at the station to help me back on the Southbound line, they had no idea how to manoeuvre a wheelchair, just shoved me off this curb and I had to hold on for dear life as I nearly fell off my chair. It was mad!” She laughed at the memory.

Dajao’s problem is not with the people, but rather the lack of training and awareness about accessibility for wheelchair users and people with disabilities.

“When I was first in the chair, it was really difficult for me to get around. It was really difficult for me to get on and off buses because the ramps were not great.”

She described how she experienced ramps breaking down and failing to work multiple times, and how passengers would eye her with blame when they had to get off the bus. “They would look at me, thinking it’s my fault but it’s not my fault if the buses don’t work!”

Yet, she feels that accessibility using public transport is slowly getting better, especially with the recent 2012 Summer Olympics and Paralympics. “I think with the Olympic money, it was really invested in making East London accessible, because if it weren’t, there would’ve been problems. “

She noticed the change in accessibility on the streets on the way to work. “When I started working at Richmix, I felt like I was on an island, because everywhere was such a high curb to get down from. So I would have to go all the way around and find a low curb to go down on.

“But they’ve made it slightly better. On the main roads they’ve made ramps so that you could go up and down. But where we are now, in a random back road that leads to a café with seating on the sidewalk it’s really crazy with the bumps, and potholes everywhere, and curbs are still really high.”

Dajao said she understood that because of London’s age and history, it makes it difficult to try and make things accessible. It is the lack of accessibility that pushed her away from her college life, and towards work.

“At the moment, I’m a freelance dance artist. I do workshops, assist, and teach in integrated settings.” She works with people with or without disabilities, doing everything from street dance to contemporary.

“The last thing I did was my Wildcard show in Sadler’s Wells, where I invited artists to create work about my condition.

“The accessibility of dance studios is a problem. Places like Pineapple, Studio 68, Dance Works – they’ve all got stairs to get to the studio. They don’t have lifts or ground floors. So I have to go out of my way to find the training, and it’s really hard to get out there.”

Before being a dancer, she had an administrative job, but was not happy. “I thought I could be more creative so I ended up auditioning for East London Dance’s Youth Company in 2008. I’ve been dancing ever since.”

Dajao’s goal is to create an inclusive group of dancers, inviting artists to teach their technique to wheelchair users that want to dance– and continue to improve on her own daily dance on wheels.

Caption: Laura Dajao’s collaboration with ballet dancer and choreographer Shaun Mendum Credits: www.lauradajao.com

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