Fanac Octothorpe

DC’s loc from Octothorpe 108

A letter of comment from noted Scottish fan DC on the accessibility of the Telford International Centre.

Dear Octothorpe,

Here’s my thoughts about the Telford International Centre as a con venue for members using wheelchairs.

The first thing to say is that there are problems, but on the whole it remains one of the best Eastercon venues for the wheeled. The big exception would be non-ambulatory wheelchair users or anyone needing assistance in the toilet – and you can forget about it if you need a hoist to transfer.

And yet, this remains one of the best Eastercon venues, if not the best, for wheeled users. deep sigh

The location of the Centre has its challenges – it’s quite a hilly area, and some of the road/footpath surfaces are uneven and need maintenance (which seems to be taking place, in some places at least). The routes to the centre of Telford and in the other direction to the on site hotels both involve in places a steep gradient, challenging going up or down. The route to the on site hotels is not well illuminated at night, there’s a lot of unevenness in the path surface, and includes at least one supposed drop kerb that isn’t.

Anyway, when you go into the venue the first unpleasant surprise is that there are slopes inside the building. You can’t get to the passenger lift (yes, the only passenger lift) without going up a slope on the ground floor. These gradients aren’t terribly steep, but it’s an extra bit of effort (or assistance required) that you could really do without.

The slope on the first floor (yes, there’s another one – basically between the lift and three rooms which were used at Levitation for Art Show, Dealers’ Room and main programme) is worse. It’s steeper, and it’s carpeted, which makes wheeling much harder. Unlike the ground floor slopes, I never managed to get up the one on the first floor unaided. (Fans are pretty good at offering help, BTW, but it’s not good that that’s essential.)

The passenger lift: as stated already, the only passenger lift (there are plans for a second, but I think money is the object). That’s a distinct concern. It’s quite common for lifts to break down during a con. It didn’t in Levitation, whether that’s because it was a small Eastercon and the members were very good at not using the lift if they didn’t have to, or it had been kept well serviced, who knows. (Maybe we just got lucky.) If it had broken down, that would have left a goods lift at the back of the building, a lift which had to be operated by venue staff. This, by the way, was the route people using mobility scooters had to use, because the passenger lift was too small. If there were no staff there, they had to phone for someone to come and work the lift. I gather that mostly this went ok, but sometimes there was a delay and they had to just wait for someone to come. This isn’t really what you can describe as “accessible”.

The passenger lift was big enough for a large wheelchair, clearance at the sides wasn’t enormous but it was there. This is not the smallest lift we’ve had at an Eastercon venue. There likely wouldn’t, though, be enough room for a carer if someone needed one with them in the lift.

I’ve no idea whether the supposed second lift is intended to be bigger. It would be a very good thing if it were!

The toilet provision is not great. I used five “accessible” toilets in the areas the con was using, and they weren’t terrible for me. Someone significantly less mobile would have problems. The basic problems common to each one are the door and the size of the room.

The doors are heavy, and constantly are trying to shut themselves. Getting in and out means negotiating a way in while dealing with this. The way the accessible toilets are sited means that with most of them the amount the door can be opened is limited by an adjacent wall. None of them have a wide, free space to manoeuvre to get in/out.

The cubicles are all small. You can get a chair in (though not a big mobility scooter). There was only one of the toilets where there was space – barely! – to turn the chair inside. Getting a chair in beside the WC – not a chance. If you need that positioning to transfer, bad luck. So long as you can even stand and turn, you can cope – but the chair basically gets in the way of using the basin and the hand dryer. If you need a carer with you, you will struggle unless you’re both quite petite.

The inability to turn the chair inside means that you are forced into reversing out. Against the pressure of a heavy door trying to push you back in. And while negotiating your way out past a wall or pillar. If you can move back in a straight line, you’re fine, but the door makes that very hard. At one point I got solidly stuck because of the way the door pushed me into the wall & door jamb. (A passing cleaner kindly helped – as soon as they opened the door I could move easily.)

These toilets have been designed without adequate thought as to the people who need to use them. This is the one aspect in which the TIC seems worse than most other Eastercon venues, which is bizarre given the size of the place. There really needs to be an accessible toilet on each floor which is twice the size, if not larger, than any of these. (Also, hoists would be good, but if they can’t even build in adequately sized toilets I don’t see much chance of that.) These toilets seem to be a gesture in the direction of accessibility rather than actually being properly accessible.

A separate note: I didn’t have a lot of interaction with venue staff, but when I did it was clear they’d had some training about how to help people with wheels, and especially how not to. This is also better than the average venue, I’ve found.

This is definitely a venue worth coming back to, but we need to be honest about its failings.

An couple of notes not specific to this venue: if regret to a room is via a double door, there’s a wetsuit tendency to open one side and leave the other bolted shut. That can leave a fairly narrow entryway to navigate, it’s much better to open both doors (if possible, held in the open position until they need to be closed for a programme item) to give as much space as possible for getting through.

The second thing to add is some programme rooms were laid out cabaret style, with round tables spread through the room with chairs around them. I can see the appeal, but this basically creates an obstacle course for any wheeled user who doesn’t just want to stay at the back of the room. Getting in near a table means moving at least one chair, which adds to the general obstacles to moving around. Maybe ensuring there’s greater spacing between tables and having slightly fewer chairs than needed to fill each table might be a good idea?

Levitation was good fun and well run, and I have to repeat the venue was better than most of those we’ve used for Eastercon before when it comes to getting around on wheels. I hope this is useful.