Friday, March 19, 2010

Prince's Trust

I had my panel interview with the Prince's Trust the other day, and the good news is they thought I was great, so I'm getting all sorts of support from them.

The most important part, to me, is being put on their "business mentor" scheme, where a young entrepreneur (I still count as young by their definitions, how good is that?) gets matched up to an older and more experienced businessperson who can offer guidance and support. This neatly bypasses the "if you know it all about business, why are you working for a teacher's wage rather than running a successful company?" question asked of all business studies teachers throughout the ages.

I have nothing but praise for the Prince's Trust so far. Everyone I've dealt with has been positive and flexible, and although there have been some unexpected access barriers I've revealed that they hadn't noticed previously, these have been dealt with rather than ignored. Admittedly not with perfect solutions, for example I had to travel to Coventry for the panel meeting and I had to pay my PA for that myself, which wasn't cheap - but on the other hand we shifted many of the things which would normally be onsite meetings to being email or phone conversations, or on one occasion, an advisor coming to meet me somewhere more local. I definitely feel like I've been met half way.

There was one marvellous moment in the panel interview where one panel member, trying to put me at my ease, started to say what I'm sure he says every time, something along the lines of "now please don't worry, I'm sure every applicant who sits in that chair feels a bit nervous but we're lovely really..." he got as far as the "ch" of chair before he remembered that he had moved The Chair because I was, in fact, sitting in my wheelchair. There were about two seconds of verbal hang-time before he grasped the word "position" and I swear, I felt like giving the man a round of applause for a wonderful save.

All in all, it's a definite improvement on the previous "business advisors" I was being passed around.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Wheelchair assessment

Yesterday I had my Access to Work wheelchair assessment.

Wheelchairs are tricky things with strange criteria. If you tick all the NHS boxes, then you get a "voucher" towards the cost of a chair (although you may have to supplement this with hundreds if not thousands of pounds of your own money in order to get a chair you can live from rather than one which merely keeps your backside off the ground). If you don't tick the NHS boxes, then you get bog-all.

I don't tick the NHS boxes. My mobility is limited enough so that I warrant a "normal" manual wheelchair. However, since my arms are affected in much the same way as my legs are, a manual wheelchair is only any good to me if I have someone else pushing it. Obvious solution: a powered wheelchair. Unfortunately for me, to be eligible for a powered wheelchair you have to be needing to use a chair to get about inside your own home - which I don't.

I do of course have my scooter but to be honest, I've barely used it since I started working. It was great when I could go out on it for a few hours and then sleep for the rest of the day and most of the day after... but these days I just don't have the spare energy to be able to drive it all the way into town and back. It's also too big to put in a car or take in a taxi. And in work terms, it hardly enables me to present a professional image - I never cared if the shop assistants in town saw me rolling up windswept, rain-soaked and knackered from the ride in, but for potential client meetings it's a different ball game.

All this led me to ask Access to Work if I could have help getting a powered wheelchair from them. Hooray! They said yes, I could, although it would be subject to a wheelchair assessment from one of their people, and I would have to provide a letter from my doctor confirming that it would be medically appropriate and that I was fit to use a powered chair. Fine by me, and my GP has been more than happy to provide a supporting statement.

Access to Work sent a very nice man we shall call H to come and assess my needs. First we talked about what I wanted to be able to do that I currently can't do. Locally, I wanted to be able to go to the postbox or the little local post office by myself so that I could post my own letters and buy my own postage supplies without needing to arrange for an assistant or beg a favour. In the surrounding area I wanted to be able to do my banking, visit the main post office, attend meetings with clients or my Prince's Trust advisor/mentor, and access networking events.

Next, out came the measuring tape. Apparently I have very long legs. I need to find out how much I weigh.

Finally we started talking about possible solutions. And this is where I was gobsmacked. I was expecting him to suggest something like this, something that looks kind of like my scooter with the front end taken off.

His idea is more along the lines of a more traditional ultra-lightweight manual chair, but with 'intelligent' powered wheels that work in three ways:

    1. Turned off, they are like normal wheels, you hold the rims and manoeuvre yourself about, or someone can push you.
    2. Turned on, they are like normal wheels would work if you were really strong, you push the rims with a little push and they use gearing and battery power to go WHEEEEEEEEEL! until you tug on the rims and they apply the brakes.
    3. Apparently there is an option for a joystick for completely powered travel, but he was a bit vague on this - he said it was a new product and I haven't been able to dig it up online.

The major benefit of this system would be that my powered chair would only take up the same space as a normal wheelchair including being easily foldable for transport. I also like the idea that if the chair runs out of battery, I won't be stranded wherever I stopped - I can just self-propel myself to the nearest place where it's safe to sit around, and call a regular taxi.

Also it will look much nicer.

He's going to write up his report, Access to Work will approve it or not, and then I can have some test-drives. I'm very excited.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Still on cloud 9

I rather suspect that, no matter what happens in my life, I'm not going to trump my last post for a while yet. Even the business start-up, while consuming a fair chunk of my time, somehow doesn't seem quite as significant at the moment. A really big thank you to everyone who left a comment or phoned or emailed to congratulate us. The whole thing has been like a dream.

Now, of course, I have the new challenge of organising a wedding.

I've made a start on the research and found that it is possible to get legally wed for the grand total of £103.50 and two half-hour appointments a couple of months apart. This consists of £30 each in fees at the first appointment when we give notice of our intention to marry, and then second appointment and the rest of the cash covers the basic civil ceremony at the Registry Office (Mon-Fri only, maximum of 8 guests) and a copy of the Marriage Certificate.

From there it scales up, sometimes very rapidly. So far the biggest single number I've seen has been somewhere in excess of £5,000, although in fairness that was at a smallish hotel where they reserve the entire premises for the day, night, and morning after, including all the bedrooms, for you and your guests.

I like the idea of having it all in one place, no chances for anyone or anything to get lost or overlooked betwixt ceremony and reception, so I've asked every "approved premises" in my district to send me (a) their wedding brochure and (b) their accessibility policy. Unsurprisingly, only one venue has been able to respond with an actual proper access policy document detailing what is and is not in place. Others, when pressed for a response ("Thank you for sending me yet another copy of your wedding brochure. However before I can get excited about menus, I need to know whether I can actually get into the building...") say things like "there's a ramp kept at reception" as if that answers every possible accessibility question there is.

Even the places that I have visited for other reasons and know to be quite delightfully accessible, don't appear to have an access policy. It's frustrating, not only having to ask, but having so much difficulty getting a straight answer. Still, I'm gradually getting some options together.

I have some very definite ideas about the timetable and the food and drink. I have some less definite ideas about attendants (a decision likely to be made on who is close and sensible enough to offer support, rather than on family ties or a popularity contest) and guest list. Oh, that reminds me, if you are fairly certain you should have an invite, you should probably email me, because so far I'm not even sure I've remembered all of the family members let alone all the friends.

Things I have not even begun to properly think about yet: rings (yes), clothes (not a meringue), hair (up), makeup (photo-proof yet not orange), flowers (no idea), table decorations (even less idea), photos (Steven, you are NOT spending our wedding night on the post-processing), music, transport, guest accommodation, invitations, and probably a dozen or so other things. I hear there are books for this sort of thing. No idea which ones are worth reading, though. And so it goes round, and round, and round.