When was the last time you thought about a pavement? I mean really thought about it. That place that keeps you out of the road or a cycle path. And how much attention do you actually pay to a pavement as you travel along it?
As a wheelchair user I realise I spend far more time than I would like thinking about pavements. And even more time looking at them intently as I make my way around the city.
This past week, as I read about Bristol City Council’s plans to make parts of the city traffic-free and to increase cycle lanes and widen pavements, I find myself thinking about pavements a lot more. Especially as we make our way back out into the open, blinking in the daylight after lockdown.
I’m lucky. I have a home I like, a partner I get on with and a working cooker that means I can churn out banana bread faster than the delivery drivers I’m incredibly grateful for can bring bananas to my door.
But also, as someone with a disability, lockdown, has meant I’ve never felt more connected to the world.
I’ve been able to attend gigs, fitness classes, workshops and a whole host of other events online and not once have I had to ask whether there has been wheelchair access.
For a couple of months I’ve started to understand what it must feel like to just turn up somewhere without any pre-planning. So with this in mind I’ve been approaching the end or partial relaxing of lockdown with some trepidation.
As I contemplate being outdoors more often my mind comes back to pavements.
What you may not realise is that the state of many pavements in Bristol is of a shocking quality. Raised flagstones, wonky grate covers, loose paving stones and cracked flags are a constant menace.
Not just to a wheelchair user but to buggies, pushchairs, people using canes and frames and any number of issues that makes walking difficult.
The 2011 census of Bristol estimates there to be 71,724 people with a disability out of a total population of 428,234. That’s 16.7 per cent; in other words, a lot of people who could probably do with decent pavements.
So what? What’s a loose paving stone here and there? Well, it matters a lot.
At least once on every journey I make my front wheels catch on an obstacle of some kind that jolts me forwards in my chair.
On most occasions I’m able to stop myself falling forwards before I come to any harm but more often than is acceptable, I end up falling out of my chair and onto the floor.
As a paraplegic with no movement in my legs, getting back into my chair is not easy and often strangers will rush over and lift me back into my chair whether I have asked them to or not.
Who only knows what will happen when eventually this happens post-lockdown when I next fall out of my chair, and groups of well-meaning strangers shout instructions at me from two-metres apart or cobble together some sort of crane from their bubble tea straws to lift me back into my chair.
This doesn’t need to be an issue.
Maybe when the council asks construction workers to head out with some tarmac to widen the pavements so they are safe for people to walk on, they could also use some of that tarmac to make repairs so that they are also safe to push a wheelchair on.
Surely that isn’t too much to ask, is it?
Stephen Lightbown is a poet and disability rights campaigner. His debut poetry collection, Only Air, is out now through Burning Eye Books. Follow him on social media at @spokeandpencil
Main photo: Carly Wilkinson