AN Abergavenny disability campaigner has asked why the Borough Theatre in Abergavenny did not appear to consult with disability awareness groups when planning its £1m refurbishment.

Sara Chicken, whose daughter Emily uses a large manual wheelchair, says that changes to the theatre’s auditorium, promoted as making the venue more accessible for disabled patrons, have actually made it less user friendly and fears that Emily and other wheelchair users will struggle to use the theatre in the future.

“We went to the Borough Theatre to see the recent Abergavenny Pantomime production of Cinderella and because we were aware of the problems with the lift, we chose to use the theatre’s old one, which is now a service lift.

“My husband and I had previously visited the theatre to see the new lift and check that it was possible for Emily to use it and had been shown around by a member of staff.

“We could see immediately that the new lift would cause an issue for Emily as once her wheelchair went in at ground level, there was not enough space for it to turn to be able to get out when she reached the theatre as a different door opens on that level.

“We knew that Emily’s wheelchair would fit in to the old lift and that she could get out with no difficulty and reach the auditorium easily,” said Mrs Chicken.

“When we got to the theatre on the night of the show we thought that we were seated on the side closest to the lift but were told that we were actually on the opposite side so we navigated our way across the foyer to the opposite side but it was very busy and we were told that Emily either had to sit on the side until the theatre was full or wait out in the bar.

“We were happy to take Emily back out to wait. Then we were approached by one of the stewards who asked to see our tickets and told us what we already knew… that our seats were on the other side and the seats we had been directed to were occupied by someone else.

“We then had to wait until our original seating was adapted to accommodate Emily, which involved removing seats and moving the screen around the orchestra, which meant that the musicians sitting there had to move as well just to give Emily some more room.

“Once we sat down we realised our seats were very loose so every time my granddaughter, moved in her seat, mine would move as well.

“In the end my granddaughter was so unsettled that he and my other daughter went home after less than an hour.

“We were in the way for most of the evening as people were getting up to go to the toilet and were having to be careful not to bump into Emily.

“During the interval when people were queuing for ice creams we were in the way again so I was asked whether I could move to the doors to give more space for people but I declined as I felt this would be more of an obstacle.

“I have to say we were very well cared for and I would like to thank the staff for their part in trying to make things right and we appreciate how far they went to making a trip to the theatre possible but there are many problems with the new theatre which I can’t see changing until there is consultation with disabled people.

“We were very disappointed and I am afraid Emily will not return to enjoy the theatre until these problems can be rectified,” said Mrs Chicken.

“I’m afraid the problems do not only affect people in wheelchairs as we saw a heavily pregnant woman struggling to negotiate the steps where there are no handrails and it is also very hard for elderly or less mobile people to get to their seats because of this.

“It’s just a health and safety nightmare. They’ve spent a lot of money on the theatre but I can’t see how the problems can be resolved without doing something drastic and I can’t help wondering why they didn’t speak to wheelchair users before starting the work,” she added.

“It seems that whoever has designed this project just has no idea of disability awareness – how some people have large wheelchairs they have to be hoisted into and how many people use larger motorised wheelchairs to give them independence which are more cumbersome and less manageable than Emily’s manual one.

“We just expected it to be so much better. In the ‘old’ theatre everyone went up in what is now the service lift, there was always someone there to help, and you were taken straight to your seat with no problems.

“The theatre staff were very attentive but it’s just not good. We’ve been to a number of local theatres and not had problems like we encountered at the new Borough.

“The Savoy in Monmouth is fine. You have to go around to the back to get in but it’s great when you’re inside and Theatr Brycheiniog is fine, but the Borough is now such a disappointment.

Mrs Chicken says that the family has been invited back to the theatre this week to meet manager David Baxter who has offered to let Emily try to use the newly installed lift, but she remains unconvinced that it will make a difference.

“Mr Baxter has told us that the lift was not really intended for the theatre but was only to be used for the library so I don’t think it will make life any easier for us,” she said.

“They’ve spent a lot of money to make something worse than it was before,” she added..