Access for people with disabilities is something I’m passionate about. If there was another group of individuals in this country that were so utterly restricted from accessing shops, services, or simply going about their daily life – there would be an outcry. Yet access for disabled people is something that is still regarded with apathy, ignorance, and a lack of understanding.
But I too was one of those many, many people that had no idea how poor access was in this country until I became disabled myself. The first time it really hit me how hard something I’d found so easy such a short time time ago, was a few years ago when my mobility got to the stage where I couldn’t walk around the town anymore. I signed up to Shopmobility and rented their smallest scooter in order to do some Christmas shopping.
The whole trip was a disaster. Being winter, most of the shops had closed doors. It’s almost impossible to reach from the scooter to open a door, hold it and drive through – and many of the doors were very heavy. It’s also difficult to get off the scooter at every doorway to open it, and then drive through while standing and trying to hold the door! If you’re regularly having to dismount from the scooter, it very much defeats the purpose of using one to reduce pain and fatigue.
So, I struggled to get into many shops – and this was while expecting to only be able to get into the larger chain stores. Many of these shops packed their aisles with displays, which made it hard to get round. It meant I had to regularly get off the scooter to move displays out the way in order to get through.
On top of this many shops had steps to get into them, or steps in the middle of the shop to another level that I hadn’t even thought twice about before. Tills were difficult to get to, with many having tight pathways to follow, made all the more difficult by the excess of shoppers.
I also found a lack of dropped kerbs around the town centre, with market stalls or delivery vans across many of those that were there, meaning I often had to go a great distance out of my way to take a route I needed to go, which meant between struggling to get round every shop, having to take longer routes to avoid steps or to find dropped kerbs, in addition to the struggle with doors – the whole trip took so much longer than it would normally have done.
The final straw came in WH Smith. It was the final shop I needed to go to. I was pretty much shaking in pain and exhaustion before I even went in, but I immediately found myself stuck multiple times by narrow aisles and poor placement of displays – even worse than any other shop I’d been in, and then got completely trapped in a terrible queuing system. While trying to manoeuvre to free myself, some shopping fell off the scooter. In total exhaustion I got down on the floor to try and pick the items up, but shoppers continued stepping over me to join the queue – making me feel invisible and worthless. Staff watched me, but ignored the whole issue. Another shopper called out to a member of staff, asking them to help – but she simply stood watching. Finally back on the scooter, the only way I could see out was to drive into a display and knock it, which I did – knowing the comments of ‘terrible driver’ I was getting. Finally I reached the till to find it too high, and the PIN machine locked into position. It may be funny to look back on, but this was my first outing using a scooter as someone in their early twenties, gutted at having to be using one anyway – and left mortified by the whole experience (and in agony!). That embarrassment soon turned into anger. Why an earth hadn’t a large national shop like WH Smith achieved the most basic level of accessibility?
I was so upset I wanted to do something, so I found my town had a disability access group, and wrote to them asking for their help. Shortly afterwards I joined the group, and after a lot of nagging, complaining and meetings I was thrilled when WH Smith made a number of changes that made it much easier for people with disabilities to access their store. However, a year later they changed their shop layout again and changed their tills to a self-checkout system that people in wheelchairs couldn’t reach, undoing all our hard work. It quickly became clear to me that access was a big issue, and both achieving and maintaining it even harder.
In time I became the Chair of the access group but sadly we are extremely limited in what we can do to improve physical access. Getting change isn’t easy. Many shop owners simply ignore our requests, tell us it’s down to the council to provide ramps, or tell us they will make changes which then never appear. Most of the time I feel the group just bangs our head against a brick wall – but when a positive change is made it’s a great feeling.
However, the law recently changed to make it much harder to enforce the Equality Act. After lobbying from insurance companies, the way ‘no win, no fee’ cases are funded changed so that the claimant has to pay the insurance premiums upfront. These can cost thousands – and are usually more than any damages/compensation would ever be. This has made the ability to afford to bring a disability discrimination case about only possible to the very rich, whether the issue is something relatively simple like a local shop who won’t fit a ramp – to the worst possible cases of discrimination possible.
I’ve barely heard this issue spoken about yet, yet I’m completely horrified by this change and the damage it will cause. It now means we’re relying on simply the goodwill of shop and service owners to make changes – which in many cases simply won’t happen.
This is yet another subtle change in the system that points overwhelming to a systemic campaign against people with disabilities that continues on. But sadly – apathy and ignorance are winning this war.
For more on access, try the post Disability access made easy!