The push for accessibility in the workplace and in public spaces has been a difficult one. The last 20 years of British policy making in this area has been attempting to change the nature of public opinion from the ‘political correctness gone mad’ generation of media ignorance to a more open recognition of the need for good and fair access. Buildings, new and old, have to conform to the Disability Discrimination Act and the more recent Equality Act, in order to ensure that people of all physical capabilities can have a better quality of life. Recognising and dealing with ‘disability’, as with the bettering of ‘disabled access’, are two goals fundamentally misunderstood by the majority of people. This is not to say that the public are ignorant, simply that unless you have a disability or live closely with someone who does the discussion often feels irrelevant. York’s current problems, the hazardous placing of signage on pavements, exterior seating and historic cobbles or alleys, reveal how little as a community the needs of those less physically able than us are taken into account.
As a quick overview: ‘disabled access’ means that no one should be barred from work or a public space due to a disability. An example of this is the ‘Access to Work’ government scheme exists to ensure that people unable to drive or use public transport can have taxis or lifts provided. Disabled access and parking in shopping centres, towns and cities allows people to be able to partake in the same activities able bodied people do, hopefully reducing the frustration, humiliation and pain that these everyday activities sometimes involve. A common problem with the practicing of disabled access is that various government benefits, or subsidised aspects of everyday life are perceived to be exactly that, a ‘benefit’. A pertinent example for York, a city with a frustrating and expensive parking system, is free parking for holders of the Blue Badge. Why should disabled people be given free parking? They’ve perhaps the right to priority parking, but not free parking? Right? They’re no less rich than normal people? Though it appears like an anomaly, the simple reason is that in order to charge disabled people for parking councils would have to redesign payment methods for Blue Badge holders. This would mean systems and machines which are suitable to be used by the visually impaired, those in wheelchairs and those with impaired mobility. Such a machine does not exist and for the negligible amount lost to free parking, no council would be willing to invest in the wholesale revision of car parks to suit these needs. There is no special treatment, it is a matter of practicality.
The other common misunderstanding is the use of the word ‘disability’, often associated solely with mobility issues. Returning to the disabled parking spaces of Britain, we see a person in a wheelchair as a kind of shorthand for someone with disabilities. In reality partially sighted or blind people are in as much need of these spaces, though they may have a carer who can drive the priority spaces make things a great deal easier. If disabled people had the choice between losing the right to these relatively minor alterations of the law or losing their disability, what do you think they would choose? The hypothetical is always a massive reduction of the actual, my question included. The difficulty comes when, as in York, a historic city cannot keep up with the demands of legislation. York, like Canterbury or Edinburgh, has medieval streets, property and public spaces which often cannot be adapted to suit the needs of people with disabilities. We must also accept that York is a busy city, its small streets and alleys packed with tourists, students and locals.
The everyday obstacles able bodied people may ignore, such as steps in shops, low lighting in bars or inaccessible toilets are all important issues to those people who they impact upon. Where premises cannot be adapted owners do sometimes make the effort to help with disabled customers. I have been in shops before where sales assistances have brought clothes from an upstairs section down for people who cannot manage the stairs. With an ageing population, and a huge portion of Britain overweight and at risk of physical impairment in later life, perhaps this will become the norm. However, for people whose life is radically different from the norm because of physical impairment, you cannot rely on instances of helpfulness and acts of kindness. As someone who walks fast, darts in between people and is often in a rush, I can admit to the commonly felt frustration of being stuck behind someone walking slowly or on a mobility scooter. Anyone who said that they did not experience this would be lying to save face. In some areas of York this is worsened by bottlenecked streets which lead to the main attractions of the city. One such place is The Shambles.
The recent issue over usage of the public space outside York’s Chocolate Story has raised an interesting question. The space, used by licensed street performers, is now in danger of becoming a street side cafe owned by the ‘experience’ retailer. Where some have pointed out that this is yet another hazard for people with impaired sight, the comments sections on a certain local paper website has proved that there are as many people in York willing to deride the idea of rights for the disabled. Suggestions that York is becoming a maze of A boards, buskers and other potential below-the-eyeline trip hazards have been derided. Someone in the comments has suggested that the guide dogs of York might be retarded, someone else in an article about Pizza Hut’s lack of disabled toilet, that the woman concerned will be wanting a lift in the Minster next. The most common opinion is that disabled people are a minority and because of this the majority should not suffer, people should take special measures or use the murkily nonspecific ‘common sense’. Whilst I doubt that anyone will be asking for anything as extreme as a lift to the top of the Minster anytime soon, basic DDA and Equality Act compliances such as disabled toilets, hand rails, slopes and lifts are not unfair on the majority. If you need to go up five floors and there was the option of a lift, I imagine most people would take it. The reality is that very little of this legislation impacts upon people who aren’t disabled, though I am sure someone will try and prove me wrong in the comments below.
To suggest that the government should not legislate in these areas, that ‘common sense’ is the way forward and that a minority should not be catered for is to ignore the problem. According to the Disabled Living Foundation there are over 10 million in Britain. To put that in perspective, the Office for National Statistics records show that there are only 500,000 Polish people currently living in Britain (a minority perceived to be larger than it is). In answer to the disabled toilet Pizza Hut conundrum, even if the building has historic or architectural importance (or any building made into a multinational chain restaurant) I doubt that any attention was paid to the matter when whole floors were being ripped out to install ovens, frozen storage or seating.
Regardless of the care of historic buildings, it is worth mentioning to people of any age that thanks to the advances in sanitation, education, medicine, care, diet, living conditions and health and safety the population of Britain now enjoy one of the highest life expectancies in the world. With this in mind anyone who lives over 70 is likely to be in need of, oh let’s say, lifts, hand rails and accessible, well lit toilets. The beauty of the internet, and the ever expanding internet archive, is that those people who have mocked and derided disabled people and their rights as fellow taxpayers have already left a permanent trace of their comments. Though I would never wish any form of disability on anyone, if any of these people do have impairments in the future they can at least look back to their opinions and see if they still stand.