“Currently on the King’s Road and I can only find one disabled bathroom. Most places either do not have or refuse to allow access. Truly amazing in W1.”
The above is a text sent to me by a wheelchair using friend. He composed it while attempting to give some much needed business to London’s hard-pressed retailers as the Covid-19 restrictions continue. He’d found that his purple pound - that’s the term coined for my community’s money - wasn’t good enough to secure a half decent service even in the midst of an economic crisis that has left stores gagging for any cash they can get.
When he asked why the disabled facilities were closed in places that had them open for other shoppers it was nearly always because they were “out of order”. This translates as either “we didn’t think about it”, “we couldn’t be bothered to get it ready” or even “aren’t you people supposed to be confined to your homes or something”.
The latter attitude seems to have infected both the business community and officialdom. I detect it at work in the story of Katie Pennick, a wheelchair user who works for pressure group Transport for All.
Pennick was filmed attempting to navigate Soho, which isn’t far from where my friend had his unpleasant experience.
Pennick uses a teenager’s wheelchair, which is only 23 inches wide, but even with such a slimline piece of equipment she found it absurdly difficult to navigate a path between the tables that had sprung up to cater for drinkers and diners.
“If I’m struggling to get through these ‘gaps’ they are completely impassable for most wheelchair users and visually-impaired people with dogs,” she tweeted. “Pavements must be kept clear enough for pedestrians.”
And she’s right. They must be. They’re pavements, there so people can get from point A to point B. Watching her video made me shudder. My conveyance is quite a bit wider (you’d never guess would you) and I’d have been screwed.
Al fresco dining and drinking. We’re all down with that. People need a break. Businesses need revenue. But that can’t be at the cost of closing off urban spaces to those of us unable to perform something akin to wheelchair acrobatics just to access the pavements we pay tax to maintain.
The way things are going, they’ll be considering street navigation as the next Paralympic sport.
That’s if you can even get to these areas in the first place. Disabled parking bays seem to be vanishing in puffs of pandemic smoke wherever you look. Transport for London is blaming its financial crisis for the effective suspension of work to make stations step free. And sure, that’s a problem. I’d just feel more inclined to understanding had it not previously come up with more excuses than a rebellious teenager standing next to a pile of stones and a broken window, for the slow pace of this work previously.
Buses across are basically a lost cause, and that’s a nationwide problem. Court rulings supposedly enshrine our right to use them are widely ignored in my experience. The rail network, meanwhile, regularly coughs up horror stories.
Covid-19 has greatly exacerbated these problems. It’s almost as if the virus has delivered a time machine and taken the entire country back fifty years.
Here’s where it starts to get really disturbing. For some disabled people it goes beyond having barriers put up when they’re trying to access shops, or bars, or pavements or even toilets, now the nation is reopening.
Disability charity Leonard Cheshire fears care home residents may lose the right to participate in today’s elections. It says the circumstances in which they can go out without self isolating are still very limited. Government guidelines make it dependent on their not visiting any indoor spaces with the exception of toilet facilities. Residents also have to be accompanied by a staff member to polling stations, even if they have the capacity and equipment to get around on their own.
“Although individuals can apply for an emergency proxy vote the guidance on going out changed just before the Bank Holiday. It’s not currently clear whether not having anyone to go with you is good enough a reason for being able to apply for a proxy under the emergency arrangements,” the charity told me.
Struggle to drink, shop, park or even vote. Welcome to post pandemic life for disabled Britons.
This is what really disturbs me. It’s usually the case, when writing a column like this, that you can find a person or an institution who can be held to account. Sometimes it’s a CEO. Sometimes it’s a minister. Sometimes it’s an official, or even a body such as a local council.
But if you look at the cases above you’ll see that they’re all at fault to some degree. Every last one of them. So I fear my only recourse for dealing with the frustration is to bang my head against a brick wall until it bleeds.
Trouble is, how do you access a wall when there’s a bloody table in the way?