When does accessible mean accessible?

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Our world was not created for those with disabilities. In recent years, vast improvements have been made, but realistically we as a society, still have a long way to go.

The “Social Model of Disability” proposes that it is our environment that makes us disabled and when it comes to accessibility, I can’t help but agree. People with disabilities are faced with accessibility conundrums daily and these are often very unpredictable.

I believe access to our environment could and should be made easier because not only are we faced with an ageing population who will benefit from these adjustments too, but no one is guaranteed excellent health forever.

I understand for many people, it might be hard to grasp the challenges faced by those with disabilities, because they haven’t seen these first hand or haven’t had any reason to consider these type of scenarios before. However, I wonder, how can we raise awareness of accessibility, when the very lack of accessibility, prevents us from getting out there and raising awareness in the first place?

Similarly, when someone sees us struggling to contend with our environment, this could only feed into the harmful view that our difference means we are to be pitied or we are lesser.

I can only speak from the perspective of a wheelchair user, but consider this:

  • Trying to use the accessible fire exit but it has a step down to the ramp.
  • Trying to negotiate the accessible bathroom packed with boxes, high chairs and tools.
  • Trying to “fit in” as a new student but only being able to sit in the very front row of a lecture hall.
  • Trying to dodge the sandwich-boards on the pavement, cars parked on drop-down kerb or cars parked on the striped boxes of an accessible car parking space.
  • Trying to book an accessible hotel room, only to be told it can’t be guaranteed until check in. Or trying to book an accessible family room for that matter.
  • Trying to find a standard sized table in amongst high tables and booths.
  • Trying to move around the many clothing rails on a shop floor or trying to speed-dress because the accessible changing room is occupied by someone who isn’t a wheelchair user.
  • Trying to get public transport when you know the accessible space might not be available, even with pre-booked assistance. Or when that space is occupied by a pram or a bike.
  • Trying to go to a gig but you have to wait until the accessible line opens and then you can only purchase a maximum of 2 tickets.
  • Trying to hold onto your things whilst opening the door at the same time because there is no push button access or worse still, “only one step”.

Does this sound familiar to you? I’m aware the above list might sound like a list of complaints, but this article is not meant to be like that at all. Instead, I just want to paint a picture of our daily realities when accessibility is poor. Everybody has challenges in life but when these challenges can be made easier, should we not be trying to do this?

Often, these situations whilst frustrating are undeniably funny as you think “what were they thinking when they designed it this way” or “what next?” (The interesting choice of pedal bins in accessible bathrooms for instance…). But other times, sadly they make me feel useless and embarrassed.

Don’t get wrong on many, if not all of the above occasions, I have been able to rely on the kindness of a stranger to help me out. However, what if we didn’t have to? What if true accessibility was the norm? What if accessibility wasn’t something that was considered but instead it was the starting point?

Current reasonable adjustments, while helpful are often underpinned by financial constraints and they tend to adopt a “one size fits all” approach, but what if you don’t fit the typical mould?

I believe, poor accessibility feeds isolation and dehumanisation. True accessibility offers inclusion, dignity and respect. There’s no denying that getting accessibility “right” can make someone’s life extraordinarily better.

Picture a world filled with ramps, changing places toilets, audio guides, sign language visuals and ear defenders. It looks good, doesn’t it?

Getting a taxi as a wheelchair user can be taxing.

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When you need a taxi but the company can’t provide an accessible taxi, what is the solution?

Where I live in the U.K., there are two primary taxi companies. Both no longer seem to provide taxis after 10 p.m. and no one is able to pre-book an accessible taxi more than an hour in advance. While this is frustrating and inconvenient, I believe these companies are only partially at fault.

These taxi companies previously offered a comprehensive service to wheelchair users, but they did so by charging extra, a fare and a half to be precise. At that time, this was challenged by the equality commission and another local wheelchair user. They lost and were required to reduce the fare. It’s now a fare and a third.

I believe the case won because it should have, and the intention was to stop disabled people having to pay extra just because they are disabled. However, there was an unintentional side effect and consequence to this decision. Taxi drivers no longer believe it makes financial sense to offer accessible services, and so we now have inept services. Often you call only to hear the words “we don’t have any wheelchair accessible taxis out tonight.”

I remember when I first was told I was going to be charged extra for my journey, I felt confused, as I couldn’t understand how this was fair. However, I also felt I couldn’t challenge it for fear of not being able to get the service I needed. During my next taxi journeys, I spoke to the taxi drivers and asked for their thoughts. They offered many reasons as to why felt they had to charge extra:

1) They have to pay for the car adaptions themselves, the government does not subsidize them.

2) It can take extra time to support a wheelchair user into or out of the car

3) They felt the mobility component of Disabled Living Allowance / Personal Independence Payment supported the wheelchair user to pay for their taxi journeys, so they did not feel it was unjust to charge extra.

I couldn’t argue with much of their reasoning, as I did not feel the drivers deserve to be out of pocket. But it also did not sit comfortably that people with disabilities have to pay for needing more support, when this is not something we have chosen. However, where can this money come from? What might the solution be?

On a similar note, when you can’t pre-book a wheelchair accessible taxi and so have no option but to take a standard taxi, but then are reliant on others to push you in your manual wheelchair; what do you do when that taxi refuses to take you and says their car boot is too small for the chair, they are not insured to take any wheelchairs, or they have hurt their back? The reality is, it might well take longer to wait for me to enter and exit the car and the driver may lose time or another fare as a result. But again I wonder, do other wheelchair users find themselves in similar positions? What have they done? What is fair?

I don’t think it’s fair a taxi driver has to pay extra to provide an accessible vehicle or lose a possible needed fare while supporting a wheelchair user, but I equally don’t think it’s fair to limit an essential method of transport for wheelchair users, or expect a wheelchair user to fund the difference.