Designing Out Bum Shuffling

Last night Fat Sister, King Russell and I headed out to a Mexican restaurant for a friend’s birthday. Though I was joining them at the last minute, Fat Sister assured me she’d checked out the wheelchair access for the place and that it was all on one level. I was impressed by her forward-thinking.

We arrived to find there was a small flight of steps to get in and that the wheelchair stair-lift was broken. With help I climbed out of my chair and crawled inside. While this was something I can do if I have to, many other disabled people can’t, and their evening out would’ve ended there, at the front door.

Once inside we were shown to our table – down a steep flight of stairs. So at this point I turned to Fat Sister and said ‘When you said you checked out the access did you mean you looked at the restaurant on Google street view?’ Fat Sister blushed, looked at her feet and said sheepishly ‘I also looked at their Facebook photos.’

I laughed, ribbed her about her flawed research and prepared to shuffle down the stairs on my bum. On this occasion it wasn’t a big problem and I had plenty of help to get to our table safely. But very often inaccessible buildings have a much more damaging impact on my day, on my wheelchair, and on my body.

If I’m going to a restaurant, a club or any other venue I usually call ahead to check the accessibility because even though businesses have a responsibility under the Disability Discrimination Act to ensure they’re accessible, many still aren’t.

Even when I’ve checked beforehand that a building’s accessible, it doesn’t always turn out to be the case. Last week at work I was due to attend a meeting held by the local Council. I’d emailed the organisers to let them know I’d be attending in my wheelchair. When I arrived the reception staff immediately looked uneasy. I asked where I should go for the meeting and they told me it was upstairs but the lift was broken. This time there was no way for me to make it safely up the stairs, so I wasn’t able to attend.

The best buildings, services and spaces are ones where access to it as a wheelchair-user is the same as everyone else’s. Often, though, buildings will say they’re wheelchair accessible, when what they really mean is you can get in if you take a long circuitous route, very different from everyone else’s.

For example, a local art supply shop I use has three or four steps at its main entrance, and because of this whenever I want to go there I have to wait outside while a friend goes in by the front entrance to let them know I want to come in. We then have to go round the back of the building to be let in through the goods entrance before negotiating our way through the stock room. The staff are helpful and friendly but this isn’t equal access and it could be resolved relatively easily by replacing the narrow wooden ramp that’s used by people with buggies with a proper ramp or a wheelchair lift.

Sometimes small omissions have a massive impact. Leftwing Idiot and I went to a shopping centre yesterday. We wanted to visit a trainer shop on the lower floor. We called the lift and then we waited…. and waited…. and waited. After several minutes we assumed it wasn’t working. We tried to find someone to ask for help, and eventually a shop assistant told us to go to the security office – which was downstairs!

Leftwing Idiot left me on my own at the top of the stairs and went to speak to the guard. After ten minutes Leftwing Idiot returned and the lift magically opened. Exasperated, he explained that the lift’s not only used by the shopping centre but also by a theatre next door – its doors open on both sides – but it can’t be used by both buildings at the same time. The security guard and the theatre can switch which side the doors open really easily, but there’s no sign to explain this, nor is there any way to contact the guard from upstairs. A sign would’ve saved us twenty minutes, avoided me being left on my own and meant I could check out the trainers a timely fashion.

All these incidents occurred in the last seven days and illustrate a tiny fraction of the challenges the built environment has confronted me with. If you’re an architect, planner, business owner, store manager, or a security guard, or if you’re responsible for laying out the chairs and tables in a café, please do think about those of us who use a wheelchair to get about. Your forethought is essential to building and maintaining an accessible world, and this is something from which we’ll all benefit.

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