Yesterday Joe and I travelled to north London to give a talk on inclusive practice to music educators from across the UK. We had a great morning and the talk seemed to go well. Afterwards we had half an hour or so before the cab came so we went to try and grab something to eat.
We didn’t want to go far and we soon came across a Pret A Manger where all the food was vegetarian. Joe’s veggie so this seemed perfect. The only problem was that just inside the entrance there were three steps into the main part of the premises.
Normally if I see stairs I roll on past and look for somewhere wheelchair accessible to spend my money, but we didn’t have long and I could see a folded ramp at the side of the steps – so we went inside, to the bottom of the steps.
The counter was quite far from the entrance so Joe left me to go and get help with the ramp. A member of staff came over looking anxious and then rushed off to get someone else. I was blocking the entrance slightly so I tried to move myself out of the way. To do this I had to balance a takeaway cup of hot tea, which I already had, between my thighs so I could move my chair by myself. Needless to say this didn’t end well and the tea spilt all over my crotch, my legs and (until that point) my box-fresh trainers. I called out for Joe and he rushed back to help me and to mop me up.
Meanwhile two quite flustered members of staff arrived to set up the ramp. One of them said to me “Are you sure you want to come in?” I was stunned and upset by the question. I’d come through the outer doors, asked about the ramp and waited patiently at the bottom of the steps for several minutes, all precisely because I wanted to come in!
The staff members started putting out the ramp. Neither had used it before and it quickly became clear it wasn’t going to work. Not only did they have no idea how to set it up (and kept laying it down upside down), but one look showed me it was way too short – it didn’t even reach the top of the steps – and was therefore unusably steep and unsafe.
I felt frustrated and unwelcome and I was covered in tea! I took a deep breath and calmed myself down. One of the staff brought me a selection of products and I quickly chose a couple, keen to get out. While Joe was paying, the assistant manager kindly brought me another cup of tea.
The staff were very apologetic and I know it wasn’t their fault that they hadn’t been provided with the right equipment or training. If staff aren’t provided with the tools they need to welcome disabled people confidently they’re more likely to panic and say discriminatory or upsetting things.
If it’d been an old building or a small independent shop I might have been more sympathetic, but this is big chain and the store looked as if it had recently been refurbished. Had I not seen the ramp I would have gone somewhere else, or at least waited outside.
Someone at Pret had clearly identified the steps as a barrier but the equipment they had provided was very clearly not fit for purpose. It didn’t require specialist knowledge or large sums of money to get it right, just a bit of common sense and basic research.
I left feeling sad, and sticky, but by the time we got back to the castle my mood had improved. But this experience had put a totally unnecessary stain on my day (and on my shoes).
I’ve written to Pret, not because I want to get any of the staff in trouble but because I don’t want any other wheelchair users to try and use that ramp and have an accident. I also pointed out that it’s not acceptable for stores to be non-accessible when there are simple, affordable solutions. It’s over twenty years since equality legislation was first introduced in the UK to protect disabled people from this type of discrimination, but the pace of change is frustratingly slow and poor access is still something I encounter almost every day.
To some, not being able to go into a shop and buy a sandwich might sound like a minor issue. But when it happens frequently the cumulative impact makes disabled people feel like second-class citizens. Not only are simple tasks made much more complex and time-consuming, but there’s an extra emotional cost as well.
If five thousand years ago our forebears were able to move hundreds of heavy stones many, many miles to create Stonehenge, surely given all the technological advancements since then we ought to be able to provide safe ramps for wheelchair users who want to buy a sandwich?