Becoming Karen.

In case you were wondering who “Karen” is, she’s the internet phenomenon that represents the heated clash between the Baby Boomers & Millennials. Karen is the stereotype of a white woman who has three uncontrollable children & as many ex-husbands, drives the ugliest 7-seater car imaginable, wears knock-off designer shades, has a lopsided pixie-cut, & always demands to speak to the manager. Whenever someone complains about something completely ridiculous, let’s say how other people identify their own gender, they’re a Karen. Being at the tail end of the Millennial generation, it’s a pretty funny meme that isn’t usually meant maliciously. OK, Boomer?

The only problem with this meme is that disabled people often end up complaining about illegal parking & blocked access routes, only to be brushed off as inconsequential by someone who fails to recognise that we have places to be & things to do, & we are labelled a Karen.

In the space of a week I’ve had to deal with multiple instances of pavement parking where I’ve been told to calm down, be patient, or just scrape past without scratching their precious paintwork. I’ve had to argue with the pharmacy to provide a prescription that they were denying me access to because they decided it would be fun (I guess?), & then I’ve had to complain to shop staff about using the disabled toilet as a storage cabinet.

When you have to complain to people in public that frequently, you start to wonder if you really are becoming a Karen, & certainly my depression making me doubt myself doesn’t help. You start to wonder if you really are over-reacting by wanting to cross a road safely without spending extra time in a torrential downpour.

Fortunately, as someone who did a small stint in customer service, & being married to someone who worked in retail for many years, I have plenty to compare myself to. Nevertheless, it certainly drains your confidence & energy to be rebuffed so often, & after being so vocal people just stop listening.

What started out as a light-joke has been flogged to within an inch of it’s life, & completely unintentionally has become yet another barrier disabled people have to contend with. It’s got to the point where no one can publicly complain about something without being labelled a Karen & rebuked, & with inaccessibility issues often being labelled as whimsical & unimportant, disabled people are more often than not labelled as Karens.

The real problem is, of course, that inaccessibility simply isn’t taken seriously. When, a decade after the implementation of the Equality Act, blatant inaccessibility is still commonplace, you start to wonder if anyone will ever take it seriously. We’re always told to make do, go somewhere else & be grateful for how things have improved, yet without people vocally & publicly complaining to begin with, things would not have improved. My usual retort is to explain that by their logic, we should stop all further research into cancer as things have improved so much, but my smart mouth doesn’t solve the problem at hand; until accessibility is taken as seriously as it should always have been, every time a disabled person complains about their issues, we will be labelled as Karens.

Let Me In.

Nothing makes me feel quite as degraded as waiting outside to be let in like a dog. Cats get better treatment than disabled people in this regard, given that wheelchair-flaps aren’t really a thing. If separate entrances for different genders & ethnicities is considered archaic & discriminatory, why does this not apply to disabled people?

I would love to know just how long I have spent outside, often in the cold & wet, waiting while whoever I’m with goes inside to attract the attention of a member of staff, to be directed to the right member of staff, who will then leisurely collect the keys & meander over to the accessible door to let me in. There is never a sense of urgency; other customers who had the luxury of being able to enter the premises of their own accord taking priority, & when the door is finally opened to let me in, I am expected to be beyond grateful for their unwarranted kindness. I’ve even heard members of staff complaining about having to let someone in because it’s such an inconvenience for them. Given the hardship it brings them you’d think someone would have tried to come up with a solution such as making the accessible door the main door, or making the main door accessible. Alas, it is always me to blame for wanting to leave the house every once in a while.

On a few occasions I have challenged the system of making a wheelchair user wait to be let in. Every single time it comes as quite a surprise to the staff that the system is anything less than perfect. To be fair the staff usually report the issue to management, but invariably I get an excuse about budgets, the building being listed, or even something to do with my personal safety. Yes, apparently waiting outside in a dark, dingy alley in the cold, on my own, was for my own safety.  Had I not already been, I would have had to sit down in surprise.

By far the most infuriating defences though, are the most the insulting. I am often informed that it actually isn’t ableist to make the disabled person wait outside while everyone who isn’t disabled can go about their business unimpeded, & clearly I, as a disabled person, don’t understand the meaning of ableism.

Similarly, “Well, at least we’re accessible (¯\_(ツ)_/¯)” is commonly encountered. Much like myself, this excuse doesn’t stand up when scrutinised. Chances are, for those living near cities at least, there is a more accessible competitor nearby, & the companies who elect the policy of “disabled people = dogs” are losing out to their competitors.

A system that denies someone the right to their independence purely because they have a protected characteristic, such as disability, is discrimination. A system that forces people to wait outside to be let in when everyone else can go in & out freely, is discrimination. Yet this system is often regarded as a reasonable adjustment, an accessibility feature, & the proprietors have never had any complaints. The only reason they haven’t had any complaints, of course, is because we got bored of waiting & went to someone who will treat us as the human beings we are.

Killing the Red Lion.

Every so often the local news informs us that another traditional English pub has had to close its doors for good, having gone out of business. Invariably the article only briefly mentions those who have just lost their jobs, & instead focuses on blaming the big brand names like Wetherspoons’s & Greene King for the death of English tradition. In the closing paragraph the reader is urged to ditch the Wetherspoon’s in favour of their independent local (the most common name for such a pub being the Red Lion, if you were wondering about the title), and this is something I would willingly do if I could get through the door.

Leeds city centre is home to a multitude of pubs, some of them being from corporate chains, & some of them being independent. All of the corporations are accessible to some degree, although some are better than others. Surprisingly, one of the best for access is an actual boat that someone decided to put on dry land on a hill, & build a kitchen on one side. All of the independent ones have great stone steps in the doorway, & not one of them has a portable ramp (having sent in someone able-bodied to ask, of course). Naturally, any money I spend at a pub therefore goes to one of the chains & not the independent ones. I physically cannot support the traditional English pub.

There are other reasons why the traditional pub is a dying breed. The variety of food that one small kitchen can produce is limited in comparison to the supply chains that provide for chain businesses, so different dietary needs cannot be catered for. Small, independent brands often have less well-trained staff, so the risk of cross-contaminating allergens between ingredients makes it difficult for someone with allergies to know what they can safely eat. Prices can be higher too, as large companies are more able to buy in bulk.

There is also a culture that emanates from some traditional pubs that can make women, people of colour, & members of the LGBTQ+ community feel uncomfortable. It’s not uncommon to hear sexist & homophobic remarks in these environments, & anyone who wants to drink something other than the horribly bitter beer on offer can be ridiculed for it. While this behaviour is becoming rarer, I’m far less likely to experience it in a Wetherspoons.

It sounds obvious, but excluding entire groups of people is bad for business. If you compare the number of white, heterosexual, able-bodied men to everyone else in the world, they become the minority. While I’m not overly fond of corporate culture, if that’s the culture in which I can live a relatively normal life, I’ll accept it.

In 2019, no one can be blamed for the death of the traditional pub but themselves, with their refusal to acknowledge that the world has left tradition behind for good reason.

History Over Humanity.

When challenging inaccessibility there are two words that every disabled person dreads; “listed building”. The government keeps a list of buildings they deem to be historically significant, usually because they have features that are now rare thanks to modern architecture. As soon as you try to touch a listed building, historians start to wax lyrical about how it’s aesthetics should be preserved for future generations. If a meteorite landed on a listed building, they would probably try to sue NASA.

As buildings age & fall into ruin, & as trends change, well-preserved older buildings become treasures. Often they can give us information about the way people lived throughout history, & what sort of conditions they lived in. Many buildings are impressive simply due to size or ornate architecture. They are beloved, iconic in the local area, & thanks to disabled people being institutionalised for much of history, they are often completely inaccessible.

A historian will argue that it is important to preserve historical buildings for the education of future generations. For the most part, I agree. However, most able-bodied historians seem to think that ramps, automated doors, and lifts ruin the aesthetics of the building & take away from the experience. They then use this as a legitimate reason to tell an entire demographic of people that they can’t come into that building, but they’re also not ableist & totally support equality. The notion that a building has better rights than a human being is laughable, yet it has stood in the way of accessibility for decades.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing of this whole debate is that listed buildings can easily be made accessible. The University of Leeds is full of listed buildings, most famously the E.C.Stoner & Roger Stevens buildings, which are hideous concrete memorials of brutalist architecture. Yet every single one of those buildings is accessible. The ramps & lifts do not take away from the aesthetics of the place as they are carefully designed to be hidden, sometimes in plain sight. The Clothworkers building has kept its old wooden double doors on giant hinges, that opens at the touch of a button.

Outside of Leeds there is Bolton Abbey, a centuries old ruin in the middle of the countryside, that is accessible. York Minster has multiple accessible entrances & automatic doors, not one of them being a detriment to it’s appearance. It might be pricey, & it might take a little innovation, but historical buildings can be as accessible as any other.

In all honesty, I strongly believe that “listed building” is often used because it sounds nicer than “that costs a lot”. Perhaps they think they’re softening the blow by telling us that it isn’t capitalism getting in the way of our humanity, it’s history. Perhaps it allows them to have a clean conscience because it’s somebody else blocking accessibility.  Whatever the case, “listed building” is nothing short of an excuse for blatant ableism. What saddens me most of all isn’t even that this ableism is legal, but that there are disabled people out there who not only accept it as an excuse, but actively support the decision to be excluded.

The Road to Nowhere.

One of the most important components of a strong business model is to know your target audience; you wouldn’t make much money trying to sell War & Peace to a bunch of 3-year-olds. Surely, then, public transport companies should be going out of their way to provide excellent services for disabled people, given that being a disabled pedestrian is rather difficult. Yet I will avoid public transport at all costs thanks to the difficulties I have experienced when using their services, & I strongly suspect that I’m not the only disabled person to do this.

Taxi companies often have fleets where some of their vehicles have been specifically adapted to accommodate wheelchairs. Despite having spent a substantial amount of money adapting these vehicles, they then go out of their way to make it incredibly difficult for us to use them. Some companies refuse to let wheelchair-users book in advance, stating that they cannot guarantee the availability of an adapted vehicle at any particular time, despite this being the very point of booking in advance. Surely then, this should apply to all of their taxis, but you can book a normal vehicle in advance & they won’t bat an eyelid. This is particularly irritating when you see adapted vehicles being used to transport people who don’t have extra luggage or mobility equipment.

Some taxi services do permit the luxury of booking in advance, but they will always tell you that they cannot guarantee the availability of an adapted taxi at that particular time, which again, is the very point of booking in advance. This is no meaningless disclaimer either; I have waited 90 minutes for a pre-booked taxi to arrive &, if I’m under any obligation to be somewhere at a particular time, I must now leave ridiculously early.

In the miraculous circumstance that a taxi does arrive, drivers will usually have a sulk about having to get the ramp out, & on the drive I am bombarded with invasive questions about why I use a wheelchair.

It’s also a frequent occurrence for people with assistance dogs to be denied access to a taxi, despite this being blatantly illegal. Let’s not even mention Uber or Lyft which, due to the self-employed status of their drivers, have no obligation to provide access whatsoever.

For travelling the local area, I prefer busses. The recent law ensuring that wheelchair users get priority over prams for the space ingeniously named the wheelchair priority spot, has improved things greatly. While some people with prams still take exception to being asked to lift out their tiny child & fold up their tiny pram, insisting that the chronically ill person who is running late should wait outside in the cold, most people are accommodating. The manual ramps, unlike the automatic ones London insists on having, never break down so access is guaranteed. Occasionally a driver might try to close the doors before you board, pretending not to have seen you because they don’t want to have to stand up for 5 seconds to lower the ramp. Other than that, the only problem occurs when more than one wheelchair user wants to use the bus, because how dare more than one disabled person be out & about at any one time.

For longer journeys, coaches are preferable to trains. When assistance is booked (which isn’t even obligatory) it is provided, & not only can the wheelchair be folded up & placed in the hold with the rest of the luggage, but through a series of ramps & lifts a wheelchair can be loaded onto the coach itself. While awkward & longwinded, this far outshines the dreaded trains.

Trains insist you book assistance at least 24 hours in advance; spontaneous travel is not allowed if you are disabled. To receive the booked assistance, you must turn up half an hour early, & even then it’s a lottery as to whether someone shows up. If you are late, even if that is because you’ve missed a connection thanks to the train you were on being delayed, you are denied help. Train guards then go on strike because robots are taking their jobs, but they refuse to do anything at all to help a stranded disabled person. I’ve been left stuck on trains before now, fortunately always having someone with me to get a porter, as purposefully obstructing the doors to make it impossible for the train to leave is apparently a fineable offence, even when it’s because a pre-booked porter decided to take a cigarette break.

Once on the train the disabled toilet is usually out of order, people often leave prams & luggage in the wheelchair spot (and refuse to move it), and the wheelchair spot isn’t big enough to accommodate a wheelchair anyway. In short, the longer, hotter, more awkward coach trip is the easier option.

And God forbid disabled people ever want to go abroad. I don’t have a passport & have never been abroad (!) so I can’t really comment on planes or ferries, but given the frequency with which airports manage to damage or lose wheelchairs, I think this speaks for itself.

The Corridor.

When you start a new job there’s a lot to think about; being in the right place at the right time, sorting out the paperwork, & introducing yourself to the total strangers you’ll spend 35 hours a week with. If you are disabled then there’s even more to think about. Unsurprisingly one of the things that concerns disabled employees most is accessibility.

I’m lucky to have an employer who took great care to ensure that I had all of the tools I would need to do my job. In fact, the only part I cannot do independently has nothing to do with my disability, & has everything to do with the fact that even when balanced precariously on a stool, I’m too short to reach the top shelf of the 2 metre tall cabinets.

In fact, the biggest obstacle to overcome didn’t occur in the office at all, but in getting to & from my work.

The building I work in is huge. It has 8 floors, not counting the secret underground laboratory where we’re teaching rabbits to wear flat caps & talk with a Yorkshire accent. Despite spending many hours in there as a student, & now working there, I get lost looking for anything beyond the rooms we commonly use, & the café which is nowhere near the rooms we use, but I just so happen to know where it is anyway. Oh, & then there’s the great big hospital we’re attached to.

There are 3 reasonably-sized lifts available to everyone who uses the building. Most people were more than accommodating when it came to lift access, but it only took a few arrogant tossers for me to spend 5 minutes waiting for the lift to come back around only to find it full again. I left enough time to account for this, but even then, I could be late into the office.

I raised this as an issue & much to my surprise, instead of being called a whinger I was granted access to a fourth lift that only people with a key could get to. You had to have the key to enter the corridor, & then had to use it again to operate the lift. It basically guaranteed me a spot in the lift whenever I wanted.

The problems arose because the cleaning staff, who were based along this new route, were not accustomed to wheelchair users. The corridor was frequently blocked. I asked politely to keep a route clear but was told it couldn’t be helped, so I told them that they would move it or there would be trouble. Naturally there was trouble, when I shared this photograph with the building manager:

The lift blocked by crates, boxes, trolleys, & all manner of cleaning equipment.

In all fairness to the team, it’s not happened since. Although, as it transpired, I had won the battle but not the war.

Next came the cleaner who, with good intentions, asked if I needed help getting through the double doors. I politely declined but was ignored, & the door was wrenched from my grasp resulting in a minor shoulder injury. Some might say I should just accept the help, but I despise the notion that I am not human enough to know my own capabilities or that my words are just hot air.

Even after this, my biggest obstacle was yet to come.

It was a Friday night & I was leaving the office. I entered the lift alone, my key dangling around my neck on a lanyard, which I used to select Floor 4 (which is one of the ground floor entrances alongside the other on floor 7. As I said, it’s a weird building and it’s also on a steep hill). The lift stopped at floor 5 and a porter pushed a large trolley into the lift.

“Where are you going?” he asked as if he couldn’t see the number 4 glowing.

“Floor 4,” I returned.

“No, you’re not,” he smirked.

“Um…yes, I am,” I responded sharply.

“There’s no way out there.”

“Yes, there is.”

“But you need a key.”

“You mean like the one dangling around my neck that you need to be able to operate the lift we’re in?”

Apparently, he was only being nice. He only asked a question because he had assumed that I didn’t know where I was going in the building on the route I used twice daily, 5 days a week. This fails to address why, once I’d told him where I was going (as if that was any of his business in the first place), he persisted to ignore my responses and undermine me with blunt statements.

Encountering this attitude once was bad enough, but it happened a second time, & a third time, & then a fourth. Before long I’d lost count. Despite the plethora of evidence which included my key, my staff badge, & buttons already pressed in the lift, I was frequently told that I didn’t know what I was doing & I shouldn’t be there.

My employers are doing all they can to stop this. All staff undergo extensive Equality & Inclusion training, & there are working groups & committees in place, several of which I am a member of. Signs have gone up by the lift alerting people that wheelchair users can use this route, asking others to be considerate. None of it has worked.

I do not blame this on my employer, nor is it a reflection of their attitude. It is instead a reflection of the general attitude towards disability displayed by the populace. It is the culmination of the stereotype that we are helpless individuals worthy only of pity. It stems from the hatred we face for relying on government funding that allows us to access the equipment we need to be able to work. Even if it is subconscious, in just one short corridor, I have encountered more ableism than I ever will in my actual job.

There is, however, one small thing that they have not accounted for; tyre tracks on their shoes will be the least of their worries if they get in my way.

Accessible Ethics.

It takes a special kind of idiocy to deny that being accessible is right, but WHY is it right? I could never explain this eloquently so I’ve roped in a little assistance from my fiance, who just so happens to have a philosophy degree.
PS: These should be useful for shutting people up who hinder accessibility and then defend their actions.

Image description: poster for Accessible Ethics trilogy reading "Guest writer Jarred Triskelion returns. Accessible Ethics: Deontology, Consequentialism, & Virtue Ethics. A philosophical exploration of why accessibility matters. Diary of a Disabled Person".