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.

Solving the Wrong Problem.

Recently this video did the rounds: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mVHpRnTS4TM

On the surface it looks incredible; someone went to the trouble of developing a wheelchair that could climb stairs, thus solving all problems around inaccessibility & eradicating ableism. But then you start to think about it.

The wheelchair is shown going backwards up some steps at a snail’s pace. The stairs are not rain-soaked & are in perfect condition, & miraculously there isn’t another pedestrian barging past at an inopportune moment. As for bad weather the advert claims the wheelchair can handle it, but doesn’t really show it. In fact, it doesn’t show the wheelchair going back down the flight of steps at all. There is also no clear mention of how much power climbing the stairs drains from your battery.

So, the technology is flawed, but with time that could be corrected. At that point we could eradicate all ramps & lifts, & historians could keep their piles of mortar & stone just as they want them without having to deal with something so petty as equality. But wait…

Sometimes disabled people don’t use wheelchairs. Climbing stairs with a severe visual impairment is, by all accounts, bloody terrifying. Similarly, people who have mobility issues or chronic illnesses but can walk may still find stairs problematic. There’s no way I could carry my rollator up a flight of steps; I would still need level access. A stair-climbing wheelchair gives businesses an excuse to maintain their inaccessibility because you should just get a stair-climber. Of course, getting one of these presents problems of its own.

It’s virtually impossible to find out how much one of these wheelchairs costs, but it will not come cheap. With standard powered wheelchairs often reaching several thousand pounds for the basic model, even second-hand, it’s almost certain that the price will be beyond the means of most disabled people. For everyone who couldn’t afford the technology, ramps & lifts would still be required.

So, the stair-climbing wheelchair would only benefit a fraction of the disabled community & access requirements would still exist. It’s an brilliant idea, surely, until you start contemplating the ethical issues that surround this wheelchair.

For starters, when designing things with disabled people in mind, it might be useful to actually speak to us. Even an introductory discussion with a handful of disabled people would have raised basic concerns around the cost & the limitations of the design before so much money was sunk into the project. It would also have quickly brought to light that the wrong problem was being addressed.

Instead of designing expensive, flawed products to get some disabled people into a building, placing the effort & financial onus on the individual, it would make far more sense to make the building accommodating of all disabilities. While this initially costs more than 1 wheelchair, more than 1 customer would be gained. The responsibility of businesses is to serve their customers, and being accessible is a part of that responsibility. Putting the onus on the people who already suffer at the hands of discrimination is just morally wrong.

Quite frankly, this entire project & every other like it, that refuses to work with actual disabled people or to listen to us, is as ableist as businesses being inaccessible in the first place.

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.

TEDx: Disability in Education & Employment.

Disability presents a lot of challenges in day-to-day life. Something as simple as shopping can become Mission Impossible, so what happens when it comes to the more complicated stuff like school & work?

In the past 5 years I have finished high school, graduated from university, & had 2 jobs. There were problems I faced purely in relation to the disability in each of these situations, with the transitions between them being equally difficult. While I’ll be discussing my personal experiences of education & employment with a disability, I have been told that many others have encountered similar situations.

 

My high school was a gritty reboot of Waterloo Road. It was underfunded, overcrowded, & we had our own policeman assigned to the school. The standard of education was actually excellent, but pretty much everything else was falling apart at the seams just weeks after opening.

From the day I first fell ill at age 14 I encountered problems. The attendance team hounded me like I was a criminal, I was pushed back into P.E & dance far too hard far too soon, & I was initially denied the right to use my wheelchair at school. Once I had the right to use my wheelchair I was denied access to the support I needed, namely someone to push the wheelchair which I couldn’t physically do myself. It took up until I started my A-levels for me to get the help I required, and even then assistants would frequently fail to turn up, leaving me stranded.

While in the final year of my A-levels we were applying for university. At the time “UCAS points” were all the rage; if your grades fell a little below the requirements for the course of your choice, many universities would accept these points & allow you to enroll. UCAS points could be obtained by doing things like the Duke of Edinburgh badges, & raising money to go abroad over the summer to do charity work in developing countries. If you didn’t take up UCAS point opportunities you wouldn’t be penalized by the school so much as shunned, your efforts deemed unworthy, even if you couldn’t obtain UCAS points because not one scheme was willing to adapt for a wheelchair user.

I went the traditional route & focused on my education, except here I was penalized for not constantly retaking exams to get marginally higher marks. I had decided to put all of my efforts into studying for fewer exams, as studying for too many while chronically ill would have been disastrous. I got the grades I needed to go to university, which I hadn’t been when doing the constant re-sits demanded of me, but even when going to collect my final exam results I was reprimanded for being “too lazy” to take re-sits & get even higher marks.

It’s safe to say I was relieved to leave school & head to the University of Leeds School of Food Science & Nutrition.

 

University went much smoother than school. By this point I had been able to save up just enough money for a second-hand powered wheelchair so had gained independence. I was not penalized for taking fewer extra-curricular activities & focusing on my degree instead, and was supported by my lecturers & tutors. I had accessibility issues just like anywhere else, but these I could cope with.

There was the option to take a year out of my degree to study abroad or go on a work placement. I couldn’t afford international study even if I’d wanted to, but I did invest a great amount of time looking at potential work places. Many placements were based in factories & professional kitchens; not the most wheelchair friendly of spaces. Placements in dietetics were impossible to find as they all required you to have tailed a dietitian previously, something which is almost completely prohibited for patient safety. Many placements wanted extensive work experience in their candidates, but working on top of studying was simply not feasible for someone with a chronic illness. The remaining placements were all unpaid, & I simply couldn’t afford to live somewhere unpaid for an entire year. Yet another opportunity was closed off to me.

I went straight through my degree, during the final year of which I applied for graduate jobs, often facing the same problems as those for placements. I went to careers fairs. I went to the career’s advisor hubs & job-hunters based at the university. I booked one-to-one sessions with an advisor. Not once in any of these meetings could someone provide me with information about the accessibility of the jobs on offer, or even where I could find this information aside from blatantly asking with each application. Despite the many laws & policies meant to prevent prejudice, many potential employers seemed to suddenly lose interest upon discovering that I used a wheelchair, failing to reply to further messages, or simply terminating my application on the grounds that they couldn’t get me in the building.

I looked into progressing into dietetics as a post-graduate, but was bluntly informed that I wouldn’t pass the health checks needed to take the course. I couldn’t figure out how on earth using a wheelchair inhibited my ability to help people with their diets, of course assuming that the NHS would be the most accessible employer out there. After all, if you can wheel a bed through a hospital, you can get a wheelchair through, right?

 

My first job was in the NHS. The pay was barely above minimum wage, the hours were so pitiful that my annual earnings actually were below minimum wage, and it amounted to little more than pen-pushing, but it was a start. I proudly went to collect my ID badge from the HR department, rolled up the ramp & through the automatic door, & straight into a set of stairs. I looked around; there was no lift or other accessible entrance, & HR was 2 floors up. So I called them. At first, they simply refused to come down, but once a delivery driver had noticed my plight & marched up the stairs on my behalf, they were more obliging.

I started my job & almost immediately found that my credentials didn’t work when logging into my laptop. I called IT & they told me to come to them. I explained that given that they were 3 floors up without a lift, I couldn’t. After days of arguing they finally came out to us. This would happen every time I encountered an issue with my work laptop, but eventually the arguing lasted minutes instead of days. That was until one of my superiors decided I was making a fuss about nothing, told IT not to “pander” to me, & booked me an accessible taxi out to them before I’d even arrived in the office. It took the entire working day for me to get there & back as IT refused to come down to me, & upon my return I couldn’t even get into the office as my colleagues had blocked the door. I quit a week later; and that’s not even mentioning the fact that they failed to tell me about the Access to Work scheme, & once I had gone through the process they refused to follow the advice provided anyway.

 

I didn’t apply for any other NHS jobs, knowing I’d only encounter the same issues wherever I was. Instead, I predominantly applied for jobs at a place I knew was accommodating; the university. Less than 2 months later I was being trained for my new position at the Clinical Trials & Research Unit in the medical school. I didn’t go through Access to Work again, but the in-house occupational therapist recommended a specialist mouse, keyboard, keyboard-tray, desk, & chair to help me work, all of which I received soon after starting. I had issues with lift access & instead of being reprimanded, I was granted access to another lift that only a few of us, mainly disabled staff & students, could use. Office cubicles were even rearranged so that I could have a wall socket to charge my wheelchair.

 

Many accessibility issues relate to attitude over the facilities provided. This is true of educators, employers, health care providers, customer service workers, & people on the street. If you think this is untrue, just remember the current political attitude:

If a disabled person is not in education or employment, they’re a lazy scrounger living off the system, but if they do happen to work or be in education, they’re faking their disability.