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.

My Family, Our Needs: My Article is Available Now!

Recently I wrote an article about job-hunting as a disabled person for the website My Family, Our Needs. It was published today and you can check it out here:

https://www.myfamilyourneeds.co.uk/emmas-job-hunting-journey/

To those of you who have already found my blog via this article, welcome! Please do like and subscribe to get brand new content every Sunday (and sometimes even in between, because I’m nice like that).

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".

More Than Ramps or Lifts.

Living in the heart of a city means that everything I could desire is practically on my door step, or perhaps more appropriately, my door ramp. Therefore it should hardly be surprising that I like to take advantage of this fact and spend a great deal of my time in the various bars, pubs, cafes, restaurants, shops, and cinemas in the local area, and as such I have encountered every standard of accessibility from “I don’t think my insurance will cover that” to “world domination is nigh”. It is from these experiences that I have learned a peculiar fact, one that by most accounts would seem counter-intuitive; accessibility is about more than having ramps and lifts.

I have discovered that it is not enough for a building to have ramps, lifts, and disabled toilets; they have to be usable too. I have been in many fully accessible buildings to find ramps and corridors needlessly obstructed, lifts shut down, accessible doors locked while the inaccessible main entrance remains open, or even disabled toilets being used as storage cupboards. Sometimes facilities have to be blocked off if they are unsafe but the fact that routes are blocked is rarely communicated to the buildings users, and I have spent a great deal of my time backtracking down corridors when a simple sign at the entrance would have sufficed.

The people in charge of these buildings pride themselves on their accessible facilities, as they should, but in their pride they fail to implement them. Many a manager has failed to see why I am so adamant that blocking something accessible renders it inaccessible, or why having to wait outside in the Yorkshire rain getting soaked to the skin while my able-bodied counterpart goes inside to get someone’s attention is an issue (God forbid I ever go out with other disabled people, or worse, on my own); the general attitude is that I am making a fuss about nothing and this often means that the same mistake is made over and over again. I believe that in this attitude lies the problem.

When I attended one of my beloved wrestling shows at a new venue, an older building in an industrial complex, it was undergoing building work at the time. There was a central courtyard and on the right was a building containing the bar and the toilets which had two steps up to the door. The manager of this building spoke to me, informing me of his plans to have a concrete ramp put in along with all the other work that was going on, and also to ensure that the disabled toilet had running water supplied to it as soon as he could. On the left was the room containing the wrestling ring and the door was too narrow to pass through without leaving behind some nasty scratches on the wall, and also had a very small step down which my wheelchair may or may not have been able to manage, mostly depending on the level of sobriety of the driver. Thinking quickly the manager opened the double doors around the corner which was serving as the wrestler’s entrance, and guided us down a wide, level corridor into the room. On the way out he made sure that the passage was clear for me and my fellow compatriots to exit the event safely.

This building did not have the same resources available to render it accessible, it being an old, re-purposed building with a cheap rent, exacerbated by the building works. Despite this, the buildings’ staff went out of their way to make sure that I could get in to see the show with no major compromises, and also to reassure me that the standard of accessibility would increase. While they lacked the resources, their attitude meant that the problems were resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.

It struck me as I was going home after the wrestling show that accessibility is far more than just having the right car parking spaces, toilets, changing rooms, hoists, ramps, lifts, hearing loops, and other facilities. Accessibility is using those facilities appropriately, not misusing them, and making sure that they are available to those that need them when they are needed. Accessibility is also in the welcoming attitude of the staff who don’t make me feel like an inconvenience on wheels. Accessibility is just a visual representation of equality.

Disability Doesn’t Mean I Can’t.

On a recent visit to the GP I discovered that the lift into the surgery now needs someone to close the door behind me once I’m in the lift. This was a rather unfortunate discovery as I was visiting the doctor alone, as I usually do. After waiting in the lobby area for a few minutes anxiously watching the clock ticking ever closer towards my appointment, a receptionist appeared at the top of the stairs and came to my rescue. While I did say thank you for the help I received, I also challenged her about this turn of events. Her response was that I should have someone with me next time or leave enough time for someone to pass by; the idea that I might want to be independent like every other adult using that surgery was incomprehensible.

This is not an isolated case by any measure; many places have small, rickety platform lifts that require a specific key held by only one member of staff that you can’t contact because you’re at the bottom of the steps while they’re in an office upstairs. Similarly whenever the accessible entrance to work is either broken or locked I have to wait for the receptionist behind the desk to finish gossiping with her colleague, search for a key they never have to hand, and fold back the revolving door allowing me to enter my own workplace. This process then has to be repeated on the way out; I cannot enter and leave the building at my leisure as literally every other person can. Given that the revolving door is always unlocked with a steady stream of people entering and exiting the building, I asked that it be left folded back when the accessible entrance wasn’t in use. Apparently, this was a security risk despite the fact that this would save everyone a lot of time and effort. I was also told that being the only wheelchair user in the building essentially made folding back the door an inconvenience.

It seems like wherever I go the idea that I want to be independent is shocking and impossible. While I always appreciate people asking me if I need help, I often encounter people who just barge in to start helping without asking first. On one occasion this even lead to a scalding hot coffee getting poured directly into my lap which was incredibly painful and somehow it was my fault for trying to be independent. In other cases I have been asked if I need help and when I have politely declined, the “help” has been provided anyway. What I want or need doesn’t matter; if someone judges that I need help they’re opinion overrides my own. In addition I have received torrents of verbal abuse for trying to be independent, being called arrogant, ungrateful, and much more besides.

This isn’t a new problem. For the past few millennia women have had to fight relentlessly to be permitted to do things independently of men, and now disabled people face exactly the same problem. Sometimes I don’t know if my desire to be independent is shocking because I am a woman, use a wheelchair, or a combination of the two.

Independence is not something that should only be encouraged in able-bodied men. The desire to be independent is not a sin; it should be encouraged. Allow me to fail. Allow me to get hurt. Allow me to get up (figuratively at least) and do it all over again until I get it right. Look at the top of this page. Look at my arm. “Disability doesn’t mean I can’t”.