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.

Off the Rails.

Trains; the sworn enemy of wheelchair users. They’re one of the biggest obstacles disabled people face on a daily basis, and what is perhaps the most frustrating aspect of this is that there is no need for them to be this way.

I’m not one with the money or time to travel around the UK on a regular basis, and my commute to the office where I have my “proper” job is so short that it takes me longer to wash my hair than travel to work. Still I’ve had a few experiences of using the trains, and have used three significant, large train stations; York, Leeds, and King’s Cross in London (think Harry Potter).

The first train station I visited was York. I had been on a weekend away on the North York moors with a group of friends from University, and had traveled up to the destination on a mini-bus provided by another local university. On the Sunday we traveled to the centre of York because Christmas in York is what dreams are made of, but the bus had to return early meaning we had to use the trains instead.

The train station was one of the most accessible buildings I had ever seen with smooth floors, a complete lack of steps, and space to manoeuvre. I was escorted to the correct platform where a ramp was already waiting for me in the doorway of the train, and a wheelchair space had been reserved for me in the carriage. The doors of the train were a little tight to squeeze through but that was my only criticism. Having heard horror stories about the treatment of wheelchair users on trains I was surprised, but welcomed the unexpected consideration of disability.

After 40 minutes the train pulled in the station in Leeds city centre. The doors opened, and I was expected to levitate onto the platform, despite prior warning that someone disabled would dare to use their facilities. My friends ran off to get a porter and a ramp while I sulked in the doorway, and eventually a ramp was provided by a very grumpy porter. The station itself was also highly accessible despite being quite an old building. It seemed mad that the building would cater so well for accessibility, but the trains themselves didn’t.

A few months later I went to London for the very first time. Leeds failed to provide a ramp and porter as did King’s Cross, despite warnings in advance of needing the support. Again King’s Cross itself was so accessible I could have cried, but the return journey was the same despite even more prompting to provide the resources I needed. I ended up hopping on and off the train while Jarred lifted my wheelchair on behind me as, thankfully, we had chosen to use my manual, fold-able wheelchair.

Whilst actually in London we used the tube to get around. Only half of the stations themselves were accessible, and even less provided access all the way to getting on an off the tube, meaning that many tourist attractions required Jarred to push the wheelchair for a long time to get there. There was still a significant gap between the train and the platform, even on the “accessible” carriages. A couple of times my wheels even got stuck in the gap and total strangers would have to help us out.

A year later I booked some more train tickets to London. The website was virtually impossible to navigate and it took a significant search to find the form describing what sort of seat/space I would need, and what times I would need a porter and ramp at both ends of the journey. Eventually the tickets were booked and then something happened that hadn’t the year before. I received an email with my “care plan” listed out explicitly, with what times I would need support and what seat I would have in the accessible carriage. All I had to do was print this out and show the piece of paper to the porters to prove that I had booked support, and it would be provided. Amazingly the system was very effective and it worked perfectly.

You could argue that someone disabled shouldn’t have to book a train 24 hours in advance to gain access to a ramp and porter and that you should be able to turn up, ask for help, and receive said help. We can’t be spontaneous while others can, and it is frustrating. However being able to get on the trains at all without a fight was something special, and is a welcome improvement upon the old system.

They could, of course, negate the problem entirely by having a little common sense; trains that line up exactly with a standardised platform height with a minimal gap, like they modified train stations to do in Japan…