All the barriers that disabled people face everywhere – from work to shops
Consider the top causes of disability. You’re thinking cancer, spinal injury, old age, maybe limb loss aren’t you? You’d be wrong. The top causes of disability are a lack of access and a lack of funds to pay for the extra costs incurred to live as a disabled person.
If you’re not disabled, your day might look like this: get out of bed, hop in the shower, dry off, get dressed, get the kids ready for school, make coffee, hop in the car, drive to work, get on with your job, pop out for lunch, have a quick look round the shops, go to another venue for a meeting via public transport, hop in the car again, pick up the kids, run them to afterschool clubs, maybe grab a quick gym or swim session, pick everyone up, go home, prep dinner, eat, go to bed.
Now let’s look at that same day for a disabled person.
You might need help to get out of bed, wash, dry, and dress. Your kids might need extra support to do those things. You might be waiting on a very long list for accessible housing, so you can’t get round your house because it has dangerous steps in the wrong places, or perhaps it is too narrow to fit both furniture and room for a wheelchair.
Your kitchen might be the wrong height for you, and you might struggle to prepare food in it, or move around in it, or have to resort to only using ready meals – more expensive, but easier to eat. You might need to fork out a lot more on electricity because you need to do a lot more laundry, or run 24 hour lifesaving apparatus, or charge powerchairs or mobility scooters.
You might need the thermostat set to tropical all year round because living in constant pain or with breathing difficulties means you can’t live in a cold house, even if it’s hugely expensive to keep the heat on.
Barriers to getting on with things everywhere, and we’ve not even got out the door yet. So consider further how it affects the rest of the day…
Just over half of us are employed. Whereas four-fifths of non-disabled people have jobs. This is because not all of us can work, and where we can, employers are often reluctant to give us jobs because they think we might be a burden on the business, take loads of sick leave, or demand lots of changes to how things are done that will put other people’s noses out of joint.
The TUC did some research on this in 2019, and there is no evidence to suggest that any of these things are true. In fact the opposite is often true – disabled people will often take less sick leave than necessary because we are fully aware that we are often being watched. Businesses often fail to see that we can be huge assets – we are often excellent strategic thinkers and problem solvers because we have to be to navigate the complexity of our daily lives.
And we bring with us the experience of being part of the largest minority, or in business speak – minority market demographic, in Britain. Because there are 14.1 million of us. Or perhaps you have a job, but the building isn’t fully accessible. You have to dial in to meetings in your own building because you can’t get up the stairs.
For lunch, you try to go to the local café, but the pavements are blocked with al fresco dining tables, and menu A boards, and you can’t go into the road because it’s too dangerous. Paving slabs are missing, causing you to trip over, or tip your mobility scooter over, and drop kerbs are blocked by inconsiderate drivers.
When you do get to the café you can’t get over the threshold because the door is too heavy and because of the step. You can’t read the menu because the writing is tiny.
The food doesn’t accommodate your intolerances, or the proprietor won’t blend it for you because you struggle with solids and he thinks it makes his meal less appetising. You need to drink from a straw – metal straws risk knocking a tooth out, and paper ones get mashed up quickly in your mouth, but they’ve stopped all plastic straws because of the environment. You need an adapted cup and cutlery, but you’ve never ever found these to use when out and about.
Spending a penny
The accessible loo is down a squeaky-narrow café corridor. It has the loo roll behind the cistern or too far back along the side, and you can’t bend and turn to grab it. There is no audio description device so you don’t know what’s where. Grab rails flop down willy-nilly because the loo hasn’t been serviced for a while.
The emergency help cords have been neatly rolled up and folded out of the way, so if you slip and fall you can’t pull one from the floor to call for help. There are no hooks because everyone assumes wheelchair users carry things on their laps at all times.
The mirror is low and tiny, and you’re not a wheelchair user, you are tall and can’t bend to see what state your hair is in. The sink is miniscule with a fierce power tap. It’s going to be an afternoon of explaining to everyone that you’ve not wet yourself.
Or the accessible loo has no baby change or a standing height baby change, and you’re a wheelchair user with a toddler. I have friends who have to ration their food and drink to ensure they don’t need the loo during their working days, because they need a facility called a Changing Place – an enhanced accessible toileting facility which has height adjustable sinks, changing beds, and hoists – and they are few and far between across the UK.
You try to dip into a shop, but you can’t open the heavy doors, there’s a lip at the bottom of the doorframe which trips you up, or you can’t quite get your wheelchair over it.
They’ve changed the layout from last week and it’s overwhelming because you have sensory issues. The super-bright lights and tinny pop music aren’t helping with the sensory overwhelm either. You bump into a mannequin they’ve put in the middle of the aisle because you can’t see it and didn’t know it was there. You fail to get your mobility scooter round the ends of the aisles because they’ve added a pair of pallets piled high with impulse purchases, creating a pinch point.
And you loved that top in the window, but you can’t get to it because every time you wheel your wheelchair between the rails of clothes, they are so positioned so close together, you either end up wearing half of everything on the hangers or the toddler in the buggy opposite thinks you’re playing hide and seek when the reality is you’ve got well and truly stuck.
You might need an adapted car, or you can’t drive at all, and need to use taxis because public transport is unreliable or inaccessible. You can’t access public transport to hop across town for that meeting – the train station has a stair bridge and you can’t reach your platform.
Or the platform lacks tactile paving, so you risk falling on to the tracks as you can’t see the edge. You can’t take the bus because despite the law saying wheelchair users have a priority space on the bus, the driver refuses to move a buggy in the space. Or maybe he won’t put the ramp down because you can walk and you don’t look disabled enough for him to bother helping.
You can’t access the gym because there is no lift down to the fitness studios, or there is no hoist or poolpod lift into the pool, or the gym equipment isn’t spaced out well enough for your needs.
You can’t change out of your kit because the changing rooms have no seats, no grab rails, and no accessible showers. You can’t get the receptionist to look at you so you can lip read and understand her.
Or nobody around you can use sign language. You can’t hear anyone properly because of the music. The lighting and music and sheer numbers of people moving around you are bothering you because you’re autistic.
Are you exhausted reading all that? We’re definitely exhausted living it.
Disabled people have a way of describing what we need. It’s called the Social Model of Disability. In essence, it says it’s not us, nor our impairments that really cause us to be disabled and stop us from living our lives with the same degree of equality as non-disabled people, it’s the lack of adaptations around us.
We need people who create and run businesses, leisure facilities, shared spaces, schools, housing and transport to understand that they can make changes, physically and in terms of their attitudes, which allow much, much greater access for everyone.
And if they think that making changes is a major headache that will only change things for a few people, it’s worth remembering that a fifth of the population is disabled, and that unless someone has the highly dubious fortune of dying young, they’re not able-bodied – they’re pre-disabled.
Because that’s the kicker – it might not be you affected today, but if you’re lucky, it will almost certainly be you one day. Getting on board with the social model of disability, using qualified access consultants to enhance the built environment, shared spaces and businesses, benefits not just some nebulous idea of wider society, but almost each and every one of us in the fullness of time.
And if you’re wondering what we need when you come across us in day to day life, there’s a really simple thing you can do to find out. Ask us. Don’t ask us about our impairments, that’s a bit rude. But do ask us if we need any adaptations to make things around us work for us. And then work with us to make the changes. That’s all we want – the social model of disability in action.