The built environment has been purposely constructed to accommodate for the average sized, able bodied person. The social model of disability has exposed how this design concept disables people who do not fit these criteria. As a result, western societies, including the UK have responded by providing minimal accommodations, enacted by acts that are barely worth the paper they are written on. That may seem ungrateful, but as a person with dwarfism, when having to navigate through a built environment created for the average sized person, a few low counters are not going to make me feel like an equal and valued member of society.
The Equality Act (2010) may imply that the UK is a disabled friendly country, however, as a disabled person I would argue that it lacks substance. The Equality Act (2010) provides ‘reasonable adjustments’ for disabled people, such as drop kerbs, accessible toilets and ramps. These accommodations mostly accommodate wheelchair users, who account for 8% of disabled people in the UK. Whilst some people may think that somehow a few accommodations make the UK an accessible place for all disabled people, sometimes it feels like more of a ruse to keep us quiet.
Since the Pandemic and the subsequent rules to encourage social distancing, it has become even more apparent how the Equality Act (2010) is inadequate in providing access for all. Social distancing rules and procedures have demonstrated that no consideration has been given to the access needs of disabled people. It seems that the Conservative government do not prioritise disabled people as demonstrated by their damaging welfare changes. It seems that we do not make up a large enough percentage of the population for our needs to be deemed economically viable. However, it is estimated that there are over 13 million disabled people in the UK. Surely, they are worth accommodating for?
Walking up my local high street I have noticed that there are now arrows depicting which side of the street you should walk up and which side you should walk down. It is the same in many shops. People are expected to follow a one-way system, but this is impossible for those who cannot see the arrows plastered on the floor. According to the RNIB, as of 2017, there are approximately 350,000 people registered as blind and partially sighted in the UK. Yet, most places have not thought about their access needs.
However, even if these arrows were tactile, being expected to use one of the pavements in my local high street would still be problematic for both wheelchair users and people with visual impairments. They are too narrow for the average wheelchair user to access, they have numerous bumps on them, and have limited drop kerbs. Even where there are drop kerbs, most are blocked by parked cars. Perhaps if the Equality Act (2010) had been effective at implementing accessible pavements from the start then these one-way systems would be less of an issue. It is bizarre how quickly services have been able to provide adequate accommodations in response to Covid-19, but are quick to deny disabled people reasonable accommodations.
Recently, my city’s local Costa Coffee was proud to show off their response to the Pandemic, with their numerous shields, hand sanitizer stations and floor markings. When I pointed out that their accommodations were not accessible for disabled people, I was told that they could not provide access for disabled people due to social distancing restrictions. I responded by asking how social distancing restrictions prevented them from placing the hand sanitizers at a height which would accommodate all, as opposed to just tall people. I never got a response. I was of course being the awkward disabled person, who had obviously burst their bubble. But I do not see why they cannot include the needs of disabled people, especially when the pandemic has supposedly impacted so many services financially.
When it comes down to it, people only consider the needs of non-disabled people, and, if disabled people speak up, we are seen as an inconvenience. Perhaps I should have reminded Costa Coffee that 1 in 5 consumers have a disability and that businesses lose approximately £2billion a month by ignoring the needs of disabled people. Given how much concern the Conservatives have given to the impact the pandemic is having upon the economy, you would think that they would consider the access needs of disabled people. Society needs to shift their thinking from disabled people as being a drain on society, to actual contributors.
Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Social Policy Blog, nor of the London School of Economics.