When spaces are made accessible for disabled people, everyone benefits

I have a confession: I seem to have fallen out of love with London, something I never thought would (or even could) happen. 

Having moved to the Big Smoke almost nine years ago to follow my dreams and live independently, I imagined spending the rest of my adult life here, but that vision doesn’t seem so clear nowadays. 

Don’t get me wrong, I still get a flutter in my belly when I drive past Big Ben, or have the honour of being invited to the Houses of Parliament (which totally looks like Hogwarts inside by the way) and I’m often astounded by how much London has to offer 24/7.

Nevertheless, as someone with an impairment and a full-time wheelchair, I often feel like the city excludes me through systemic ableism.

We, the disability community, experience physical barriers, policies and practices that hinder our day-to-day living, stop us from fully participating and gaining equal opportunities.

Returning to my home in London after three months shielding in rural Lancashire, I was aghast at how many more restrictions and barriers had been put in my way recently: road closures, pedestrian zones and building work all impact my ability to live independently and navigate the city safely and with ease. 

Just the other day, my power chair was dragged into the road because the autumn leaves had built up so extensively my wheels simply spun, and I couldn’t continue on my journey. I was on my own and it was terrifying. 

Not one to be deterred, I pledged to myself that I would go out and about a few days a week in my power chair to risk assess and map out routes I could take, as well as venues I could visit without difficulty. I quickly came to realise that a simple trip to my local shop and coffee bar saw me going around the houses, and many routes and establishments are simply not an option with my chair.

I felt utterly frustrated – after all, my £9,000 chair had been fundraised for me for me to live my life. Systemic ableism is entrenched in everything I do, from the hit-and-miss availability of accessible public transport (many underground stations aren’t step free or wheelchair spaces are taken up by luggage or pushchairs on busses or trains) or the fact that the only alternative travel options are expensive taxis or privately-owned accessible vehicles.

Buildings, changing rooms and bathrooms are inaccessible; shop counters are too high; there are too few easy-to-read menus; no alt text for the visually impaired or text messaging systems for the deaf and hearing impaired.

In the UK, we also have a benefit system that creates disincentives or even penalises individuals that actually want to work or gain some financial independence. Not only is it almost impossible for most to get on the property ladder, disabled people are not being offered accessible housing, which means we rely on family and friends and our independence is stunted.

Systemic ableism goes beyond having a lack of physical adaptations – it is also attributable to the ongoing failure to want to do anything to enact change. Some simply don’t see the benefit in creating a more equal society whilst others do not realise disabled people are being excluded. 

Luckily, there are organisations such as The Valuable 500 and Purple Goat Agency who are championing the disability community and fighting for an equal society, and they are doing so by adopting a ‘targeted universal’ approach.

Targeted universalism has outcomes at its core – how will changing this improve that for all? It encourages inclusive, universal policies, rather than the introduction of new rules and regulations, but also acknowledges those from marginalised backgrounds so that everyone can achieve their full potential, regardless of their race, gender, age or ability.

The great British high street offers some excellent examples of how it can work in practice. Wider changing rooms, for instance, are a universal part of the design of any clothing shop but by making them wider they not only meet the needs of non-disabled shoppers – including women with pushchairs and the elderly – they become accessible to disabled people. 

Ramps are the same. Non-disabled people can walk up ramps but suddenly, their inclusion means wheelchair users can get into the shop, too. Everyone wins.  

What better time to bring attention to the targeted universal approach than today, on Purple Tuesday. The aim of the day is to challenge organisations and their policies by improving awareness of the value and needs of the disabled consumer. 

By creating a more inclusive environment, you also open the door to the huge, untapped market of the disabled community and their ‘purple pound’, which is worth a staggering £274 billion and is estimated to be rising by 14% per year

Despite making up 22% of the UK population, people with disabilities are systematically ignored and underrepresented. 

Until we see the value of investing in a more inclusive society, I doubt much will change and our daily struggles will continue. As Caroline Casey, Founder of The Valuable 500, says: ‘In 2020, we find ourselves at a cross-roads when it comes to inclusion.

We should not be regressing, and we should not be content with where things are – we should all be fully pushing and fighting for full inclusion. There is no excuse not to build and change organisations and policies with an accessible mindset.’

For now, I’m going to give London a second chance and remember how hard I fought to be here.

They say people with disabilities are good at adapting to challenges and barriers but wouldn’t it be great if we were able to use our skill of resilience, creativity and innovation to help create a world where we can all thrive, not just survive.

Do you have a story you’d like to share? Get in touch by emailing [email protected]

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