If you are a person living with disability then you will already know that going out is not a straightforward procedure. We can’t just get changed and head out to wherever we or our friends may want to go. Any outing requires careful planning and organising, from arranging the carer’s arrival time to ensuring transport is available and in some cases even going to the toilet at a certain time so that you won’t need to use public toilets (which most probably won’t be suitable for your specific needs). Apart from all the above, the most important factor that every disabled person must think about before setting your wheels/crutches outside the door is disabled access, otherwise there is no point in going as you might not be able to even enter the venue.
Another difficult aspect of disabled access is not just that the venue may not be disabled-friendly but the fact that they don’t answer their phone, so you can’t enquire about the building’s accessibility. Therefore you are left with two options: take the risk and go to the actual venue which may not be accessible and ultimately spoil your and your friends’ outing, or you take the easy way out and decline the invitation to go out, saving awkwardness all round.
You as a reader might wonder why not just check the venue’s website – after all, in the world of technology everything is available online. Sadly everything is available except information about disabled access. This dilemma poses a few questions to think about and consider – why do places not share information about their accessibility online? Why have a phone and not answer it, as this is a necessary mode of business operation? And as a disabled person, would you risk wasting time and resources by visiting a place without prior knowledge of its facilities?
If luck is on your side and your phone call is answered by the venue you want to visit then you are in line for another challenge – making the person at the other end of the phone understand and fully comprehend what wheelchair access entails. For some peculiar reason, every time I have tried to ask “Is your venue wheelchair friendly?” I am met with silence, followed by something like, ”Sorry, I don’t understand.” So I repeat my question with an explanation what wheelchair access means, but then I receive a confident ”Yes, Yes, Yes,” which automatically sends alarm bells ringing in my head, as I know too well that an outing just can’t be that smooth. Therefore I further ask ”You don’t have any stairs or high steps?” and that is when I hear the classic line ”No, no it is just three steps, but our waiters can lift you or you can leave the wheelchair outside.” Why is it so hard to grasp that people with disability do not have the luxury of opting to leave our wheelchair and just stand up? And at the same instant, I don’t want to be carried in full view of other customers – it is a degrading and uncomfortable experience!
There have been many occasions when I was reassured that the venue is accessible only to arrive and find a huge kerb, or a flight of stairs or even tables being so high that I can’t reach them. In fact only recently, my friend planned a surprise birthday dinner for me, not counting on the big surprise that awaited us both. First of all, we had to go through the back entrance and cloak room. Being a wheelchair user, I am used to such things but it is almost an indication that people with disability are not fully welcome. Once we got to the table, we realised that it was in fact so high that it went above my head! When my friend complained to the manager and stressed that she had called four times prior to the booking to ensure the restaurant is fully accessible and they still failed to inform her about the tables being too high, to make matters worse, the manager did not show any remorse or even willingness to try and offer a solution. We had no option but to leave.
I am not the first, and I highly doubt I shall be the last, who will have endured such an experience. Only a few weeks ago, I read about a person with Cerebral Palsy who was told by a café owner to not come during the weekend as it is too busy and she should come during the weekdays accompanied by an “able bodied adult”, as though the disabled adult is a child that has to be supervised! Another incident that I also came across was of a disabled person who uses a ventilator machine to assist with breathing due to muscle weakness, and was ordered to depart from a cinema halfway through a film because people at the cinema were irritated by the sound that the ventilator made. They had complained to the manager who clearly took their side.
There is this current trend that seems to be sweeping society which is paternalistic behaviour veiled as wanting to provide ‘concern and safety’ for people with disability, as well as others. People with disability are being segregated or at least deprived of what every other individual enjoys. Independence is not encouraged as when people see a disabled person alone, they are quick to demand, ”Should you be alone?” as though that person is waiting for a stranger to shed light on what should be done about them. My friend was out shopping when a sales assistant advised her that she should come with someone as they were too busy to help her. I wonder if the person in question was not disabled and had asked for help, would the sales assistant have given the same reply? Clearly the excuse that people use to disguise their prejudice and discriminatory attitude is the usual line of “It is for your own benefit and safety,” yet this can be done and achieved via a much simpler way – access and acceptance.
I have come to the realisation that the world is tolerant but not accepting; yes, disabled people are welcomed and helped but not fully accepted for who we are. As all the mentioned examples have demonstrated, it is not just buildings that needs to be changed and adapted but society’s attitude towards the disabled. Once these two main barriers are removed, only then can people with disability be seen regularly socialising and participating in the community. Until that day arrives, it is our responsibility as disabled people to keep on fighting and challenging these obstacles; keep going out, ask for access, demand changes and complain about any discriminatory act and always be seen out and about. Only then will people begin to recognise that we, the disabled, are part of society and have equal rights and should be respected just as they wish the same for themselves.
Raya Al-Jadir is an English degree graduate from Queen Mary, University of London, where she also read Renaissance Studies for her Masters Degree and is currently researching for a PhD thesis. Raya is a freelance translator, writer and proofreader, who has also taught English to refugees and migrants. She blogs and campaigns for disability rights issues, especially among Arabs and Muslims, and has her own site ‘Careless’ – http://www.accessless.com/
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