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Disability Etiquette, part 3 – Physical Access

A person in a wheelchair and another with a walking stick looking in dismay at a polling booth with steep steps, no handrail and two planks of wood leaning against it, while on official says "That's the trouble with you people - even when we give you what you ask for it's still not good enough"
Thanks to “Crippen” – www.crippencartoons.co.uk.

This is the third of a series on Disability Etiquette. Part one, the basics is here and part two, terminology is here.

One of the biggest barriers for disabled people being able to live as full a life as other people is issues around access. This might mean physical access, access to information, access to jobs/training/promotion, access to social events and so on. We’ll look at physical access issues in this blog and then look at attitudinal issues in the next part.

There are many areas of life that non-disabled people take for granted. They can go to the cinema, shops, restaurants, the polling station, on holiday, a night club, their place of work without ever wondering if they will even be able to enter the building at all, let alone move around safely once in there. And then there is the whole issue of transport – getting to the destination in the first place. As the built environment was largely designed by non-disabled people, historically buildings and modes of transport just weren’t geared up for people with mobility problems, sight problems, hearing problems, etc. New buildings should have accessibility built in at the design stage, but many older buildings have had to be adapted since – some better than others!

When we talk about physical access often the first things that come to mind are ramps, lifts and lowered reception desks. And those are important – without them people who use wheelchairs are denied access. But it’s worth remembering that only 8% of disabled people use wheelchairs, and that legally you need to be thinking about access issues for all disabled people. So, for example, think about the decoration. Would it be obvious to some who is visually impaired where the doors are? Contrasting paintwork can easily solve that. Or where the stairs are? A bright yellow stripe at the end of each one can make them easier to navigate. Are signs easy to find and read? Are they in appropriate places? I once saw a sign that said “Mind your head” in Braille above a low ceiling – I’m not sure how they thought a person who couldn’t read the sign would know that was there until it was too late!

Do you have hearing loops fitted, with a display saying so? And it might seem a silly question, but are they switched on and working? When were they last tested? I know of an office which thought it had a hearing loop, but no-one had switched it on in years, assuming someone else had.

When it comes to customers you will need to be thinking about a wide range of disabilities and how you can accommodate them. For example, information – does it come in a variety of formats? Is it written in plain language which is easy for most people to understand? Does it use appropriate illustrations? Do people know where to find things, including someone to ask for assistance? Is there accessible parking close by? I went to a local supermarket recently and all the spaces nearest the entrance were for parents and toddlers. The accessible spaces for blue badge holders were much further away from the door – so much so I had to turn round and come home again – it was too far for me to walk.

For staff you will have the benefit of being able to consult with each disabled employee about what they require in order to function effectively, and often these adjustments, if required (most disabled people don’t need money spending on adjustments) will be paid for by Access to Work. A future blog will look at reasonable adjustments. Remember it’s not just about the employee’s immediate workspace – think about access to toilets, printers, meeting rooms and other places the employer will need to reach. If an employee has visually impairment it’s important not to keep moving furniture around or leaving things lying around – or at least making sure they know when you do. You might need to accommodate a guide or assistance dog, which will need acccess to water and outside space from time to time.

Of course, access issues are comprehensively covered  by the Equality Act 2010 (which builds on the former Disability Discrimination Act), but even without legislative compulsion it makes sense to ensure your physical work environment is accessible. Don’t forget that the 11 million disabled people in the UK spend between £50 and £80 billion between them, and they all have family and friends. All of whom are consumers and propsective customers. And that by having an inaccessible workplace you may be excluding the best person for the job as well as breaking the law.

I’ve only scraped the surface, but I hope this blog has stimulated some thought about your company and its accessibility. Just a quick mention for website accessibility – it is estimated that 75% of company websites don’t meet minimum standards regarding accessibility. And when you realise that over 80% of young people use the internet to access goods and services, that’s a big market to exclude.

I’d love to hear of any innovative solutions to access challenges that you have seen or implemented. Please add them to the comments section below.

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