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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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30 Responses to Disability Etiquette, part 3 – Physical Access

  1. Suzan St Maur
    April 18, 2012 | 7:59 pm

    Wonderful advice as usual, Jane.

  2. Sarah Arrow
    April 18, 2012 | 8:04 pm

    Love how you remind us to include the dog, I would never have even thought about their requirements if a member of staff had one.

  3. Carol Hall
    April 18, 2012 | 8:13 pm

    Yep but you forgot the dog’s sausages at breakfast meetings! (I’m kidding it’s important not to feed, pet or talk to an assistance dog when he’s working – he may miss an important trigger from the handler)

    Great Jane but can I add the importance a chair placed wherever the public go and regular intervals in larger buildings. Again it can make the difference between an ambulatory customer being able to use your business and not.

    Keep up the good work Jane.

    • Jane
      April 18, 2012 | 8:17 pm

      Guilty as charged – but you do have a particularly gorgeous assistance dog!

      Great point about the chairs – thank you.

    • Rahul
      May 24, 2012 | 2:35 pm

      I am curious what the state of dileasbd facilities overall is over in the UK? A you may know, the US has the “Americans With Disabilities Act” which was passed by Congress many years ago. This caused a major shift in getting access for the dileasbd. Does the UK have anything similar on the books?Most buildings across the country are completely handicapped accessible, and toilets like the one you describe have all the proper specifications for wheelchair access. The only buildings that are exempt are much older ones, and even may of those have been able to make some sort of accommodation.

  4. Mary C. Weaver, CSCS
    April 18, 2012 | 9:33 pm

    I’m thinking that some company or consultant could do an excellent service by visiting worksites, examining them for accessibility, and offering specific advice on needed changes and how best to implement them. Is this something Evenbreak does, Jane? Seems like it would be so helpful to employers who want to do the right thing by their employers and customers.

    Great series!

    • Carol Hall
      April 18, 2012 | 9:42 pm

      There are 2 levels of this form of advice. Access audits, normally carried out by architects with commensurate charging potential and access reviews which could be carried out but anyone with sufficient knowledge, including maybe Evenbreak headed by someone with such fantastic range of experience and knowledge as Jane.

      • Jane
        April 18, 2012 | 9:51 pm

        There are many companies who do offer this service Mary – some better than others! Evenbreak itself doesn’t yet have the capacity to offer such a service formally, but we work in partnershiup with companies who do, and whose values we share.

        Most large companies should have a number of disabled employees and they will have a number of disabled customers – these are the people they should be talking to and consulting with (and, most importantly, listening to.

  5. Lynn Tulip
    April 19, 2012 | 7:04 am

    Great advice and guidance, thanks Jane. I think positioning suitable chairs in large spaces is a very useful tip. So many large organisations have welcoming reception areas with no practical seating for anyone with a physical disability. Who wants to be swallowed up by some comfy sofa that gives no support, is too low and an embarrassment to get out of?

  6. Jane
    April 19, 2012 | 7:40 am

    Thanks Lynn – as someone who is unable to sit I’d quite like them to provide somewhere to lie down too, but I’m guessing that’s a bit optimistic!

    Seriously, proper chairs are important for many people who can’t stand or walk for any length of time.

  7. Nicola Gaughan
    April 19, 2012 | 8:15 am

    I did a course many years ago about Heritage Interpretation and one part of the course looked at providing access for people with disabilities. One of the girls on the course had arranged a talk, set her equipment up, and the people with disabilities who had been invited to listen to and review our presentations made their way into the room. To her embarrassment we discovered that the wheelchair user who had been invited to come to her presentation couldn’t enter the room because the door opening was too narrow. It shows that you can do things with the best intentions and then forget the minute details and she had forgotten to measure the doorway. Such a simple thing, but it made such a difference.

    However it stuck in my mind as something to always be aware of if I’m organising another such event at any point.

    • Jane Hatton
      April 21, 2012 | 5:59 pm

      Thanks Nicola – yes, it can be the little details that make all the difference between someone feeling included or being completely excluded.

  8. Andrew Deacon
    April 19, 2012 | 9:17 am

    Back to dogs, I’ve been on crowded local trains and then spotted a dog’s nose peering out from under the seat !! The blind person has a seat but where does the dog go ?
    You haven’t mentioned emergency exits at all. The local Job Centre will see anybody on the ground floor for safety. I have a knee problem and it can’t be much fun for those following me down the fire escape !! But what if disabled are upstairs and lift breaks down ? As for evacuating the Virgin plane at Gatwick earlier in the week down chutes, there were a lot of minor injuries as a result.

    • Carol Hall
      April 19, 2012 | 10:28 am

      In theory all buildings with lift access have to have a ‘refuge’ and evac chair on each floor for disabled people. It would then be up to the fireman to decide whether the risk of evacuation damage outweighs the risk of remaining in the building if the fire is not in the area of the refuge any disabled people could be sat there for some time, in the dark and no knowing what was happening. Far from ideal.

  9. Carol Hall
    April 19, 2012 | 10:29 am

    Oh and my dog is expert and making space for himself and forcing the humans to go over or round him :)

  10. Andrew Deacon
    April 19, 2012 | 2:08 pm

    We had a major power cut a few months ago at night. Was up to 8 hours for some. Children had great fun texting friends to monitor progress, but at least mobile network was unaffected. At home we have a basic phone as well as cordless which requires mains. Meant we had a phone in this situation. Many office switchboards will not work without power – better ones may have battery backup.
    Then visited elderly friends next day who rely on a stair lift. I believe (correct me if wrong) that these have a few hours battery life so you shouldn’t get stranded mid floor. You then need to decide which floor you are best on e.g. toilet,phone,food. So you need to check the battery does work on a regular basis. Also remember to check on your vulnerable neighbours.

    • Jane
      April 19, 2012 | 4:41 pm

      Excellent points, thank you.

      Yes, emergency exits, what happens in the event of a power cut or a fire – all of these things need to be considered. They are usually fairly easily surmountable, and sadly many employers will use them as “excuses” not to employ disabled people at all.

  11. Andrew Deacon
    April 20, 2012 | 7:41 am

    What is most important thing to keep with you at all times, apart from your dog of course? I would say mobile phone – discuss !!
    My 11 year old showed me recently how my basic mobile can become a torch. Useful for looking around or attracting attention. Remember to keep it charged,plenty of credit and with you – its no use on your desk or kitchen table ! If you can’t get a signal there’s always games…..

  12. Linda Mattacks
    April 20, 2012 | 1:07 pm

    To be honest, Jane, this physical access issue is something I’m all too aware of – when I damage myself – broken pelvis resulting in 6 weeks skeletal traction followed by a further 6 weeks non-weight bearing then gradually getting back to walking, then walking without a limp is the most obvious example.

    Those first 6 weeks in hospital made me aware of what some people have to put up with as their norm as well as others, like me, going through temporary discomfort. The next 3 months or so were an eye opener on figuring out ways to achieve things that I’d normally take for granted.

    And yet, even 6 or 9 months on, following intensive effort and well on my way back to 100% mobility, right up to now, do I spare a thought for those with a permanent physical disability? Not often, I’m ashamed to say. :-(

    When confronted with a situation where I can help someone, of course I will, as would anybody. But I suspect I’m not alone in benefiting from a reminder every now and then…

    • Jane Hatton
      April 21, 2012 | 6:00 pm

      Thanks Linda – yes, it does require conscious effort when it doesn’t affect us personally, doesn’t it?

    • Mimi
      May 24, 2012 | 1:55 pm

      ok, well this one is kind of on the funny side, unless you are in a whelacheir of course. It does show how insensitive organizations can be. Whenever there’s a mismatch between perception and reality, it’s good for society to know and point it out, don’t you think?

  13. Elaine Sturgess
    April 20, 2012 | 1:42 pm

    Great points in general – and particularly about websites for me. There was a lot of coverage when the legislation was first introduced but I think reminders aabout how important it is are not frequent enough. It’s reminded me to be more conscious of it going forward.

  14. Jane Hatton
    April 21, 2012 | 6:03 pm

    Thanks Elaine – the website one is very important. And it needs to be genuinely accessible as opposed to having “gimmicks” which make it seem accessible to the non-disabled but are really no help to sight-impaired people, or people who are unable to use a mouse, for example.

    It took us a long time to get Evenbreak right, and is still something we will continually review and improve on.

  15. Leanne Knox
    April 21, 2012 | 9:34 pm

    I’m suprised you haven’t mentioned the one I know affects you often, Jane, of trying to find a restaurant or bar to accommodate people with different sitting/standing needs – not just wheelchair users but those who must stand or any other combinations.

    It’s not as straightforward as it looks!

  16. Lynda Royle
    April 23, 2012 | 10:55 am

    Hi, I am hoping someone can help me regarding a situation my friend found himself in at the weekend. After a trauma to his brain, he is physically disabled. He can weight bear and walks slowly for short distances and uses a wheelchair for long distances. At the weekend, he had been out for a meal with his friends and then they decided to go to a nightclub. My friend was in his wheelchair. He was refused entry into a nightclub because he had to walk up two steps to gain access to the main door (there was no wheelchair access). My friend explained he could walk up the two steps, unaided and his friends were willing to lift the wheelchair up the two stairs (without my friend in). The nightclub staff would not allow him to walk up the two steps and refused him entry. My friend was very embarrassed by the situation so he left. He went to a nightclub down the road who allowed him access through their fire door. Please can someone advise if my friend was discriminated against or was in a genuine health and safety concern? I am not sure what the legalities of the situation are with regarding to The Disability Discrimination Act, The Equality Act and The Health and Safety Act.
    Thank you for your help.
    Lynda

    • adamlotunwda
      April 24, 2012 | 10:17 pm

      This is a plain case of ignorance which has led to a case of Direct Discrimination and can be acted on. I would be happy to pass on the details of a Solicitors Firm that is well versed in dealing with Disability Discrimination Issues and they act on a no-win/no-fee basis where the claimant is completely guaranteed that no charges/costs are made against them.
      Adam.

  17. adamlotunwda
    April 24, 2012 | 10:02 pm

    As ever, General Society is usually over-helpful and all knowing when it comes to access. It is easy for them to resolve the issue of wheelchairs, all they have to do is ensure that they have a lift and that there is a ramp where needed and ‘Bob’s Your Uncle & Fanny’s Your Aunt’.

    The one thing is that most people think that wheelchair users are invisible, and I can assure you all that I am far from invisible in the Nimbus!

    The main problem, as I see things, is that everyone expects all wheelchairs to be powered chairs or scooter type vehicles, that have throttles and brakes and lights and horns and is basically all singing and all dancing, however there are a great many of us that use manual wheelchairs, and we do not all have the superhuman abilities and reflexes that everyone expects us to have…many’s a time that I have either run over someone in my wheelchair or been knocked out of the wheelchair by people rushing out of shops or swinging heavy bags about.

    Stores and business seem to forget that life from a wheelchair perspective is far from that simple to resolve, aisles being blocked by bargain buckets and boxes left for shelf filling etc. Widths of aisles is another bug-bear, they are never wide enough to get by trolleys and other customers.

    Then there are the shelves that are too high to reach or too deep to reach into from a wheelchair, with displays being inaccessible also.

    I have been to many a store where the doors are not wide enough for wheelchairs, admittedly I have a large size chair (OK, enough of the jokes)…but the fact is that wheelchairs come in different sizes and different weights.

    Gaining access to Public Transport is another trial of life for us manual wheelchair users, it is great that buses have ramps, but they are often not working and there is also the issue with them breaking down whilst you are on the bus! Once you have managed to haul yourself up the ramp and onto the bus, you then have 3 nano-seconds to get yourself into the correct position in the wheelchair space, that is if no-one has parked a buggy or suitcase or shopping in it, and to get into the correct position one must turn around and reverse into the space negotiating the narrow gaps between the seats, legs and rails that are in play! But I must say that getting off is the easiest bit of the journey, if you have survived being flung around the place and broken your kneecaps on barriers and/or damaged your chair through the rally race driving that you are subjected to.

    Getting on and off trains is even more fun, you have to decide if the staff member is knowledgeable about the use of the portable ramp and if they have retained that bit of training about boarding passengers in wheelchairs. You have to ensure that you know what the procedure is, even though these procedures are secret to the train operating company and also that there are no guidance notes on any websites as to what is supposed to happen! As a general guide, manual wheelchair users should be assisted onto the train carriage and placed into the correct position and ensure that the brakes have been applied, for powered chairs, they are to make their own way onto the train carriage but they must be maneuvered into the correct position and brakes applied, all of which should be checked by the platform staff and also the train guard – yeah as if!

    I have loved my adventures on the London Underground Network to date. My first experience was one for the scrapbook – I checked the process and booked assistance the day before travelling, on arrival to the station it was confirmed that I had booked assistance and that this had been logged in the day-book. I was assisted onto the train carriage and my destination confirmed and then I was left lone to await my journey to begin – pretty good so far and I was well impressed – only to then feel myself being propelled off the train by a number of staff and then dumped onto the platform and told that wheelchair users were not allowed to use the London Underground Network, as there no assistance could be provided by London Underground Staff due to Health & Safety reasons, and if I was unable to board or egress from a carriage then I could not use the service!

    I have had no issues with Trams to date and I envy those who have Tram Services widely available to them.

    As for Taxi Services, the only safe Taxi to use is a Traditional Black Cab as they are all supposed to be accessible. My last experience of a Mini Cab, after confirming that a WAV (Wheelchair Accessible Vehicle) was required, I was stunned to find a VW Golf Coupe arrive and the driver saying that of course he could get me and my wheelchair into his car, and that he would lift me and the wheelchair if necessary…safe to say he left without me. But not all Black Cab Drivers are helpful, many’s a time that I have been told that the ramp is broken, but the best one is hailing a Cab and then watch it sail right past you, maybe we are too low to the ground for them to see us!

    I noted that there was an earlier post that mentioned that it would be good if there was a business that could check accessibility for shops, venues, workplaces etc…well there are a number of such businesses and I myself run such a business as a Disability Risk Management & Reasonable Adjustments Consultant, however businesses will ignore access issue and see that it is cheaper for them to pay off any complaints that MAY arise rather than fork out for such advice & guidance. Many of you will see, in the near future, just what happens to a major retailer has to do to settle a claim made against them for failing to provide goods & services for Blue Badge Holders…and let’s just not go there about Disabled Parking Bay Abuse!

    Anyway, that is my experience from life in the Nimbus and I am happy to answer any questions.

    Hope you enjoyed the read and maybe enjoyed the videos too.

    Be Well, Be Happy, Be Lucky

    Adam…

    • Jane
      April 24, 2012 | 10:11 pm

      Thank you for such a brief and concise response Adam! No, seriously, I’m grateful for the time you spent putting all of that together.

      It’s true – the solutions seem easy (ramps and lifts) but the reality is very different.

    • Hazim
      May 25, 2012 | 3:35 am

      Congratulations on your realization of abtliiy I consider myself handicapable so I completely relate. enjoy this journey including the messes because the messes add the color to the challenges of living our lives and they can be fun.

  18. Jane
    April 24, 2012 | 10:07 pm

    I’m not a legal expert, but that sounds like discrimination to me, Lynda. He could clearly have vacated the building in the event of a fire. Sounds dodgy to me, and well worth pursuing with the night club owners. I’m sorry your friend was treated so badly, and even sorrier that it’s not an uncommon story.

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