A friend of mine and fellow wheelchair user often debates with me that disability is a purely social construct and that we are only rendered disabled by our environment. I see where they are coming from but I don’t quite agree; in my opinion, it is our bodies that render us disabled and our environment chooses to stick the knife in.
This very afternoon, I was offered a job interview over the phone only to find out that they are based on the second floor of a building with no lift. This isn’t the first time that I have missed out on a possible career opportunity due to lack of access, nor will it be the last. The interviewer was extremely apologetic but of course that is no consolation to me.
As a wheelchair user, I have become accustomed to always checking a building’s access prior to going there. Unlike most people, I do not have the luxury of just turning up to a shop, bar or hotel; well I do, but I would often be making wasted trips if I did. My family and friends have regularly had to alter plans on account of my aversion to steps and it’s not a great feeling. The worst part of this is that most of these buildings are legally obliged to be accessible and could easily implement disabled access if they wanted to or were compelled to.
Now for the boring legal stuff. The Disabled Discrimination Act states:
Where a physical feature (for example, one arising from the design or construction of a building or the approach or access to premises) makes it impossible or unreasonably difficult for disabled persons to make use of such a service, it is the duty of the provider of that service to take such steps as it is reasonable, in all the circumstances of the case, for him to have to take in order to—
(a) remove the feature;
(b) alter it so that it no longer has that effect;
(c) provide a reasonable means of avoiding the feature; or
(d) provide a reasonable alternative method of making the service in question available to disabled persons.
All good then, right? Unfortunately, as is often the case with our legal system, it is far more complicated than that.
You will notice that within the aforementioned extract the word ‘reasonable’ appears several times. This basically means that businesses are rightly not expected to bankrupt themselves in order to provide disabled access. This is also why listed buildings are pretty much exempt from this law – it isn’t financially and structurally feasible to make the required changes.
These loopholes are acceptable but one caveat to the law that I find problematic in this case is that the Disabled Discrimination Act is a civil law; it is up to individuals or organisations to bring cases to court, not the government.
While this is fine when it comes to workplace discrimination, it simply does not work regarding accessibility issues. Individuals will rarely bring access cases to court because the potential gains are not worth the legal costs; if a court ordered the employer who offered me an interview to make reasonable adjustments to their property, I wouldn’t benefit because the vacancy would have been filled months ago.
Implementation of access laws will only happen if the government push for it to happen. Surely small local task forces could be set up to spot check buildings and report back in the same way that large businesses evaluate their customer service performance with mystery shoppers? Progress has been made over the last decade but I feel that we’ve reached the point where companies won’t change unless they’re forced to.
Some of you may be thinking: ‘Does it really matter if the potential gains to the individual are not substantial?’ One way to look at it is I could just go elsewhere; if a bar is inaccessible then I should just go somewhere that is accessible.
For me, it comes down to maximising choice and freedom. Whether it be a possible career move, a night out or a holiday, I should have the same choice and freedom that an able-bodied person has. The bottom line is this – I could just go somewhere else but I really shouldn’t have to.