Access Not All Areas: Why are disabled access laws not being implemented?

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.

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Omitting your disability from job applications isn’t clever. It’s futile and dishonest.

‘I have cerebral palsy and use a wheelchair, although I can transfer easily and walk small distances when aided. ‘

The above quote is the reference to my disability within my CV. There are neither positive nor negative connotations attached to the statement but the information is there for employers to see. It has never crossed my mind to leave it off my CV and I assumed everybody else disclosed it too.

That was until a couple of weeks ago when I stumbled across a conversation where somebody had asked people’s opinions on the matter. I was shocked to find that the vast majority of comments advised the person to leave it off job applications; these views cannot be passed off as anomalies either as the sample size was considerable.

I am not going to quote individual comments but the general consensus seemed to be that omitting your disability from your CV or application increases your chance of getting an interview, and once you get an interview, employers are more likely to take you seriously as a candidate and look beyond your disability.

The first part may be true but cannot be proven; as someone who has been job-hunting without much luck for six months, you cannot tell why you have not been considered for the vacancy. It is just as likely that I haven’t got certain interviews because other candidates have greater experience. Furthermore, even if my disability had counted against me, employers would never admit to that so there’s no point worrying about it.

The part about employers taking you more seriously as a candidate at an interview is the belief that I really have a problem with. Firstly, if an employer is the sort of person that would discriminate against me because of my disability then it doesn’t matter what stage of the recruitment process I get to; I’m not getting the job. From a moral point of view also, would I want to work with someone with that attitude towards disability?

Secondly, if the employer doesn’t discriminate against disability and I turn up to the interview without disclosing my condition then their impression is unlikely to be great. Whether you label it as lying or being selective with the truth, it’s dishonest. It also may come across to the interviewer that I am not comfortable within my own skin and that is hardly an employable trait.

Apart from this tactic being futile and dishonest, I have a broader worry about the support for this strategy. I am speculating but it appears to me that some disabled people have a distorted view of the job market. Omitting your disability gives the impression that either you’re ashamed of your disability or that you think the majority of employers will see it in a negative light. I also worry that people will use their disability as an excuse for not getting the job when there are probably numerous other reasons as to why they were not selected.

The interesting thing is that even if employers do discriminate against us, we won’t realise it or be able to prove it from a generic rejection email; therefore there is no point hiding your disability or moaning about it. The attitude I have adopted and the advice I would give to others is to try and gain experience and develop new skills to the point where you are comfortably the best candidate for the job and your disability doesn’t even come up for discussion.

“Obesity is a disability.” Are you kidding me?

Earlier this month, the European Court of Justice ruled that obesity could be constituted as a disability in certain circumstances, especially if it hinders “full and effective participation” at work.

From a legal standpoint, I have no idea whether it is the correct ruling or not. Purely from a social point of view though, I find the comparison between obesity and my own disability insulting. A few of the opinions from some of my disabled peers have been surprisingly diplomatic; my stance is not.

The crux of the matter is this – Everyone has the ability to control their weight and rectify it. With regards to my own disability, while I am able to adapt and be as independent as possible, it is impossible for me to do everything an able-bodied person can do. I did not choose to have a disability and I cannot get rid of it.

I listened to a radio debate on the matter and it became apparent that all those who agreed with the ruling believed that some people are overweight despite a relatively healthy lifestyle. For me, this is a flimsy excuse.

I understand that due to certain conditions it is harder for some people to lose weight than others or, if you look at it the other way, easier to gain weight. However, losing weight is far from impossible for anyone; you just have to be more disciplined with your diet and exercise regime.  As a wheelchair user, it is quite easy to put on a few pounds in a short space of time which is why I make a conscious effort not to snack and I go to the gym on a regular basis.

Nobody chooses to be obese but it is within their power to lose weight so that is doesn’t hinder their day-to-day life. If it is stopping them from living the life they would like to lead then surely that is the biggest motivating factor for them to make changes to their lifestyle?

This is why I wouldn’t want obese people included under the Equal Opportunities banner. I am not saying that discrimination against obese people in the workplace is warranted at all; of course it is out of order. Nevertheless, if they were included, it would give them another reason to accept their unhealthy lifestyle.

We should be providing help and guidance so that they can improve their quality of life. We shouldn’t be accommodating these people as they are by providing wider seats and larger tables in offices.

Obesity is a rapidly growing problem in the UK which we should try to eradicate rather than accept. Disability is something that unfortunately cannot be eradicated and will always be part of our society. Unlike the European Court of Justice, I hope the government can make the distinction between the two.

 

Image courtesy of thinkprogress.org 

If I can laugh about it then so can you!

“You haven’t got a leg to stand on!”

“You shouldn’t run before you can walk.”

“Just roll with it.”

What do these idioms have in common? Well, they’ve all been followed by apologies when said to me. Why the apology though? It’s either because they believe they’ve offended me or they are embarrassed after I make an unbelievably witty comment about how ironic those sayings are when they refer to me.

It’s my humble opinion that the ability to take the mick out of oneself is one of the best traits to have. Disability is often seen as a taboo and hardly something to laugh at. I often find the best way to deal with difficult subjects is to make light of them as it illustrates you are comfortable talking about them and it should make those around you feel more comfortable. However, the outcome of my self-deprecating jokes is usually an awkward silence, particularly when in the company of someone who does not know me too well.

In short, there is a massive difference between using a common saying which cannot apply to me in the literal sense, and simply going “LOL, you can’t walk!”

SPOILER ALERT: I am not easily offended. Many of my disabled friends are extremely thick-skinned too and we certainly don’t take ourselves too seriously. For example, the two songs I would like played at my funeral are Ridin’ by Chamillionaire and Rollin’ by Limp Bizkit. I realise that these wishes will most likely not be honoured by my grieving family when the time comes but I just wanted to make my intentions clear.

There is a serious issue though with this not so serious attitude. If people are not able to feel comfortable when we are taking the mick out of our disability, then it is difficult for us to be open and honest about disability. Like I’ve said before, the only way to eradicate ignorance in our society as regards to disability is by talking about it. If my jokes lead to awkwardness and tumbleweed then it says to me that this topic is off limits.

A rare example in my life of when I immediately felt comfortable talking/joking about my disability is my three years as part of the University of Leicester Cricket Club. The reason why is because, from my very first social, they had no qualms about giving me banter/abuse. Most of it was crude and lacking any intelligence (the wittiest it got was nicknaming me Jamie Burden) but it didn’t allow any boundaries to form so when I did have an issue, I could approach the lads without worrying. I would have been more offended if I’d have been left out of all the banter.

I cannot speak for disabled people in general, but personally, I would rather people joke about it than sit in silence when the subject comes up for discussion. The key word here is malice: the only way I would be offended is if the comments directed towards me are intended to cause offence.

I think those who react awkwardly to my tongue in cheek comments sometimes think it’s because I’m insecure about my disability. They could not be further from the truth; I do it because people’s reactions generally amuse me and it’s the most effective way of breaking down barriers.

If I had been uptight about my disability and refused to talk about it, would I have gotten to know some of my best friends? Probably not.

So lighten up because, let’s be honest, nobody enjoys awkward silences.

11 Annoying Things You Should Not Say or Do to a Wheelchair User

I have always been quite open and honest about my disability and I love a good moan so I decided to compile a list of things that people have said or done which have got right under my skin. This is not a definitive list but all come from personal experience. If you’re guilty of any of these annoyances then I’m afraid the truth hurts:

  1.  “Does everything work?”

Yes, it does. Moving on…

  1. Use ‘wheelie’ instead of ‘really’ non-ironically.

Everyone loves a good pun. Unfortunately, this does not fall into that category. Many of my friends have used it because they know I hate it and it’s terribly cheesy. If you think it’s genuinely funny I feel bad for you.

  1. Talk to me as if I’m a toddler.

I honestly never thought I would utter this sentence – it’s not what you said, it’s how you said it. Some people seem to forget I am fairly well-educated and address me in a tone which would only be suitable to young children and dogs.

  1. Refer to me as a cripple/spastic unless given permission.

I don’t care whether you’re joking; if you aren’t my friend, these phrases are off limits. The disabled community has kind of taken ownership of these words to the point where we are the only ones allowed to use them, along with those who know us well.

  1. “You need to get some sick hydraulics/alloys/spinning rims/nitrous on your chair!”

This is not Pimp My Ride. I’m very content with the weight/colour/ ergonomics of my chair as it is. The same applies here as it did to No. 2 – you are not being original or funny so please stop.

  1. Talk to my friend instead of me/Answer on my behalf.

If I had a pound for every time this has happened I would be a very rich man. “What’s his name?” and “What’s wrong with him?” are questions that have been directed to my parents and friends on a regular basis even as recently as last year. Even though I hate it, I do relish it happening just for the look on their face when I pipe up. For this reason, I don’t need you to answer for me either.

  1. “That must be fun!”

Believe it or not, the novelty of sitting down all the time does wear off after a while. Don’t get me wrong, there are certain parts that are enjoyable but life isn’t all downhill slopes and popping wheelies.

  1. (Followed by) “Can I have a go?”

I often let people have a go simply being I enjoy seeing them struggle at something I can do quite well. However, this question is sometimes asked when I’m outside and on the move – yes, you can have a go as long as you don’t mind watching me crawl all the way home beside you.

  1. Use the disabled toilet.

Even though I enjoy giving the guilty party evils, I could be bursting so please don’t.

10. Pushing me after I’ve politely declined your offer of help a gazillion times!

There have been many occasions where I would have been up a creek without a paddle if it hadn’t been for the help of a kind stranger, e.g. fallen out my chair, almost going backwards due to the snow/rain/wind/lack of muscles. However, when I’m wheeling serenely along and I’ve appreciated but politely turned down your help, please do not think you know better and start pushing me – it’s kind of patronising.

11. PAT ME ON THE HEAD/RUFFLE MY HAIR!

If I could be bothered to rank them, this is the one that I find the most annoying. Again, there are friends that now do it because they are well aware of how much I dislike it. I know I’m small in stature but I cannot get my head around why people exhibit such condescending behaviour. I am not your pet!

I’m Not Inspirational, I Just Prefer Sitting Down

Words such as ‘inspirational’ and ‘legend’ are so overused in today’s society to the point that they have lost all meaning. I have been described using these words by friends as well as complete strangers, and I have never understood why, or known how to react. Don’t get me wrong, part of me appreciates it because I could be called a lot worse; however, the overwhelming feeling is confusion. This is because when you look at it without blinkers I’m living a very normal life; a life that a typical 21 year-old would lead.

How does being a wheelchair user make it any more inspirational?

Out of the two groups I mentioned, it is the complete strangers that are most prolific, and it happens most often in situations that are far from inspirational. It is no secret that while at university I enjoyed a night out or two. On a regular basis, as I pulled some terrible shapes and downed too many jagerbombs, I was approached by equally intoxicated people who proclaimed that I was a ‘legend’ or language of that ilk. At the time, they were my new mates for one night only, but when you reflect on it, you wonder why clubbing with your friends makes you deserved of legendary status.

An even weirder occurrence happened recently when I was in the gym and was suddenly accosted by a man who then lavished me with praise about the workout I was doing.  Yes, I like to exercise; yes, I like to work hard while I’m in the gym; but if I’m being honest, my workout is more mediocre than impressive. Think of it as a cheap rosé rather than classy champagne – it does the job but is short on quality. While I sheepishly thanked him for his compliment and courteously answered his questions about my wheelchair, I was failing to get my head round why the definition of ‘inspirational’ has been dumbed down so much for people with disabilities.

Climbing Everest or swimming the Channel is inspirational; winning a Paralympic gold medal is inspirational; raising millions for charity is inspirational. Going to university, socialising too much, and bench pressing an embarrassingly low weight should not be referred to as such.  Why is society lowering the benchmark for us? If we are capable of living a ‘normal’ life and achieving the same things as able-bodied people when why are expectations of disabled people sometimes so low?

I think part of it is because some are surprised to see disabled people in those aforementioned scenarios. I’m not sure why this is because I know many people who seem to have a thriving social life and a number of wheelchair users who go to the gym to work on their upper body strength in particular; I am by no means an anomaly. There are of course those who would not go to a club or the gym because they feel self-conscious or simply because they do no not want to. This isn’t abnormal either because certain able-bodied people feel the same way; it just comes down to personal choice.

I am not a fan of the phrase, ‘there’s no such thing as can’t’ because I know I have limitations, and while it’s good to be ambitious, there are certain things that are not possible for me to do. Yet these things do not include having fun with my friends or improving myself both physically and intellectually.

One way to perhaps raise expectations is by showcasing those disabled people who are truly inspirational and possess incredible talents. For example, extreme wheelchair athlete Aaron Fotheringham has developed a global reputation through his skateboarding/BMX skills and has pushed the boundaries of what society thought was possible (check out his YouTube videos if you haven’t seen him in action!). We have seen it through sport due to the Paralympics, but I’m struggling to think of famous or successful people with a disability in areas such as music or business; I’m sure they exist but haven’t received the public recognition they deserve. It is my opinion that until there are disabled people visibly near the top of most industries, certain members of society will continue to patronise us.

My worry is that if t65538_10200163566844566_1231853806_nhis carries on, disabled people will grow up thinking that going to university for example is out of the ordinary and might decide that it is beyond their capabilities. It should be a precursor to greater things; a stepping stone to becoming an inspiration; not the inspirational achievement itself.

So next time you see me in a club or in the gym, don’t tell me I’m a legend. View me as just another guy enjoying life and being the best I can be.