I am a disabled person. Those who have read my tweets or previous blogs may have got that already. Until recently I did not really see it as a big issue, but now I realise that as I get older and age does to me what it does to everyone I have been fortunate indeed. Getting around has always been a challenge but when I was younger, fitter with faster reactions I could take bigger risks and tackle obstacles that are now just beyond safe limits. It hurts more as well when I finally land on those blasted marble floors beloved by shopping malls…
I have been just on the cusp between high independence and high dependence. My experience of independence has I think (or hope) given me insights and experience that will enable me to maintain my independence, I was able bodied enough to get through University, which back in the day was not as accessible as they are today. Not that they are that accessible as it turns out.
This week I travel to Stirling University from Somerset to participate in the AUDE 2015 conference as a speaker. The conference is for University facility managers, those rather unsung heroes of any big organisation who never get a mention but who nevertheless actually provide and maintain the facilities upon which we all rely. They are, I think, worthy of some sympathy.
My original plan was to fly. Not particularly sustainable I would agree, but airports are always staffed with well trained people and equipped to assist disabled people with the temerity to leave their own homes and as such provide security in at least one critical area of a journey. However, any such journey is a complex process – drive to airport, park car, get bus to terminal, find assistance, transit terminal with assistance, fly, transit terminal with assistance, find accessible taxi and hope the hotel is accessible. I have turned up at supposedly accessible hotels in London only to find that they were not, but that is another story…
In planning my journey to the conference I was assisted by a very kind lady from the university who had clearly thought about what I might face when I got to the university campus – and as it turns out just as well. Why? Well the conference venue uses a building and a tent, well a marquee. The trouble is the route to the tent, sorry marquee, involves outside steps, which I may or may not be able to manage. The alternative is a long walk or short car drive. Now if I fly I do not have my car, and because I need hand controls a hire car is not straightforward. So what was already a complex journey, suddenly gets very, very complex.
So what? you might think. We all make complex journeys, get a life… Not unreasonable in some respects, but here’s the thing – risk. If something goes wrong for an able bodied person they can walk out of a situation. I can’t. I’m stuck. At any point in the journey if things go wrong I could find myself in a very vulnerable situation very quickly and if that situation is not an emergency I could be hundreds of miles anyway from my support networks. Stuck. It is this risk profile that makes life so very challenging for many disabled people. In this age of austerity, help may only come when it is an emergency! So if I get stuck, unable to walk out of a situation I really am stuck. Support networks are life lines and when they are not there or breakdown, tragedy is only a short time away… Now in this case the most likely risks were that I would fail to get to the venue in time for my slot in the time table, which – while not life threatening- would make the whole process a complete waste of time!!
So oddly being reasonably aware of the risks I was rapidly starting to question the value of traveling from one end of the country to another for a twenty minute speaker slot! The thing is this audience has a huge potential impact on many people’s lives. Remember they provide the buildings and facilities for learning and education is the gate way to equal participation in society, because with it there is a chance to get meaningful work, to contribute new ideas and to influence the future, hopefully in a positive way. Education has a formative role in society.
So for the sake of that brief and rare opportunity to say it as it is, from my perspective, I decided to drive my own car from Somerset to Stirling. Ten hours, at least, behind the wheel is not for the faint hearted, but at least I have a reliable risk mitigation strategy, I’m in the RAC (other roadside rescue organisations are available…).
So because of a few simple steps in the wrong place I was very nearly denied the opportunity to participate in a valuable and important conference. This is not the only time I have faced a hostile built environment. A few years ago I was made redundant and needed a new job. I wrote out my CV and hunted through the situations vacant. I saw a company that specialised in a very close area to my own skill set and it was barely a mile away! So I excitedly brushed up my CV and wrote a covering letter, donned my best suit and went round to deliver my CV by hand. Imagine, therefore, my disappointment and irritation when I found that the office was an old house and completely inaccessible. I ended up getting to the front door on all fours!! Just as well that I realised long ago that what passes for dignity in this world and myself were likely to be strangers. In the end I didn’t get the job either!
The point is that for disabled people to contribute we need to be allowed to participate. In this age of austerity, benefit sanctions, bedroom tax etc. this world is a very hostile one for disabled people. Steps make a stark metaphor for our attitudes to many vulnerable groups in our society. They basically say “no cripples here”! That kind of attitude that is illegal when applied to many other minority groups today and quite rightly so! Next time you walk down the high street look at all of the buildings. If they have steps in front the chances are they are not accessible. Which means disabled people cannot work there, as if finding a job or getting an education isn’t hard enough. A point to remember while you look, if it is an old building it may be listed and those steps cannot be changed by law or at the very least by regulation! It is, if you are disabled, discrimination enshrined in law! No wonder then that disabled people are hidden from view and among the poorest in society, the sword of the law is ranged against them. Yes I know, businesses are supposed to have portable ramps, or alternative access routes, but you have to be able to get in to ask for help first – DOH!
In a way I am lucky! My disability is visible. For those with hidden disabilities or heaven forbid, mental illness, it is even tougher and crueller. The question is how can a society even be, if it excludes and discriminates against vulnerable individuals? To me to even be a society requires inclusion, anything less means choosing to exclude others and that is hardly a social, act is it?
So if we are going to be a sustainable society in the future, perhaps we should start by becoming a real society first and that means genuine inclusion. As I say in my presentation to the university Facilities Managers, I wonder how Prof Steven Hawking would have fared if his disability had struck before he had got to Cambridge? How much harder would his journey have been?