A couple of years ago, I went to Barcelona. As a wheelchair user who travels a lot, I am depressingly used to things being pretty hard work. In many countries access is patchy at best (most wheelchair users therefore end up going back to the same places again and again).
But Barcelona was a breath of fresh air. Despite being a mediaeval European city, it has overcome many of the considerable access problems it had: curb cuts abound and many places on the ground floor are spacious enough to get around. Even many of the city’s metro stations are accessible, with lifts and special boarding spots for wheelchair users.
It helps that the weather is pretty good because so many bars and restaurants have outside tables. Attitudes towards wheelchair users are also refreshing (I think it may have something to do with all those disabled people generated years ago by the Spanish Civil War. People seem to be accustomed to having large numbers of people with mobility problems in society).
Overcoming a lot of the access problems must be down to the Olympics. From what I can see, Sydney is similarly good on access. Let’s hope for long-term improvements in London.
What was so striking about being in Barcelona was the sheer number of wheelchair users. It’s a fair bet that this was because word has got around amongst the wheelchair-using community.
So, this is a valuable group. Not only do wheelchair users go back again and again, but they also tell all their friends in wheelchairs about their good experiences.
Added to this, they are a particularly valuable group because for every wheelchair-using tourist there will also be a partner or companion. Also, some will have families.
Attracting this segment of our society makes business sense and business people need to be made more aware of this.
Back in the early 90s, my advertising agency made a film for a disability charity (that sadly never saw the light of day).
I just unearthed it.
It demonstrates wonderfully the creativity that so many disabled people are capable of, because their situations force them to look at the activities of daily living in different ways.
Also, the film is put together in such a way that it gives you the viewer the time to really get to know the main character and the challenges she faces, as she finds ways around them.
At a medal ceremony at the main Olympic stadium in London during the Paralympics, the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, was roundly booed by many of the 80,000 crowd.
A British social commentator later said that maybe this was a “black power” moment for disability?
He was alluding to a similarly significant and visible medal ceremony at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. There, the gold and silver medalists raised their clenched fists aloft during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner.
Many friends in London are saying that something may have changed in the national psyche in attitudes towards disabled people.
Such is the global nature of much of our culture that maybe this is a real move towards inclusion of disabled people across the globe?
I like to hope that we are witnessing a change in the Western world’s psyche. However, in truth only time will tell.
A utopian world, in enhanced Technicolor, was wrapped around London for a few weeks to create an alternative reality in which disabled people enjoyed the best of experiences.
Some of London’s worst access problems were overcome by the contribution of an army of Olympic volunteers who did helpful things like lay out temporary ramps for wheelchair users or ask disabled visitors what other assistance they might need.
As someone who lived in London for 12 years as a wheelchair user, I know for sure that this help must have been a total breath of fresh air.
But leaving aside the veneer of temporarily better access, what I’m looking forward to seeing is whether a positive and inclusive attitude endures beyond the Games and whether the “black power” moment really is that, and whether it brings about a global change.
Two years ago I went to a wedding party in the UK, held at a friend’s bar in a basement. As I went down in the lift to join the crowd below, he moaned “I spent £25,000 putting this lift in 12 months back and you’re the first person to use it.”
Under-use of dedicated & expensive facilities for the disabled is probably quite common – as is his view. Both need some context to understand:
Firstly, the main reason I was the first to use his lift, is born out of a history of inaccessibility. Wheelchair users historically have been so poorly catered for, when it comes to access, that they actually expect places like basement bars not to have lifts. So they don’t venture out to these places.
Secondly, my bar-owning friend has never had the business case for creating a more accessible bar made to him. He has always assumed that making his bar accessible to those with mobility problems would just cost him money.
He has never been told that the value of the disabled dollar is substantial. If this point had been made to him more convincingly, he might have been more than comfortable spending that sum on a lift if it would help him attract more business.
I relate this tale because it helps to illustrate that understanding the business case is key to convincing providers of goods and services to spend more on accessibility.
Levels of access across London will be tested during the Paralympics over the next few days. Access is not good. Citing the age and size of its infrastructure as reasons for inaccessibility is less than half the story.
The other more important reason is that the value of the disabled wallet has never been fully made clear.
We moved to Australia from the UK partly because it is a lot easier to get around here outside the home. Buildings are newer, there’s more space, and generally people seem a bit more willing to help.
Of course, this is a skewed view, because I come from London – where everything is old, there’s no space, and most people are in a hurry, absorbed in their own worlds with less time to help out.
But, whilst it is skewed, I like to think it’s a fairly accurate view and certainly very relevant, given the Paralympic Games beginning at the end of August.
Access to the stadia won’t be a problem. If the new Wembley is anything to go by, these spaces will be second to none (even though it is already stipulated by law, wheelchair users in particular tend to be treated far better than their ambulant counterparts at new venues).
Anyway, the stadia aren’t the real issue. Most of the people in wheelchairs will be athletes and not the spectators!
The real problem is going to be the infrastructure & access to goods and services. I’ll talk about access to goods and services in a later blog. First though, infrastructure:
I presume that most of the athletes will want to sample what London has to offer at some point during their stay. When these wheelchair users travel and shop around the city is when London will be put to the test.
The crumbling infrastructure is a genuine issue. In a wheelchair, London is very difficult to get around. The tube is off limits (around 15% stations are fully accessible) and the traffic means that London is usually clogged up and inaccessible for anyone who relies on a car or bus to get around. And then there are the well-known parking problems.
But perhaps London will get a reprieve. Most of these athletes will be tourists in a foreign city, and therefore expecting to pay for taxis. Arguably, the main redeeming feature about visiting London in a wheelchair is that most of the taxis are accessible, making the city relatively easy to get around.
London might “get away with it”. The lack of a decent infrastructure might go unnoticed for the most part by wheelchair-using visitors, who have very different requirements from wheelchair-using residents.