Okay, hold your fire. Hear me out.
I am not disputing that the DDA (1995; 2005) and Equality Act (2010) have brought us a long way in terms of improved access for people with disabilities. Lifts and ramps, dropped kerbs, spacious toilet cubicles, autism friendly screenings and all sorts of other things have made a lot of people’s lives a hell of a lot easier. Great. But is it an ideological revolution? Or, is it just papering over the cracks in a broken society and infrastructure? If we consider schools to be a microcosm of society (which I don’t, for the record) we could say that these ‘reasonable adjustments’ are the societal level equivalent of education’s integration/internal segregation paradigm. Can true equality really be achieved as an afterthought? A side entrance? A picture of a wheelchair painted on the floor?
Maybe now would be a good time to demonstrate that I do realise how far we’ve progressed with this. The historical deficit (or, medical) model of understanding disability focused on what a person had wrong with them, could it be fixed and, if not, where could they be stored. A people/broken people dichotomy. Since the 1970’s, though, we have increasingly understood disability according to a social ideology. Not ‘disabled people’ but people who are dis-abled by certain situations. The deficits, in this model, lie within society and not individual people. The legislation for ensuring that these deficits are rectified to facilitate access for people with disabilities has resulted in a giant leap forward towards a society that is fit for purpose for its entire people. Welcome to the evolution. But is it enough?
When it comes to implementation of the social ideology, I have observed a number of approaches:
1. The Seemingly Oblivious, aka ‘the opt out’
Didn’t get the memo… or didn’t feel that the reasonable adjustments were necessary (or that the necessary adjustments were reasonable?)
I was once at a theme park with a group of children and teens with more complex individual needs. We politely enquired as to the whereabouts of the disabled access for their super big rollercoaster; it had a lot of steps up to it. We were informed that disabled riders could access the ride via the exit but, alas, this was also a flight of stairs. We enquired again and were authoritatively informed that ‘wheelchair people didn’t want to ride the rollercoaster’. Damn those mysterious ‘wheelchair people’!!!
2. The Law Abiding Citizen, aka ‘the facepalm’
Just blindly meeting their statutory duties.
3. The Well Intentioned, aka ‘the cringe’
Their heart’s in the right place… I think?
I like to frequent a certain large, northern arena for the purpose of enjoying live music. And said establishment is rather tall and, very sensibly, has a lift. You can only imagine my dismay when I rounded the corner and saw the words ‘disabled lift’ emblazoned across the front of it. Why would they disable the lift?! Now not everyone will be able to get to the… oh, hang on. I see. It isn’t the lift that’s disabled. I suppose this is more practical but, really, no less ambiguous. Is this a lift for all people with disabilities? Do people with cognitive and learning disabilities have to go in the lift? I’m being pedantic, but joking aside, is being old a disability? What about having small children with you? Just to be clear, I’m not objecting to the lift… or ramps, accessible toilets, alternative format leaflets… I’m objecting to our habit of writing the word ‘disabled’ on things or, more commonly, putting a picture silhouette of a person in a wheelchair on it. Consider this:
• Not all people with a disability use a wheelchair.
• Not all people with a disability require those facilities.
• Not all people who would benefit from those facilities are perceived to be disabled. They may just be being dis-abled by that specific situation. For example, the elderly; someone who has broken their leg; someone pushing a pram.
• Not all people who do have a disability and do require that facility need for it to be labelled. I can’t imagine that removing the picture of the wheelchair would result in thousands of step/ramp combos at the entrance of shops being blocked by multiple people in wheelchairs confused as to which option is for them.
4. The Over Achiever, aka ‘the segregator’
Don’t you just hate it when you’re so good at something that you become terrible at it?
I like to frequent a certain medium sized, northern venue for the purpose of enjoying live music and was recently there with a friend of mine who uses a wheelchair. Having given up on trying to explain to the door staff that I was not ‘the carer’, we were escorted in a lift to the disabled viewing platform, high on a balcony and – for reasons unknown – behind a Perspex screen. We even had our own show-sec security guy. It was quite the party atmosphere.
5. No sarcastic name for this one, I’d just like to talk about Nell Bank; a children’s outdoor activity centre in Ilkley, West Yorkshire. Before I begin, it is crucial that you know in advance that I was facilitating (aka, pushing) a child who uses a wheelchair throughout this story…
We arrived, bright and early, and made our way up to the centre. We did some pond dipping and a nature trail. We had lunch and used the toilets. We had a water fight and we played on an adventure playground. And it was then, atop a big climbing frame fort thingy, that I realised… no side entrances, wheelchair ramps or wheelchair friendly routes. No ‘access’ or special provision at all, really. A facility fit for purpose for children. All children. And yes, we were at the top of a climbing frame.
Is this model achievable society-wide? A society and infrastructure fit for purpose for all of its inhabitants? Let’s consider how it would apply to the ubiquitous disabled parking space; an archetypal example of the ‘over achiever’. Instead of the current format – a separate section of car park, highly labelled, limited to just a small number of people with disabilities (blue badge holders) and unavailable to a whole range of other people who have a disability or are otherwise dis-abled by the vast, hazardous supermarket car park – how about we just show a bit of consideration and common sense? No labelled parking spaces, park as close to the door as you need to. Don’t park at the dropped kerb if you can go up the step. Don’t judge people parked by the door because they don’t fit into your personal conception of what ‘needing to park by the door’ looks like; you don’t know what they’re dealing with. This would rely on a society that lives by the common values of trust and fairness, and this is why this post is here on a blog that is supposed to be about educational inclusivity; the revolution will start in schools. Not because they’re a microcosm of society – like I said, I don’t think they are – but because this is where the ingredients of tomorrow’s society are mixed. If we can create a truly inclusive education system, a truly egalitarian society should follow. If we can create schools that are fit for purpose for all students (and staff, and visitors!), what will society look like tomorrow? The systems and structures should be for everyone. Anyone can have an individual need at some time or another, either short or long term, and those needs should be met as an intrinsic part of those structures and systems; not an afterthought, add-on, annexe, token gesture or, as can so often be the case, not at all. A society fit for purpose for all of its people.
So, I will say it again; the revolution will not have disabled access.
It won’t need it.
¡viva la revolución!