© Mik Scarlet 2014 - Image designed by Site By Diane
I am currently stuck in bed ill, unable to work and becoming more and more frantic with boredom as I wait to be well enough to go outside. In fact I have been so bored that I have started uploading to Twitter a series of photos of me ill in bed, which I am calling my Sick Boy Selfie series (see above). Why am I in this predicament? Well it's been an on going problem that started after I picked up an injury while rehearsing for the opening ceremonies of the Paralympic Games in 2012. For three months during the summer of 2012 thousands of performers and volunteers descended on a rehearsal studio complex in East London with the goal of putting on one of the greatest shows the world had ever seen and I was honoured to be one of those performers. However, the complex itself was not exactly wheelchair friendly. Mostly because almost the entire outside space was cobbled, which made getting around very difficult for anyone with mobility issues. I have no idea who thought that this venue was suitable for so many disabled people who where expected to perform at their highest ability, and even though many of us raised the issue of safety very little was done to improve the situation. There were other issues, such as a small number of accessible toilets that also had ramps so poorly designed that one person in a wheelchair fell backwards while exiting and spilt their head open. When any of us complained we were told "this is the opportunity of a life time" as if that was an excuse for expecting so many disabled people to battle to get around. Trust me the irony that we were rehearsing to celebrate the opening of the biggest celebration of what disabled people could do the world had ever seen, and yet we couldn't safely get to the toilet was noted!
However I am not writing this to highlight how poor the access was at one event nearly two years ago. No I am using this to explain that when disabled people say they want better physical access to the built environment it's not just so they can get in and out of buildings, it is to prevent them getting physically injured. My current situation proves this, as if it hadn't been for the cobbles of the Paralympic Games I would have avoided this prolonged period of ill health. What is even more troubling is that if I do not monitor my injury there is a distinct possibility that it might worsen to a point where it could become life threatening. Yes, poor access can kill!
Alongside my career as a broadcaster and writer, I run a successful access and inclusion consultancy and this leads me to attend many meetings with developers, architects and local campaigners as well as liaising with planning departments through out the country. Time and time again my calls for accessible and inclusive design are counterbalanced by passionate cries to maintain the heritage of an area. What saddens me is that no disabled person wants a world devoid of history and heritage, but we do want to be able to experience these features of what makes our country so beautiful just like everyone else. For example, when we call for access in places with cobbled streets it's not a case of ripping out cobbles in favour of tarmac but rather lifting the cobbles, cutting them and relaying them so they are a smoother surface. Even English heritage favour this approach, yet all over the country features like cobblestones are being clung to as if they are a totem of a day gone by. Of course in those "good old days" disabled people were not really a visible part of society. I do hope that the people who spend their time fighting to retain these kinds of historic features are not in favour of disabled people disappearing from our streets, all in the name of heritage?
It's not just as case of ease of travel. As I have already said, poor access leads disabled people to injure themselves. How many non-disabled people would put up with a building or pavement that actually physically hurt them? No one. Yet disabled people are expected to do this on a daily basis. I once spent a day wheeling around a local market that is cobbled throughout with a mate who uses a power wheelchair. After a few minutes he had nearly fallen out of his chair, thanks to the repeated jostling of being bounced around as he wheeled over the cobbles. To save him from being thrown from his chair he had to be bungee corded into his chair, and we eventually gave up and left. For me as a manual chair user, I can only describe wheeling over cobbles as like being gently but firmly kicked in my testicles repeatedly for the entire journey. Trust me there is nothing like the relief of leaving an area of cobblestones. I wonder would any non-disabled male put up with that in the name of heritage?
All disabled people ask is that the wider community understand when we call for better access, we are only asking to experience the world around us the same way we would if we were not impaired. We don't want to destroy our history and build a concrete jungle of ramps and lifts. We just ask that we all work together to make our built environment function for all members of society. I know it can be done, as I have visited some places where the local community have got together to make real changes that fit with the local vernacular. Derby is a perfect example, with a serious commitment from the council, businesses and local people to build a city that is open for all without ripping the heart out of the local heritage.
Better access for disabled people benefits everyone. I wonder how many of you have tripped while walking over cobbles or uneven Yorkstones? Now imagine what it would feel like if that injury might threaten your life... all in the name of liking old things! There is a middle ground, so let's all agree to work together to make a more accessible environment that maintains our wonderful heritage. In the end we all want to be able to live our lives safely and comfortably. Now that would be a real Paralympic Legacy!