This weekend an incident occurred that reminded me of what is is to be disabled in the UK in the 21st Century. I have been disabled since a few weeks after birth, having been born with cancer, but started using a wheelchair full time at the age of fifteen after a complication caused my spine to collapse. I spent nearly nine months in hospital and a further year fighting to get well enough to venture back into the outside world. My first trip out was to be a visit to the local cinema, but it transpired that it was not wheelchair accessible. Rather than getting me down, I began campaigning. Three months later the cinema manager and I unveiled a newly adapted building that was open to disabled cinema goers. This was in 1982 and there was no legal requirement for the cinema to do this. The manager carried out these works for moral reasons, as "it was the right thing to do". Fast forward thirty three years to find me a very happy and successful disabled adult, married to the wonderful Diane and a self employed broadcaster, writer and access expert. After nearly 9 years of marriage, with busy work schedules, my wife and I decided we needed to start organizing a regular "date night". For our first official date night we thought we'd visit our local Odeon cinema on Parkway in Camden Town.
We arrived to find our access to the lift blocked by a surly staff member who informed us that we could only use it if we had a valid ticket. As the ticket sales were in the foyer accessed by said lift we asked what we should do. He pointed at three ticket machines near the door. I tried to find out how to book accessible seating but to no avail, and eventually surly came over. He informed us we had to choose premium seats but when I asked why, as this meant we had to pay an extra £4.60, he walked off. Not wanting to ruin our night out we left and drove to Odeon in Swiss Cottage which we understood was fully accessible.
We arrived, purchased our tickets, grabbed a quick coffee and loaded up with a bucket of popcorn and a gallon of soft drink. We handed our tickets to the staff in the foyer and wandered towards the screen showing Pride, our chosen film. So far so good. As we reached our screen our way was blocked by four steps. Against the wall was a huge stair lift, one which I could not use independently, so off I went in search of assistance. The manager eventually appeared and after a huge amount of effort for four small steps, I entered the screen. Success! We sat down, the film started. We chomped our popcorn and slurped our fizzy drink as we were sat together in the dark.
Half way through the movie, all this liquid made itself known and I needed to pee. My poor wife went off in search of the manager again, and after an age they arrived to find me stuck at the top of the stairs doing that dance that kids do when urgently need the loo. Instead of allowing me to use the lift in good grace, I was sternly told by the manager that the film was still playing and using the lift would interrupt the other cinema goers experience as the lift was very loud. My wife then noticed a fire exit and we offered to facilitate my escape that way instead, but when we opened the door we were met with another flight of steps. An inaccessible fire exit? Finally I was deposited on the same level as the loo via the lift, much to my relief. Instead of returning to the film, or releasing a full Mik Scarlet Rant we left and vowed never to return to an Odeon cinema.
What most amazed me was when I raised my concerns over access, especially the fire exit, I was told "we have just passed an access audit so we are accessible". This was said to me while I stuck at the top of a small flight of stairs, unable to access the screen, visit the loo or escape in the event of an emergency unaided. No one else except a disabled person would be expected to put up with requiring this level of assistance to pop to the loo for a pee or to escape a burning building, and if they were they would never call in "reasonable".
You see the law that requires businesses to be accessible to disabled people calls for "reasonable adjustments" to be made to enable this access. However, instead of using the meaning of reasonable that describes what most people would call "normal", such as being able to visit the loo during a trip to the cinema without it becoming a major military manoeuvre, most businesses go with most cost effective or easiest. Before you say "well they put a lift in" ask yourself, would you call this a reasonable experience for a visit to the cinema? What struck me most about our failed date night was the attitude towards my needs. I provide training for businesses, advising their staff on interacting with disabled customers, and I would say that the Odeon staff need some of that training urgently!
Sadly this is the day to day experience of being a disabled person in the UK. We are expected to be grateful for crumbs of equality, even if we still can't experience "normality". We are told we are too expensive to care for, but its also too expensive to enable us to work to earn enough to care for ourselves. The word "reasonable" strikes fear in our hearts, as it is our expected reaction to situations the rest of society would never accept.
I won't even mention I was expected to pay £12 odd to sit in my OWN CHAIR!