My last column explored my experiences with chronic pain. It really struck a nerve, if you excuse the pun and it seems that far more people out there live with chronic pain than even I thought; far more than the media would have you believe. This time I feel the need to visit a subject that also impacts on the lives of many people out there, a favourite of mine... access.
For anyone who has an impairment that impacts on their ability get around easily, the concept of access is so much more than just getting into a place. Sure a world with as many ramps as steps would be a dream, but we also need what I would consider obvious, provision like toilets we can easily get into and use without endangering our safety. Before you say "how can you hurt yourself in a toilet?", I recently visited a high street coffee chain, and after a gingerbread latte I popped to the loo only to find a toilet so narrow I could only just get my wheelchair in. I wasn't really in a state to be able to leave it and go and find another loo, so I struggled to avail myself of the facilities. Almost as soon as wheeled out of the corridor disguised as a toilet, I found I was in pain. On my return home I found I had cut myself rather badly on something. So spending that penny cost me three day's pay as I was stuck in bed recovering for 72 hours.
If this was a rare occurrence it might be something I could accept but only a few days after I crawled out of my sick bed, my wife and I began getting ready for a mate's 50th birthday party. People were coming from all over the country, and we were really looking forward to a great night with old friends who we hadn't seen in ages. After the last loo disaster my wife decided to check that the venue had an accessible loo. We rang the pub and soon found ourselves defending our question, as both the bar person who answered the phone and then the licensee insisted that they didn't need an accessible loo as the pub was listed. Now as well as my career as a broadcaster and journalist I also run a small but very successful access consultancy, and listed or not a pub or restaurant should really have accessible toilet provision. I work on several heritage projects and English Heritage give very helpful guidelines on creating access within listed buildings, but they also insist that listed status is no reason for not providing access.
Of course all this didn't help us with our night out. Without a loo a visit to a pub can end in tears, and damp trousers, and so we contacted our mates to say we couldn't come. For the lack of a toilet my wife and I missed out on a great night seeing friends we haven't seen in ages celebrating a mate's half century. Please stop and imagine what that feels like. Not only to miss out on a such a night, but to be met with an adamant attitude that not providing you with what you need to attend said night was totally correct. What other minority would be treated in the same way? And before you say "what about the law, surely aren't people like me protected by the Equality Act?", I must point out why the law is an ass in the case of disabled people.
You see any form of discrimination towards disabled people is not an act against the state but instead is an act against the person. So to take advantage of the Equality Act in this case I would need to take a private prosecution against the pub. I have no evidence that the phone call took place, unless I record every phone call enquiring about access, and so I would have needed to visit a pub I already knew wasn't accessible to have a case. Then I would need to take the names and contact details of anyone who was prepared to give evidence in court of my inability to access the toilets in the pub, find a solicitor and then take the case to court, all on my own dime. Then there's the issue of who would I prosecute. As the law stands I would take the licensee to court, despite the fact they do not own the pub, but only rent it. This is because the law has been written so that it is the service provider that is liable, and not the person who owns the property the service is being run from. The aim is to prevent people from renting inaccessible properties, thus making it a financial necessity to build in access for property owners, but this is not what happens. On top of all that I might not win and the law states that "reasonable adjustments" must be made to allow disabled people access and the licensee or landlord could claim that it was far too expensive to make the required changes, leaving me to pay all court costs. Brilliant eh?
Until we all have an equality law that makes discrimination an act against the crown and state there isn't really equality in the UK. For disabled people it means living in a society that treats us as second class and that places money over our ability to live as we choose. To live the way most people take for granted. To pee when you're in a pub without the fear of injury or a total lack of a toilet.
© Mik Scarlet 2015