Thursday 16 May 2013

Can we truly claim to be a wheelchair friendly society?

It has only been around six months since Mum needed to use a wheelchair, or rather needed a wheelchair, with an attendant (me), to enable her to get out and about. During that time, she has only been out a few times, thanks to the winter weather.

Now, with the weather improving, it should be possible to take her out more often. However, the few times she has been out, has shown how much still needs to be done, to help those in wheelchairs.

Retail outlets

Whilst access to some shops is good, others still have much to do. Even if wheelchair access is possible, one of the first hurdles encountered is doors. Aside from automated doors, or those with push button access, glazed shop front doors are often heavy and difficult to open, for those in wheelchairs. Self-closing devices, can make the situation even worse. An attendant propelled wheelchair is difficult enough to manoeuvre through such doors, and would be even more difficult, for those who self-propel.

Sometimes access involves the use of inadequate, flimsy, and often steep, ramps. These are a seriously poor attempt to comply (in some cases not) with disabled access regulations, and when combined with a door that needs to be opened by the user, can even prove to be dangerous.

Width of aisles

Most major retailers generally provide sufficient width between shelving and displays to enable wheelchair access. However, there are often temporary displays, special offer containers, or even shelf stacking cages, that intrude into the aisles, creating pinch points. These restrict access, as there may only be sufficient room for one trolley, let alone a wheelchair.

The attitude of other customers towards wheelchair users, frequently results in the disabled person being forced to "yield" or "give way" to the oncoming trolley traffic - hardly good practice, when it comes to avoiding discrimination. Admittedly, the lack of information about the realities of living with a disability, available to the general public, also has a role to play - and the sooner such information is disseminated, the better.


The gap between till units at checkouts is often difficult for wheelchair users to negotiate, and even if there are a wheelchair friendly checkouts, these are often unattended during quieter periods. The very periods that wheelchair users will often choose to use, as there are fewer people in the shop to impede on their shopping experience.

Smaller retail outlets, often have insufficient space for wheelchairs, on their premises. So, even if a disabled person can gain access to the premises, much of what is inside, is denied to them.

On the street

Over the years, many pedestrian walkways have been "dug up" for the installation or renewal of various services. However, the "make good" requirements imposed on contractors, are rarely sufficient to ensure smooth problem free surfaces for wheelchair users.

Kerb drops with textured surfaces for the blind or partially sighted, can also cause problems. Whilst providing a tactile indicator for those who are unable to see, certain designs with ruts, can deflect the small front wheels of a wheelchair, and those with small bumps, can prove very uncomfortable for the person in the wheelchair, especially those who through illness or frailty, are more sensitive to the effects of riding over such bumps.

Roads and road surfaces are often very wheelchair unfriendly. Too rough, potholed, insufficient crossing points with kerb drops, no central refuge, crossing points too close to blind corners, or junctions - in fact, so many problems, there too many mention. There are of course many safe crossing points, but even some of these can be let down by the road surface itself.

Street furniture is often poorly located, causing pinch points and restricting access, in other cases, pedestrian walkways are just too narrow. Raised flower beds may look attractive, but these too can cause problems, either forcing the wheelchair user to divert away from their original course, or once again creating even more  pinch points.

Rail crossings

Rail crossings pose a very serious hazard. The gap needed for the wheels of a train, between the level areas of the crossing, can easily trap a front wheel of a wheelchair, and if the jolt is sufficient enough, can even eject the person from the chair, unless they are strapped in. Whilst, a speedy recovery may be possible for an attendant propelled wheelchair, the same may not be the case for a self-propelled user. There is also the real possibility of injuries being sustained.

It should not be too difficult to design and provide a self-retracting surface, within the gap for train wheels, to ensure that rail crossings are safer for wheelchair users.

When a combination of situations can prove fatal

An unfortunate combination of several of the above, resulted in the death of an elderly, yet able-bodied, gentleman close to where I live. He was crossing a road, close to a junction with another road. The unmarked, kerb dropped, pedestrian crossing, was outside the train station. Next to which, was a road/rail crossing, alongside a footbridge at the station, over the tracks. This created a blind spot, just before the junction and pedestrian crossing.

A car came over the rail crossing, turned into the road with the pedestrian crossing, and collided with the gentleman as he crossed. He was airlifted to hospital, but died soon after, as a result of his injuries.

Such an accident could just as easily have happened to someone in a wheelchair.

Hotels, restaurants and hostelries

Many establishments providing a service to the public, are required under the Disability Discrimination Act, to provide certain facilities for the disabled, and many go above and beyond that requirement. The Act requires that all new builds and full refurbishments, provide suitable access and facilities for the disabled.

However, existing buildings need only carry out what can be considered to be reasonable, dependent upon the size and turnover of the business. This is often used as an excuse for not having disabled toilet facilities. There is an argument though, where, for example, a small restaurant, with both male and female facilities, could combine these into one larger unisex facility, designed for use by the disabled, as well as other customers.

Some restaurants and hostelries are both family and wheelchair friendly, providing both baby changing and wheelchair accessible toilet facilities. These hostelries also tend to have good level-entry access. Many however do not, having steps or door thresholds that deny access to wheelchairs, and offering no other facilities for the disabled.

Some restaurants provide good access, yet many, understandably, base their prices on the number of covers they can cater for, and cram in as many chairs and tables as possible, significantly restricting wheelchair access.

Clearly there is still much to be done, before we can really claim to be a truly friendly society for those living with a disability. These members of our society are still denied access to far too many experiences, the more able bodied of us, are able to enjoy.

Time for change...

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