Access for people with disabilities. What is ‘reasonable’?

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For the disabled, particularly anyone in a wheelchair, gaining access to buildings and all their facilities can still be more than a little difficult in the UK. The situation in other countries may be similar but, from what I have seen, Britain seems to be lagging behind other westernised countries.

True, we have the Equality Act 2010 that followed the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and this legislation is supposed to make discrimination against the disabled illegal. But the trouble is that the law contains the word ‘reasonable’ and that term is subjective – what is reasonable to me might be unreasonable to someone else. Just who determines what is reasonable?

So, as far as access to a building and its facilities such as toilets, the owner of any commercial business otherwise known as the ‘service provider’ is required by law ‘to take reasonable steps to remove, alter or provide a reasonable means of avoiding a physical feature which made it impossible or reasonably difficult for disabled people to use a service.’

Hm, one sentence with reasonable twice and reasonably once; room enough, in my view, for said ‘service providers’ to avoid doing anything.

Of course, most shops, restaurants, offices open to the public and so on do have level entrances or have alternative means of access, such as ramps or lifts but some still need improvement.

Over the last year, Lisa and I have eaten out at several restaurants in Colwyn Bay, the town in which we live. All the meals have been enjoyable but the facilities for customer with disabilities have been a bit hit and miss.

Pen-y-Bryn bar and restaurant is in its own grounds with a large car park but, disappointingly, has just one bay bearing the wheelchair symbol. Access to the building and the necessary facilities is trouble free.

Dolce Vita Italian restaurant has an on-street location with a level entrance. It has its main seating area and facilities upstairs but when I telephoned to make a booking and mentioned my wheelchair, I was guaranteed a table in the small ground floor dining area and was assured that I would be welcome to use their staff restroom on the same level. The owner also told me that he had plans to put in new customer facilities downstairs.

Vergilio’s Pizzeria and Portuguese Grill also has an on-street location and when I phoned to book I was told that my wheelchair would not be a problem. Well, true the staff were attentive and most willing to help me overcome the step into and out of the building as the entrance is not level. However, the bigger problem is that the restrooms are upstairs and so beyond the reach of people like me.

The Venue @ The Clockhouse Indian restaurant is another on-street location with a step to go in. Once again, the owner and manager together made short work of helping me both in and out of the building. Inside, everything is one level but facilities for the disabled do need improving. I discussed the issues with the owner and was pleased to hear that he already had plans to address both of them.

In the past year, my wife and I have also dined at more than 10 restaurants in Honolulu, New York City and Spain. All had level entrances or gentle ramps, the ones with dining rooms not on the ground floor had elevators. All washroom facilities were perfect. A lesson worth learning.

Back in Colwyn Bay, The Toad restaurant is in a prime location with sea views from its first floor restaurant. But there lies the problem, access is by external stone stairs while inside there is a staircase going down to the toilets on the ground floor. When I asked about facilities for customers with disabilities, I was told nothing could be done as it is a Grade 2 Listed building. That’s a building of special interest.

However, to say nothing can be done to such a property is not true. Any alteration would need listed building consent but even if such consent was denied a service provider would still need to take whatever other steps that are reasonable to provide the service.

And to underline that, Planning Policy Guidance Note (PPG 15) issued by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions makes it clear that “it is important in principle that disabled people should have dignified easy access to and within historic buildings” and that with a proper approach “it should normally be possible to plan suitable access for disabled people without compromising a building’s special interest”.

So, alterations should still be possible – even to listed buildings.

Access laws in America seem more strict than in the UK. Lisa told me about a Florida restaurant that had an upstairs bar and entertainment venue with no access for people with disabilities. The owners were told to make such access available or to close their business. No messing.

Stopping abuse of parking bays for disabled people

Not all physical disabilities, let alone the mental ones, are necessarily apparent to other people – and by ‘other people’ I include those of us who live with more obvious physical disabilities.

As just one example, let’s look at car parking bays denoted by the well known wheelchair symbol that are reserved for people with disabilities – and by that I mean people possessing the relevant document to allow them to use one of those bays. In the UK these are ‘parking cards’ but are popularly referred to as ‘blue badges’, in the USA they are generally known as ‘parking placards’ while in Canada they are called ‘parking permits’.

Different rules exist for each country, so users have to know where they may and may not park, but I am sure similar issues exist all over the world.

So, let’s look at the country I know best – the UK – and the use of parking bays for disabled people. These are reserved for blue badge holders who only obtain those by receiving one of a certain range of disability benefits or have gone through a pretty rigorous application process for the badge itself.

Now imagine this scene. A car pulls into a parking bay reserved for a person with a disability, the driver puts a blue badge on display and walks away from the vehicle without a walking aid and without any obvious sign of a disability.

Of course it is possible that another member of the family is improperly using the blue badge but is it possible that the correct person, the one with a disability, is whom has just walked away? Well, not all disabilities are obvious, some are known as ‘invisible disabilities’ and a person walking without a mobility aid of some kind might still be in considerable pain.

If someone is not receiving a benefit that automatically entitles him or her to a blue badge, that person has to undergo a walking ability assessment. In general terms, such a person will only be able to get a blue badge if he or she can walk only with great difficulty, at an extremely slow pace or with excessive pain.

Remember, though, anyone who is used to living in pain is usually very good at hiding it.

I have to admit that, in the past, I have on occasion been guilty of making rash judgements relating to someone’s walking ability on leaving a vehicle in a blue badge bay. Fortunately, my misguided comments never got outside my car and were quickly countered by my wife Lisa who, quite rightly, pointed out that all disabilities are not obvious just by looking.

It is more important to trust those who assess people’s abilities before issuing blue badges and to ensure that parking facilities provided for the benefit of drivers or passengers with disabilities are not abused. We need to protect our parking bays from abuse by anyone without a blue badge or by someone misusing a badge issued for a family member who is not in the car at that time.

It is not our, or anyone else’s, place to cast doubt on another’s right to have a blue badge or whatever the parking permit is called in any particular country.