How accessible has London become for disabled people since the Disability Discrimination Act 1995? Katie Leason joins wheelchair user Cynthia Fairbairn on a day trip to some of London’s stores and attractions, and finds grounds for hope amid the hassle
It’s a sunny Tuesday morning and Oxford Street looks inviting. It is less crowded than usual, perhaps because it is the first working day after the Easter break.
Outside Selfridges, my two companions – Cynthia Fairbairn, a wheelchair user, and Susan Groves, her assistant for the day – are somewhat apprehensive about the day ahead: Cynthia hasn’t been to central London since her 25th wedding anniversary 15 years ago and is here to find out whether it has become more accessible.
And I am about to experience London through the eyes of a wheelchair user and have no idea what to expect.
The problems familiar to all wheelchair users are immediately apparent, despite legislation intended to end discrimination against disabled people. Since October 2004, under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, businesses have been expected to adjust the physical features of their premises so that disabled people can enter them.
Yet here we are, outside the main front doors of Selfridges, one of London’s top department stores, wondering how best to enter. The revolving swing doors are a nono as the wheelchair is likely to get stuck; the forward opening doors are too heavy to allow someone to push a wheelchair and the doors at the same time. I’m told that usually there are signs on inaccessible doors that point to a more suitable entrance, but this is not the case here. Thankfully, a Selfridges employee spots us from behind the perfume counter and comes over to help.
Once inside the store, things look up. The store guide informs us that there are disabled toilets on all floors which is most unusual, says Cynthia. “You’re usually lucky to have one in the whole store,” she says. We go to the lifts, which Cynthia can use easily, and make our way to the women’s clothes on the second floor. When the lift doors open, Cynthia’s face lights up. “This is brilliant,” she says, on realising how much space there is between the clothes displays. “You can see what you want to look at and actually get at it.” In other stores, she finds that she can barely manoeuvre her wheelchair.
But her delight fades when she checks the changing room. It is too narrow and any care worker accompanying a wheelchair user would have to climb over the sides of the wheelchair to help. Had Cynthia wanted to try something on, she would have given up, yet the changing room needed only to be a foot or two wider. Two accessible changing rooms on each floor would be enough, and these could be used by all, not just disabled customers. “I wouldn’t expect them to be kept just for disabled people. I wouldn’t mind waiting to use them,” says Cynthia.
We leave Selfridges and make our way along Oxford Street. The smooth and wide pavement proves wheelchair-friendly, but Cynthia points out how some shops – such as T-Mobile and Sunglass Hut – have a raised entrance step that would prevent her entering if she were alone.
We stop outside Debenhams to look for a suitable entrance. We are aware that the chain is facing legal action after a wheelchair user complained that he couldn’t access a section of the Derby store’s menswear department. It is encouraging to see that on the first door we come to there is a sign pointing, albeit the wrong way, to an accessible entrance, and when we find it there are automatic doors for Cynthia to use. Once inside we are directed to the far left of the floor where a glass lift takes wheelchair users up the five steps which connect the back of the store.
It all works well and, after a hassle-free visit to the toilets (the disabled toilet is unlocked and ready to use), we are enjoying a coffee. Despite our fears, Debenhams has given Cynthia little to complain about although, as we make our way out of the store, she does notice an aisle where a display of garden furniture blocks the path for a wheelchair user. “I have been stuck down aisles before and had to ask someone to move something or guide me out, and that’s embarrassing. I often get frustrated in shops. I used to enjoy going out to the shops but now it’s a chore,” she says. It is becoming clear that it is often the tiniest of oversights that can make a shopping trip unnecessarily challenging for Cynthia.
From Oxford Street we have planned to go to Covent Garden for lunch. Ordinarily, I would take the tube from Bond Street, and then change on to the Piccadilly Line at Green Park – a simple journey that would take 13 minutes. However, I already know that this is not feasible for Cynthia as none of these three underground stations are accessible for disabled people. Cynthia has not used the tube since she became disabled as a result of a brain aneurysm 20 years ago. She says: “You might get on the tube at one end but find it’s not accessible at the other.” Instead, we catch a bus to the Strand. This involves Cynthia using the bus’s ramp, an operation which goes more smoothly than I anticipate. She signals to the driver that she needs the ramp by pressing a lowlevel button on the side of the bus; the bus doors close and the ramp appears. Susan pushes her on board and into the area reserved for wheelchair users.
But although Cynthia may have boarded the bus relatively easily, it is soon obvious that the journey down Regent Street is far from comfortable. For one thing, the way that she has to be positioned in the priority wheelchair area leaves her facing backwards so she cannot see where she is going. She also has to cling on with both hands to the poles on either side of her as, although her wheelchair brakes are on, she is moving backwards and forwards as the bus travels. To combat this, a seatbelt or chair restraint would be useful, she says. Halfway down Regent Street a couple board with a buggy. There is not enough room for a wheelchair and a pushchair and so the child uses a seat instead. There is no dispute, but Cynthia tells me that she knows people who have been asked to get off the bus when parents with buggies arrive.
Once we’re at Covent Garden, Cynthia finds movement difficult. “I can’t cope with the cobbles. I can’t walk on them and I can’t go on them in my wheelchair,” she says. Pushing a wheelchair over the cobbles is problematic as the wheels get stuck in the gaps between stones. Around the edge of the piazza there is a non-cobbled walkway but, as Cynthia points out, it is the long way round. “It would be good to have one [direct access] bit that is flat,” she says.
After lunch we seek out the public toilets, with confidence given Covent Garden’s status as a top tourist destination. But they are underground, with step-only access. Pinned to the wall at the entrance is a sign telling us that the disabled access toilets are “by the Transport Museum”. We don’t have a map with us so, following the road signs pointing to the museum, make our way around the edges of the piazza. It later materialises that we walked three times further than was necessary, and by the time we find the toilets we are all bursting.
It’s a relief to see that there is a disabled toilet – if only it wasn’t locked. Following the instructions on the door, Cynthia rings for an attendant but, frustrated when nobody responds quickly, decides there is little option but to use one of the two standard – and unlocked – cubicles. But the cubicle is too narrow for her wheelchair, and so she has to abandon it and suffer the indignity of taking Susan in with her as she can’t stand unaided – hardly the outcome expected given the effort we went to in an attempt to find a suitable facility. “Why they can’t have accessible toilets [that everyone can use] I don’t understand. It’s the simple, silly little things,” says Cynthia.
Next is a taxi journey to Tower Bridge, but how happy will the cab driver be to accept a wheelchair passenger? As it happens, he is helpful – there are stories about cabbies ignoring wheelchair users who hail them. A welcome outcome, but perhaps unsurprising given it’s a random Tuesday afternoon with little business.
We don’t know what to expect of Tower Bridge, the last destination of the day. Built in 1894 it provides an iconic image of London that is recognised throughout the world. So can such a historic building, as the Tower Bridge Exhibition website boasts, really offer “access for all”? And if it does, surely it must set an example to many other historic – and modern – buildings?
The £5.50 entrance fee is waived for disabled people and their care workers and, once inside, it is clear that thought has gone into meeting their needs. The lifts are spacious, the staff helpful and, on the walkways across the bridge, raised platforms have been installed so that wheelchair users can reach a height where they too can enjoy the views over the Thames.
The only hitch is when we try to find our way to the bridge’s engine rooms. The entrance for able-bodied visitors is clearly marked and close to the rest of the exhibition; the accessible entrance is nowhere in sight. We lose ourselves, have to ask for directions and then find ourselves walking further than expected before we find it.
The day has been an eye-opener for me. I can understand why Cynthia has been put off venturing into central London for so long, even though she lives just a few miles away in Battersea. Getting around in crowds is just too much hassle if it can be avoided. The DDA may be starting to make an impact, but there is still some way to go before disabled people enjoy the same rights as their able-bodied counterparts. But Cynthia says she is “pleasantly surprised” by how “relatively simple” the day has been and says that things really have improved since she became disabled 20 years ago. Reassuring news, but how bad things must have been back then.
● Thanks to disabled persons’ charity Leonard Cheshire for its help in preparing this article.
WHAT DO THE STORES AND SERVICES THINK?
“The doors in question are listed and were not considered suitable for alteration. There are other accessible entrances. However, we are disappointed that you did not find the visit to your satisfaction and will take on board comments about the signage.”
“Sunglass Hut thanks Community Care for pointing this out. We will investigate how and when we can rectify the situation and comply with our duties under the Disability Discrimination Act. We will be speaking to the council or landlord to ensure we can act quickly to improve access to the store for wheelchair-bound customers.”
“We try to treat all customers equally, and are grateful for these comments. We have worked very closely with the Disability Rights Commission to resolve the issues raised in the Derby store. A hoist, with powered automated doors, has been installed so customers can access all levels.”
Westminster Council (toilets in Covent Garden):
After apologising a spokesperson said that it was not possible to have an attendant on duty at toilets all the time but he would have expected someone to be there within five minutes. Sometimes a decision is made to lock toilets – “generally the newer ones where illicit activity can take place”. Despite not receiving funding from the government for public toilets, Westminster Council pays out £2.6m each year, said the spokesperson. “We do care about it and keep coming top of national toilet awards.”
“London Underground and Transport for London believe that their long-term plans to improve access for disabled people, including spending almost £1bn over the next five years and our commitment to make one-third of stations step-free by 2013 goes well beyond our legal obligations,” said a spokesperson for London Underground. Currently 44 out of 275 stations are accessible and four are being improved.
“If the bus has to brake sharply, the force throws the person in the wheelchair in the opposite direction. If they are facing forwards that could mean being thrown right out of the chair so it is much safer to be facing the other way,” said a spokesperson for Transport for London. The idea of installing seatbelts was not an issue she had heard much demand for.
Tower Bridge Exhibition:
“We are aware of the difficulties faced by wheelchair users as regards reaching the engine rooms. The access team of the City of London is working on plans to install a lift to allow access between the south end of the bridge and Shad Thames as a priority. In the meantime, the guide in the south lift is giving full verbal instructions on how to reach the engine rooms via Shad Thames to all wheelchair users. We also have maps available and will look to get these distributed to all who need them. We will look again at signage as you suggest. We shall also be contacting Southwark Council to ask about moving the bins along Horselydown Lane.”
Declined to comment.