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We must not swap accessibility for social distancing

There’s a large hardware shop near where I live and as I walked past it the other day I noticed that all the disabled parking bays outside the front of the shop were being used to store pallets of compost and that the area that would usually house compost had been given over to socially distant queuing.

Over the next few days I started seeing more and more posts on social media from wheelchair users highlighting the same thing happening across the country and even internationally.

It made me realise that my local hardware store may not be in the minority in choosing to forgo accessibility in the name of social distancing (and the sale of compost).  I then read an article which referenced the Rail Delivery Group (RDG) confirming a ‘few’ wheelchair spaces on trains have been closed due to social distancing in a “very few incidences”.  Again you only need to look on social media to see the unpredictability of even booked rail journeys to know what an impact even a ‘very few incidences’ of wheelchair spaces being shut will have on the disabled community.

Upon reading the article I’ll be honest, my heart sank and it made me wonder what conversations there are being had up and down the country, within businesses that are leading them to feeling at all justified in taking this course of action.  A course of action which makes the lives of their disabled customers so much harder and even prevents them from using local businesses.  Perhaps ignorance may be to blame so I thought it might be useful to think about why disabled parking bays are so important.  For the purpose of this blog I have focussed on wheelchair users but fully recognise that disabled parking is vital for people with a whole range of visible and invisible disabilities.

Firstly, let’s address the fact that for wheelchair users driving is often preferable to public transport because public transport just isn’t that accessible or convenient.  There are 270 stations in the London Underground and only 77 are fully accessible.  In our Going The Extra Mile Campaign we tested 5 commuter routes, using an able bodied person and a wheelchair user.  On average it took the wheelchair user 1 hour and 35 minutes longer to complete their journeys.  Hardly convenient.  Where I live, which is probably best described as ‘suburbia’, there are actually regular buses around the local areas, but the local pavements do not make for easy self-propelling, assuming of course that you can use the pavements which are regularly blocked by parked cars.

So, having decided to drive to their local hardware shop can you imagine how soul-destroying it must be to discover that the parking bays specifically added to the parking arrangement so that wheelchair users can actually get into and out of their cars are out of action; and that they are out of action because after social distancing measures were taken there was nowhere else to put the compost!  What does that say about how we value those in society with disabilities?

Whilst it’s still early days in the return to the ‘new normal’, in my mind this is an issue that we need to address now before complacency sets in.  Before a community which is already challenged on a daily basis has reason to feel even more isolated and sidelined.

Victoria Oliver is an associate solicitor in the Spinal Injuries team at Bolt Burdon Kemp.  If you or a loved one have suffered a spinal injury as a result of an accident, someone else’s negligence or you are concerned about the treatment you have received, contact Victoria in confidence on 020 3973 5002 or at  Alternatively, complete this form and one of the solicitors from the Spinal Injury team will contact you.  Find out more about the Spinal Injury team.

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