There’s another video doing the rounds on social media made by a chap called Will Pike, a Brit who was injured in the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks and is now wheelchair bound. It goes without saying that I have every sympathy for Mr Pike and his predicament, and I can imagine the frustration he feels when he encounters the difficulties presented in the video:
His problems are real, and I take no issue with them. But I have a problem with his proposed solutions:
The law protecting disabled people from discrimination when accessing goods and services has existed for 10 years and is supposed to be enforced by the Equality and Human Rights Commission. The Equality Act requires that service providers make reasonable adjustments to make sure disabled people are not disadvantaged when accessing their services. However, there are significant flaws with the enforcement of the act. In the majority of cases it is left to disabled people to sue service providers for discrimination. Moreover changes to legal aid have made it much harder to start legal action. Court proceedings can be very time consuming and costly. They are not accessible to all disabled people, many of whom just want to get on with their life.
The main issue here is one of expectations versus reality of what passing a law can achieve. Since I was a student and I became aware of these things there seems to have been a headlong rush in the developing world to solve every problem in existence by passing a law, as if by doing so the problem merely goes away. Only if this worked, nobody anywhere would be doing drugs. Oops.
The key word in the legislation is “reasonable”:
The Equality Act requires that service providers make reasonable adjustments…
What is reasonable or not depends on the individual. Most viewers of the video would see a flight of steps in a clothing store and think “Why can’t they put a lift in?” A building services expert hired to testify on behalf of a company defending a case brought before the EHRC would explain in detail the costs and practicalities of doing so, and an engineer would go further, into details of the structural design of the building. London is an old city, the buildings are old. Retrofitting a lift or making substantial modifications to a building could well cost as much as demolishing it and building a new one. Not in all cases for sure, but in some. It could be that the owner of the shop premises doesn’t own the whole building, or maybe even the floor above. Whatever the case, it is not immediately obvious that the lack of a lift in a shop means the owners or the tenants have not made all reasonable adjustments to allow disabled people access to their services.
There is one answer to this. Take away the “reasonable” qualifier and ensure all companies provide full disabled access that caters for every type of individual that might cross their threshold. This would cost a phenomenal amount of money, which would be passed directly onto customers, and would entail moving almost every business out of city centres and into purpose-built retail parks or strip malls, but it is certainly possible. Only major complaints I hear from the sort of people who campaign for greater disabled access are: the cost of living in Britain (especially London) is already way too high and we need government intervention to force companies to pay employees a Living Wage; town centres are dying and everything is moving to purpose-built retail parks in the outskirts; and independent “local” shops are disappearing, replaced by endless outlets of multinational chains who “send their profits overseas and out of the local community”.
So which is it to be, folks? Strip-malls filled with faceless multinationals with full disabled access, or smaller franchises and independent shops in city centres and high streets? You can’t have both for simple reasons of practicality and economics. And if you insist on having both, you’ll end up with neither: nobody is forced to open a shop, and anyone doing so must be able to envisage an economic return. Sadly, I suspect people will insist on having both and wonder why their towns look empty. This has already happened.
I have my sympathy with Will Pike and his video might well have identified companies that could have provided better access at a reasonable cost but didn’t. But I suspect most people sharing his video on Facebook won’t have thought much beyond the initial, emotional reaction to a guy in a wheelchair struggling through life.