Archive for April, 2012

Disability & Birmingham Christmas Market 2012

This morning I met with Steve Hollingworth to talk about access issues surrounding the annual Frankfurt Christmas Market in Birmingham City Centre.

There are millions of disabled people in the UK, 1 in 5 Brits are covered by the Disability Disrcimination Act. Trying to keep in mind that I wasn’t the only person affected by these issues I got started. We talked a lot but in the end I would say we covered the following areas;

  1. Alternative routes around the market for people with disabilities which make the routes with stairs etc…  difficult.
  2. Internal routes in the market and challenges/ barriers to access.
  3. Issues of abuse stemming from the bars.
  4. Training of the security staff.

Alternative Routes

I was shown the plans for allowing step free access between Broad Street & New Street which avoids much of the Christmas Market. This involved using the underpass leading to Fletcher walk, then following the pavement along besides the Town Hall along Hill Street to New Street. I explained the issues with this route as I saw them;

  • Two steep ramps connect Broad St to Fletchers Walk (possibly more than 1:12) are very hard to navigate if you have mobility impairments, especially when the weather is icy. Manual wheelchairs slip backwards, attendants struggle to propel them, it’s very hard work for those dealing with exhaustion, balance issues and so on.
  • The alternative route joins to New Street at the top of Pinfold Street. Last year a florist has set up between the market stalls and a set of bollards & phone boxes at the top of Pinfold Street. The bollards & phone boxes were too close together to allow my wheelchair to pass through between the road and the stall so my only options were; to go through the market or to cross Pinfold Street. As Pinfold Street doesn’t have lowered curbs on either side of the road at the top end of the street, to get to a step free crossing point you have to travel down a fairly steep hill and then back up.
  • Visibility – it’s all good having a route suitable for those who need step free alternatives but if it’s not clear that it’s an alternative then it won’t get used.

The council are going to check the gradient of the ramps, if it is more than 1:12 then it isn’t suitable as a ramp for wheelchair users etc… I also asked them to ensure that if it was used they had a good gritting policy to make sure it wasn’t anymore hazardous than needs be. The florist will be back this year so they will hopefully try and ensure that they know they can’t ‘expand’ into the space required for wheelchair access. They will also look at removing bollards that block the way. Hopefully by the route being clear from obstructions it will aid visibility, as will making sure staff are trained to direct people.

Another alternative route was to go from Paradise Forums around the back of the Council Buildings and down Bennetts Hill to join onto New Street at the Tescos. There are a couple of issues with this route as well, examples are;

  • Issues with dropped curbs – Bennetts Hill has a couple that are quite high and also have ‘holes’ in front of them which easily catch casters, sticks and feet.
  • Issues with visibility of route.

They will check Bennetts Hill and surrounding streets for safe access (no dangerous curb issues). Once more, hopefully trained staff will be able to direct people to the appropriate route.

Internal Access Challenges

The largest issue last year was the crush of people trying to move, shop and browse in very confined spaces. As well as being stressful for those trying to use mobility aids or with aural & visual disabilities it was also very upsetting for many of those with mental health issues and learning difficulties. They have already decided to try and ensure the same doesn’t happen again by widening the thoroughfare around the outside of Victoria Square into a single ‘street’ of shops rather than the two they have had previously.

  • In the middle of the thorough fare there will be a set of steps. I drew attention to the risks these posed if the area was too crowed for people to be able to see them. They are a trip/fall hazard for people with visual impairments (as at the best of times they don’t have strong distinguishing features – like colours or textures) and people with mobility issues.
  • There are squeeze points where it gets very congested and practically gridlocked around Tesco, bar’s and in and out of the Paradise Forums. These create problems for many disabled people in the forms of stress, anxiety, standing related issues, continence (for those that don’t have the luxury of waiting 5mins in a queue to get to the nearest toilets) and other such things.
  • Last years market had barriers placed around the back of the shops meaning that once you were in the market you couldn’t just leave by cutting through the gaps between stalls. If you wanted to leave you had to get to an exit point which was often very difficult, especially if you were a disabled person. If you wanted to get help moving the barriers so you could ‘escape’ then it became a bit of a lottery. Some security staff were helpful, others far less so.
  • The ambient noise levels are also quite high so this makes life hard for those with hearing difficulties to participate as most stalls didn’t have hearing loops.

They are looking at placing some Christmas trees or similar on the steps so that the flow of people goes around them and disabled people are not accidentally forced over them.The squeeze points have been noted and they are looking at making extra room by removing stalls and using creative seating arrangements near the bar areas. Better/ consistent training for security staff should make it easier for disabled people to ‘escape’ the market once inside if they need to. Unfortunately I didn’t manage to get a resolution on the issues surrounding hearing problems, sorry.

Abuse Issues

I explained that a combination of alcohol + a rise in disability related hate crime + overcrowded stressful conditions seemed to play a key factor in the abuse I had received. Most of the insults were levied at me when the market was congested and I was either near a busy drinking area or in the line of sight of someone who appeared to have been at the mulled wine previously. I agreed that the plans to widen the thoroughfare to reduce congestion as well as plans to move the seating for various bars out of the main thoroughfare would hopefully ease this. Changing the attitudes that feed into the abuse was outside of the remit of our session 😉

Training of Security Staff

As mentioned before, there wasn’t really a continuity of standards in this area. Depending on which person you asked for assistance you could get a whole range of replies. Like many security staff the only disability training they seem to have really received was the diversity section of the SIA licence course and the common sense they have developed over the years. I suggested that they consider making sure they are all briefed with disability issues in mind so that they can fulfil their role and maximise the accessibility of the event.

I think it went fairly well and I’ve been promised they will be in contact to let me know the outcomes of our discussion so any next steps can be taken. Sorry if you’ve read this and feel disappointed that I missed something. I’m still pretty new to all this. Anyway, love to you all.

Rights Not Charity

“Rights not charity!” has become one of my favourite chants at protests, but I’m starting to realise many don’t quite get what it means (or what it means to me at any rate) so I thought I’d talk about it a little. sadly I’m on quite a lot of strong painkillers so it might be a bit jumbled – sorry in advance!

What is expressed by the phrase ‘rights not charity’ is the desire to have independent living and equality of opportunity as a human right rather than something that is provided by a benevolent philanthropists. Our government seems to be slowly trying to cut the amount of support* they are willing to give to sick & disabled people in the vague hope that charities will cover the gap. We can even see this in the way government incentivises donating to charity to escape being taxed.

To many onlookers that might seem like a good thing. They’ve seen TV shows where charities provide wheelchairs for veterans or holidays for kids with leukaemia so wouldn’t it be a good idea to let them do more? They are caring and loving after all. Well, I don’t think it would be a good thing and nor do many other disability campaigners. I shall endeavour to explain why now…

In a not very scientific experiment I’ve been asking family and friends to name some charities that deal with sickness and disability and most will said; British Heart Foundation, Macmillan Cancer Support, Marie Curie Cancer Care, Cancer Research, Headway, Scope, Whizz Kids, Alzheimer’s Research UK and the Royal British Legion/ other military charities. Pretty much all the ones with charity shop presence. Thanks to some creative use of the bold button you may have noticed that pretty much all of those charities are set up to deal with a particular impairment or people meeting specific age or occupational criteria. In that list only Scope claims to deal with all disabled people regardless of age, past occupation or impairment. Unfortunately the service that they offer which covers those people is an advice line. Their community based services (like educational & employment services) to people living in certain geographical areas and/or people who have ‘complex care’ needs. This still counts many disabled people out. It’s also not like they can help fund equipment, PA’s, transport, retraining for those with disability but non-complex care needs or critical home improvements.

Charity is all well and good if you have certain conditions or meet specific criteria but you are stuffed if your need is as just great but you don’t. That’s because charity isn’t fair. When a charity dealing with a aspect of disability or (normally) a specific illness or impairment gets £1 million pounds it gets spent on it’s pet cause. When the section of a local authority that deals with disabled adults gets £1 million it gets spread over the all the service users they cover. Those who need extra help because they smoked or had problems with alcohol as well as those who have Parkinson’s or served in the military. For that reason I would rather see money to support the disabled going to LA’s rather than charities therefore I’d rather see big earners incentivised to pay taxes to help the vulnerable rather than to donate to charities.

I will use a personal story to try and illustrate this: When I first admitted to myself that I needed a wheelchair to get around I went to see my GP. She agreed with me and we filled in the application for one from the NHS. It was explained to me that the NHS will only give manual/attendant powered wheelchairs to those who can walk a couple of meters (even if it does cause severe pain etc… to do so). Whilst I was waiting for my chair lot’s of people asked me why I didn’t contact a charity to get one. The reason I didn’t was because there are no charities that provide wheelchairs for those over 18 who don’t have a specific disablement or have come from a specific background (like the police force or military. The NHS was my only option. The same happened when we needed adaptation to our home, it was only the council that could help me. It happened again when and when I needed help funding re-training, no charities could help my only option was the government (not that they would help either). I’m not saying this because I believe that because I don’t have access to charitable aid that no one should. I’m also  not for a moment trying to say charities don’t do some good work, they do. What I am trying to say is that they are not a good vehicle for providing for the needs of all sick, disabled and otherwise vulnerable people. 

Charities also very often help to peddle the idea that sick & disabled people are objects of pity. We’ve all seen the adverts with the sad disabled or sick person made happy by charitable donations. They propagate unhelpful stereotypes and damage the cause of disabled people trying hard not to be seen as pitiable and miserable. The image below shows a Damien Hurst sculpture called ‘Charity’ which shows the kind of image used by charities to highlight the ‘plight’ of disabled people. We want rights, happiness and as much independence as we can get. We do not want pity handouts going to a few whilst the many are ignored.

The harsh reality for many of us is that charities don’t help us. What would help us is seeing our rights to an independent life fully backed up by the law and a ombudsman so that the government couldn’t strip resources from us or use easily misinterpreted phrasing like ‘reasonable adaptions’ to stop us from accessing public services and living like others.

That is why I chant ‘Rights Not Charity’ and will continue to.

* removing 20% of DLA recipients (even though the fraud rate is 0.5%), removing the ILF, cutting social care budgets, making it harder to get Direct Payments, removing Legal Aid so that vulnerable people can’t challenge unjust welfare decisions, making it harder to get council housing or adaptations, the bedroom tax, the WCA, removing Contributions based ESA after a year and a whole host of other nasty initiatives.

Some Positive News Regarding the Christmas Market

Last December you may remember I had a rather rough time at Birmingham’s annual Frankfurt Christmas market.

I wrote to the people I have been informed are in charge of the market and I have heard back. The initial email I sent included some quotes of the abuse I received, so the council computer system quarantined it which caused a delay in replies.

I heard from Steve Hollingworth (Assistant Director of Sport & Events) first and shortly afterwards I received a letter from Cllr Paul Tilsley (Deputy Leader of the Council). Steve Hollingworth has offered to meet with me to discuss the issues surrounding disability, access and the annual market. You can read the letter from Cllr Tilsley here.

Hopefully I will be able to impress on him the importance of access and making reasonable adjustments.

Wish me luck!

It’s April Already!

I’m still unwell so I’ve cut down my activism work because something had to give and whilst I love trying to fight for my rights it is really draining.

I’m standing as a candidate for the Green Party in the council elections which is quite exciting. The area is a Labour safe-seat so I’m not going to kid myself that I’ll get more than a fraction of the vote but still, I think it’s important to keep the party on the radar and give locals the option of another choice.

I’m excited about speaking at the INTERSECT conference in Bristol this May. It’ll be great to meet other activists and hopefully I’ll be able to explain why disability rights are a feminist issue in a clear and concise manner.

I have also been doing some low-level local activism in my area by calling the council and speaking to them about lack of lowered kerbs and poor short-term civic planning with regards to disability. My bank and a few other companies that are big enough to know better have also been on the receiving end of some calls and letters pointing out that I think it would be reasonable for them to improve access given their resources and provision of a public service. It may not do much, but hopefully if someone else complains in the future it will strengthen it until they do something.

So that’s me, what have you been up to?

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