As a disabled person I'm unfortunately well used to the environment failing to cater for me, which is why in the Social Model of Disability
we define disability
as the discrimination we face from the failure of society to provide us with equality of outcome.
Yesterday was the General Election here in the UK and unfortunately I found myself facing not one but two major access fails in a single day.
Taking the election first, the press have been focused on voters having the doors slammed in their faces at 10PM, which is rightly a scandal, but this is far from the only problem people, and particularly disabled people, have faced voting. If we look at my experience then the problems started the moment the polling card dropped through the letter box.The Polling Card
: as in the past it wasn't clear on the map where in the sprawling local comprehensive school you need to go, usually made doubly worse in reality by a hedge hiding the door that is the access. The new problem was that the polling station wasn't actually there any more.... They have moved it to the infant school a couple of hundred yards down the road on the opposite side, but not updated the map. The confusion wasn't helped by both schools being 'St Johns'The Location
: at the top of a large, steep hill, not exactly ideal for anyone with mobility issues. (Particularly as there is a larger junior school with on-site parking at the bottom of the hill, and a large church, also with on-site parking and ISTR a hall right next to that).The Parking
: no disabled parking bays whatsoever, nor any on-site parking. It's all resident on-street bay parking in the vicinity, so there's no hope of anything available post-6PM and it was getting seriously iffy post-3PM when I voted. The closest I could park was about 100 metres away and just getting to the polling station and back left me shaking in pain.The Signage
: Very poor, One large 'Polling station sign (apparently taped together out of sheets of A4 paper), but for pointing you to the appropriate, and very unobvious, gate to get inside they were using unbacked paper strips about 10cm by 75cm taped to iron railings, so that the ends (with the arrows!) had curled around the railings.The Site
: a small, Victorian-style primary school. The entrance was sloped somewhere betwee 1 in 5 and 1 in 10 in rough-poured concrete, and roughly vee-shaped down that slope -- not a flat surface in site. Not exactly great. The relevant entrance to the polling station could have been much better sign-posted, there were at least three different doors in sight and it took me 30 seconds to figure out which was relevant. How someone with a visual impairment was meant to find their way I have no idea. The corridor through to the room in use could have been much better lighted. There was a portable ramp at the entrance to the polling room, which I tripped over - not because I missed it in the lighting, but because it was about 32" wide with 4" lips at the side, while I stand about 36" wide from crutch to crutch.... I don't use any of the legally required access provisions for completing the poll form myself, but I had a general check around for the required facilities. At first glance I couldn't spot the low-level, wheelchair accessible booth, but I think that was just because someone (non-disabled) was using it; the template for VI voters wasn't apparent, but may have been hidden under a desk somewhere, but more worrying WRT that there are multiple reports already of VI voters finding polling officers who had no idea what the template was for nor how to use it, having had absolutely no briefing on access issues. If I had needed to sit then there were no seats ready, though a few were pushed under tables that had been shoved to the side. Overall I think the new polling site is worse than the old one, and the old one wasn't good enough to start with.
Now I got to vote, at the cost of a significant amount of pain, but how many disabled people faced similar obstacles and found them insurmountable? If I wasn't a driver I couldn't have made it to the polling station, never mind the difficulties I faced inside and getting from car to door. I've talked to the staff in the past, and they genuinely have no idea of the issues disabled people face, or even how to show them common courtesy -- one online friend reports being fairly comprehensively patronised yesterday. Beyond the physical issues there is obviously a general failure in training. Some people might think that if disabled people find accessing the polling station difficult then we should use postal votes instead, but that misses the whole point of democracy and equality, we should all be able to access an equivalent and identical voting experience.
So what can we do? Blog about it, obviously, but you can complain (and I plan to): to council officers, councillors and press, in the most egregious cases to the Electoral Commission, and you can log your voting experience at Scope's Polls Apart website
and hope that we can bring enough pressure to bear that they will do better next time.
Moving on to the second major access fail of the day....
After December's farrago with Flexible New Deal -- yet another epic access fail which I talked about here
-- the Job Centre decided that Job Seekers Allowance couldn't begin to cope with the limitations my disability imposed on my job search and that I would be better off on Employment and Support Allowance (the replacement for Incapacity Benefit). As a result of this I have been working my way through the ESA hoops since late January.
Today's hoop: ESA medical assessment, looking into the work-limiting elements of my disability, of which the major one is that I can't sit without escalating pain (and we're talking sharpened stakes being hammered into places best not elaborated on, not some minor discomfort). Not something I was looking forward to, the government has outsourced the process to ATOS-Origin, whose reputation precedes them, and it isn't a reputation to be proud of.
After voting I had to head home, sort out the papers they needed and head off; luckily the Assessment Centre is local. There's no disabled parking on site (hmm, bit of an oversight there for a site focused on disabled clients), but fortunately the local disabled parking is just a touch over 100m away and at 6PM I could find a space -- not something guaranteed any time between 8AM and 5:30PM. I signed in and was waved through into the waiting room. That had about a dozen chairs, not plastic bucket seats, but not much of a step up from them. None of them had any adjustment, only two of them had arms, the nearest of which I grabbed. After a minute I was already getting hypersensitivity (and that hurts), after two I couldn't sit flat on the chair anymore and I had to roll sideways so I was sitting on the outside of my hip with legs stuck out sideways and generally curled up in pain. By the time we got toward 10 minutes I was physically shaking and realised that there was no way I could sit on a similar chair any longer, so if they had similar chairs in the consultation room then they were going to have to go and find something better.
At that point I was called through. And it turned out that they didn't have the same seats in the consultation room, they were actually worse! Three chairs, no adjustment, no arms, the cheapest style of upholstery.
I didn't even sit down, I just propped myself against the examination couch and told the guy (who never introduced himself) that I need an adjustable seat if we're going to go through with this.
His answer was that that was all they have and that if I need an adjustable seat then they'll have to reschedule.
They have dragged me down there, I am shaking in pain because of it and they can't begin to offer me the most basic accommodation for my disability. It is fair to say I lost my temper, but I kept the criticism to the company rather than the staff, pointing out that amongst other things they had failed to meet the DDA's requirement that they make reasonable adjustments, and were expected to have thought about the needs of their clientele in advance in making those reasonable adjustments. The guy I was seeing said that they had raised the seats issue themselves and had been told to make do with what they had and that he would back my complaint.
So they bring me a complaints form and point to where I should write my complaint. Hello? Disabled person here!
Amongst other things I can't write comfortably (or legibly).
And what makes it worse....
When I filled out the ESA medical form that is a preliminary to the assessment (by stapling a page or more of typescript to every page of the 28 page form), what was the last thing I wrote: "I have major problems with seating, if any extended wait is likely then ideally I need a chair adjustable in both height and seat angle."
Not exactly an unexpected requirement then....
It seems ATOS' reputation is fully justified.