The recent account of Paralympian Anne Wafula Strike’s experience of being forced to wet herself on a train because of the lack of an accessible toilet is as distressing as her courage in speaking out is impressive.
Strike’s story provides a stark example of the extreme consequences that a failure to accommodate the practical needs of disabled people can have for us. It is hard to imagine anything more humiliating than having to ‘go to the toilet’ (an ironic euphemism in the circumstances) in public, literally the stuff of nightmares.
And it seems from other recent articles - for example actor Samantha Renke’s description of an injury-threatening train journey where the accessible wheelchair space was full of luggage and passengers - that this is by no means an uncommon experience.
Strike’s experience also illustrates very powerfully a wider reality faced by many disabled people; that we are dependent for our dignified participation in the world (or indeed often for any form of participation at all), on someone else making reliably effective arrangements to accommodate our needs.
The very fact of that dependence is, at least speaking personally, an emotional challenge. To know that it is ‘touch-and-go’ whether you will be able to climb onto a train, or manage the shower in a hotel room, or reach the exit button in an airlock, or whatever, can create a feeling of ‘being different’ that no amount of kind help can completely erase.
And that’s when things don’t go completely wrong.
High-profile stories of the hazards faced by disabled people going about their ordinary business are nothing new. Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson’s account of having to crawl off a train at midnight when no assistance arrived is an example. That was more than four years ago.
There have also been campaigns highlighting the obstacles disabled people face using public transport. Yet it seems from the recent coverage that little has changed.
Having to wet oneself ranks pretty high on the humiliation index by any standards. But perhaps the even greater humiliation is the brutal reminder of what it means and how it feels for one’s autonomy to be contingent on factors outside of one’s control; on people or systems that are too often inadequate or, worse, indifferent, appearing to lack even a basic level of imagination and empathy.
To find oneself at the mercy of such inhospitality is to experience vulnerability and disempowerment in a way that may be unfamiliar to those who can take their inclusion for granted. Any serious commitment to inclusion and access must incorporate a full appreciation of this.
Disabled people have the legal right to the ramps, accessible toilets, hearing loops and other practical arrangements they need to access premises and services alongside their able-bodied co-citizens.
But unless such provision is firmly grounded in the recognition – at an emotional as well as practical level - that true equality means knowing that you will not (barring the kind of extreme circumstances that could affect anyone) find yourself unable to go to the toilet, or buy a drink, or get off a train, then disabled people will continue to suffer the degradation of exclusion.
Unless accessibility arrangements are stitched into the fabric of public life, rather than being tacked on as an optional extra, disabled people will always travel second class.
Strike’s question - “when will they give me my dignity back?” - says it all; her dignity should never have been detachable in the first place.