I recall flying by myself to New York, at 23, and thinking that what ‘wheelchair access’ meant from one country to another varied, a lot. I quickly learnt that I would have to undertake significant research when travelling. I used my legal skills to identify whether wheelchair access meant the location had a ramp, disabled bathroom and step free levels or whether it just meant ‘we have strong people that can help get you in’.
In my experience, some of the most easily accessible cities were ones that had held the Paralympics. Barcelona and Sydney were undoubtedly leaders in this field and demonstrated how wheelchair access can be logically integrated into a city.
So, has the Paralympics improved accessibility for those with disabilities in Rio, a city where almost one in four of the population has a disability? Reports of visually impaired people trying to use road crossings with no sound and wheelchair users trying to manoeuvre streets with steep curbs and cracked pavements abound. Sometimes, it takes longer to get to platforms at the train stations by way of accessible lifts than the length of the train journey itself! Despite major works being undertaken, clearly there are still issues.
That said, many things have improved as a direct result of the Paralympics. Steve Brown, Captain of the GB 2012 Rugby team and himself spinal cord injured, noted that it was easy for him to move around and that many of the venues, buildings and new amenities in the Olympic area had been designed and built with wheelchair access in mind. It didn’t mean that every corner had a dropped curb, but in his view it was certainly manageable. Restaurants and bars on the beach front had great access, although this didn’t always translate to appropriate bathroom facilities.
Rio appears to be an accessible location if planned properly, and not all that dissimilar to meeting friends in London. But who does it better? The UK or Brazil?
If you have or know someone with a spinal cord injury, you will be all too aware of the daily issues wheelchair users face when accessing the community and amenities. But it still shocks and surprises those that do not use wheelchairs, many of whom cannot believe that in this day and age, with clear legislation stating reasonable access is to be implemented and maintained, that we still face a daily barrage of discrimination.
The discrimination is endemic. It ranges from a lack of dropped curbs; steps to front doors; no disabled toilet facilities; no lifts to other floors; not forgetting those who initially thought about access to “tick the box” and have since abandoned maintaining those measures.
Just this weekend, I faced discrimination from a fashion retailer in Richmond. They had installed a platform lift to climb 2-3 steps in their shop. It broke eight years ago and no one had bothered to repair it. Only once I challenged the manager and threatened to sue did I receive an email from Head Office apologising and stating remedial action would be taken. I shouldn’t have to threaten legal action for a shop to maintain access. It’s simple: implement access, maintain it, and you will see the benefits to your business.
London 2012 did however bring improvements to the city’s public transport system. Tube platforms have been raised and ramps have been made available at many tube and train stations. Whilst not as extreme as the situation with Rio’s trains, there is a high level of planning involved in getting around the city.
Recent research from the charity Scope suggests that the positive impact of the Paralympics for disabled people is short-lived. Only 20% of those surveyed thinks Britain is a better place to be since London 2012 and the success of the Paralympic Games.
Educating those who do not use wheelchairs is key to accessibility being prioritised. I ran a wheelchair awareness day with my firm, Bolt Burdon Kemp, to educate barristers about the access problems those in a wheelchair face on a daily basis, and it was a real eye-opener for all involved.
Do disabled people living in Rio think that access and other issues facing disabled people will miraculously improve overnight after the Olympics and Paralympics? No. But it’s a step forward.
Managing access in Rio is no harder than in London, so I’ll certainly be putting Rio on my destination list for 2017.
And, let’s be honest, is there really any city in the world that doesn’t still have a long way to go when it comes to disability access?