Disabled History Month is celebating it's 11th year in November 2020, focusing on Access and asking the questions ‘How far have we come? How far have we to go?’
UK Disability History Month runs from the online launch on the evening of 18th November to 18th December 2020.
For disabled people access is now a fundamental human right, as is gaining participation on an equal level with others, regardless of impairments. AccessAble Founder Gregory Burke has been reflecting on "How far have we come? How far have we to go?’ and talks about his personal experiences.
As a young man living in Worthing on the South Coast, whenever I needed to travel by train North, I had no option but to use the lifts at Worthing central station.
I went along in my wheelchair or my mobility scooter and my first challenge at the station was the stepped entrance; I needed to alert somebody in the station that I needed to come through the “accessible” entrance; this usually meant accosting a person walking up the steps and asking them to pass on a message to the staff for me.
The accessible entrance was of course not accessible to me! It was the goods entrance with a concertina door or gate which was almost always locked.
Once I had negotiated this, and actually managed to get onto the station, it was invariably a different person who would be needed to be asked for assistance in using the lift. I would need to go off and find them.
The lifts to the platforms were also goods lifts, each with heavy metal outer door and a concertina door just inside it. The first lift led down to the subway where there would be ramped access under the railway lines to another lift with the same metal door and concertina door.
Of course, once I got up onto the platform, I then needed to speak to yet another person to get a ramp onto the train. All in all, it was quite a wearing experience before I had even travelled for a moment.
I returned to Worthing fairly recently and the front of the station no longer had just stepped access but a long ramp which suited me very well.
The lifts no longer needed me to have any assistance to use them because they were push-button electric on both sides of the railway line. This may seem of little significance to many non-disabled people but for me it was a world of difference.
It did not just make my journey quicker and smoother it removed the imposition of dependency upon someone else. As the lift went down to the subway on that first occasion that I used it on my own, I offered up a silent prayer and thanks for all those who had campaigned for disabled peoples’ rights as this was tangible evidence of progress and change.
I also reflected as I got onto the train that the days of having to give 24 hours-notice before travelling – which really was absurd when that is given just a second’s thought – had also fallen away.
There were many days when I was setting up DisabledGo in the early 2000s when it simply wasn't possible to arrange travel-assistance 24 hours in advance and I encountered downright hostility from train station staff across the country when I turned up unannounced. Many was the time when my train would come in the platform and I would watch it leave, seething, as the station staff were too busy to put me on. Nowadays, in my day job as a barrister I arrive at stations often with two or three minutes to spare before the train comes in and I'm regularly put on the train without any problem with some notable exceptions aside; notably Brighton.
So, the progress is very welcome, but in the well-worn phrase “there is much left still to do”. Self-boarding level access trains are very rare. The availability of seating for wheelchair-users is still very limited in most trains.
Some train lines don't provide access into first class, if you were to substitute the Equality Act protected characteristic of disability for another protected characteristic, say race or gender or age, and if you were to say that first class accommodation was not available if you were a man or if you were white or if you were black or if you were over 50 or if you were under 30 there would be outrage . But in 2020 it is still seemingly acceptable for disabled people to be excluded.
The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 was heralded as a great advance for disabled peoples’ rights. In many ways it was. The Disability Rights Commission welcomed Part III of the Act by saying it was “the biggest change in consumer law for a generation”. Unfortunately, the change was not adequately supported by sufficient enforcement.
It was the case then and it is still the case today, under the Equality Act 2010, that in most cases it is for the disabled person themselves to bring a claim of discrimination in the County Courts.
What this means in practise is that a disabled person bringing a claim of discrimination has to fund their litigation. They have to pay the court fees. They may need the help of a solicitor in preparing the case and may require the services of a barrister at court. They have to fund this, usually, by themselves out of their own pocket.
All lawyers speak of “litigation risk”. This means that in the overwhelming majority of cases that go to court the outcome is not certain. In other words, you may lose.
Under current provisions if a disabled person loses their case then they will be liable for their own costs. Again, in other words they will be out of pocket for all the money they have spent in bringing the case to court. Worse than that though, they are also likely to be liable for the costs of the defendant; the person or business or organisation that they are claiming against. The costs could easily run into thousands of pounds. This has remained a significant disincentive both for businesses and service providers to make themselves more fully accessible and for disabled people to bring claims.
In personal injury claims there is a provision called QOCS: which stands for Qualified One Way Costs Shifting. This means that if you bring a personal injury claim and you are unsuccessful you are not liable to pay for the costs of the defending party. It was recently argued that this provision should be applied to discrimination claims as well but unfortunately the Court of Appeal disagreed. It needs Parliament to legislate. But it has shown no appetite to do so for the last 25 years and it is not something, sadly, that the Equality Act 2010 addressed.
For the moment, if you are in employment, you can bring an employment claim without needing to pay a fee or the other sides’ costs if you lose. However, there has been significant ‘to and fro’ regarding unemployment tribunal costs and, without going into all of that here, it is a state of affairs which needs vigilant defending.
I recently attended the Shaw Trust Disabled Power List 100. This list comprises 100 influential disabled people who are role models, advocates, campaigners and social changers. The talent on show was awesome and the hugely encouraging aspect is that this talent is only the tip of the iceberg.
I can see a time when a Disability History Month looks back and explains how disabled people managed to coalesce as an effective political force. The numbers of disabled people in our country is larger than any parties’ entire vote in the last general election. In the same way as the Black Lives Matter movement has recognised that continuing discrimination is simply unacceptable and just will not be tolerated any longer, the same butterfly out of the chrysalis moment is awaiting disabled people on a mass scale; a scale that goes beyond campaigners and resonates fully and completely with disabled people at large and resounds with all those in society who care about equality and freedom. Once we realise our power and have the courage to exercise it, all things are possible. The train of change is coming down the track.
Gregory Burke is the Founder of AccessAble.co.uk which provides detailed access guides to venues and services across the UK to empower disabled people to decide whether a venue is suitable for their own particular requirements. Nearly 2 million people used the free service last year. AccessAble also provides a range of consultancy services too. Gregory is also a practising employment and discrimination barrister at a leading London set of chambers.