Inaccessible Buildings Is Not Necessarily Discrimination

In the ideal world, every building in the UK would be accessible to wheelchair users and people with a wide range of impairments, but things are not that simple. Rebuilding inaccessible infrastructure that has existed for hundreds of years in some cases takes time and money. I believe the moral argument has been won, and it is now about letting the slow wheels of progress turn.

This is why I was bemused to read about the campaign complaining about inaccessible MPs constituency offices whipped up by the ‘Disability News Service’ and the provocative journalist John Pring. He has highlighted concerns with a number of offices, whipping up a number of activists to demand that all MPs are forced to move to accessible offices, at any cost.

While this sounds a great idea, it misses a few points. Firstly, having an inaccessible office does not necessarily cause discrimination. Under the Disability Discrimination Act, and now the Equality Act, service providers have to make reasonable adaptations to their policies and procedures to avoid less favourable treatment. This means that discrimination only occurs if MPs require disabled members of public to meet them at an inaccessible venue, without offering to meet them somewhere accessible. And as far as I can understand, there is absolutely no evidence any MP has so far discriminated anyone in this matter.

It is important to understand this in terms of their constituency offices, MPs are treated as self employed, and must arrange their offices and staff themselves out of their own expenses. Therefore when there is public pressure not to overspent in terms of expenses, it can be difficult to find office space that is central enough for their constituency without breaking the bank, let alone adding in the need to be accessible, in what remains a working office as oppose to a public building. If a MP is willing to meet people in accessible venues, what is the problem in the short term?

Personally I would change the whole system and make parliament directly responsible for local permanent offices, where some MPs may share, that comes with the job and can be used for a number of statutory functions. But this is an investment for the long term. Meanwhile, people need to do their best with a difficult situation.

I have to admit myself that my office at my home is not accessible to wheelchair users, despite being an outdoor wheelchair user myself, because I have chosen to live and work in a first floor flat. The reason for this is that when I previously lived on the ground floor, I was mugged in my own home, twice! I therefore feel safer where I am. I am of course happy to meet wheelchair user colleagues at accessible venues.

While the activists may grudgingly acknowledge MPs can meet wheelchair users at other accessible venues, they next concern is what if a wheelchair user wants to work for a MP. Again, we live in a world where technology means people can work at home, or anywhere they want, and I am sure MPs could and would accommodate people’s needs if and when needed. We can not endlessly demand money is spent, or indeed wasted, on ‘what-if’ situations. Is your roof strong enough for the day it starts raining elephants?

If I believe an MP, or indeed any other organisation, was directly discriminating disabled people by refusing to meet them in an accessible venue, I would be one of the first people to complain, but let us give them with benefit of doubt, and provide them the opportunity to get it right as the role models of our society, because punishing them for the way society is constructed. If we were going to demand that all inaccessible property across the country had to be abandoned, then whole villages, if not towns, would become ghost towns.

We do need accessible buildings and things have improved dramatically over the last 20, 30 and 40 years, but to have a totally accessible country, and eventually world, will take many more decades and so we need to find other ways to ensure wheelchair users and people with other impairments are not discriminated.

from Simon Stevens


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