Cross-town challenges

London is choc-a-block with obstacles for the disabled. If you successfully negotiate the narrow passageways and slippery surfaces, the stairs are guaranteed to grind you to a halt – as Gaynor Williams discovers when she ventures out with a sprained ankle.

I once commissioned a well-known critic, who had been wheelchair-bound for much of his life, to write a magazine article about his experience of disability. Were buildings adequate? Was product design ever thought through from the point of view of a disabled person?

The article never turned up. Then one day he wrote to me explaining that he’d begun writing the piece, but became so upset that he’d had to give up. ” I just got more and more bitter,” he said.

You never know what it’s like until it happens to you. Perhaps this is why the outside world is so hostile to people with any disability – whether it’s a broken leg, blindness, deafness, or simple old age. When American designer Pat Moore dressed herself up as an old woman and deliberately simulated the handicaps of old age, she found the numbers of obstacles she had to face every day really alarming. How many disabled architects, planners, developers or designers do you know?

Most of the time, an improvement to aid the disabled (lifts, wider or lighter doors, broader passageways, non-slip flooring surfaces, better lighting, clearer signs) would improve things for everyone, particularly people loaded down with either shopping or children. But it is painfully difficult to get this message across. As anyone who has had to push a child’s buggy around a city centre will tell you, the built environment is full to the gills with booby-traps and snares.

Things are changing for the better, but too slowly. While companies such as Abbey National and McDonald’s have made great strides – they obviously haven’t forgotten that there’s a market of 6.2 million disabled people – there are still public libraries, not to mention cinemas and theatres, with no wheelchair access, despite pro-access legislation dating from 1976. A ridiculously convenient legal loophole was left in that legislation – it said that only “practical and reasonable” measures should be taken.

In “talking out” the recent civil rights bill, the Government claimed that it would cost ú17bn for employers to take on disabled people. Yet American research indicates that a third of all “adjustments” to buildings cost nothing at all. Nineteen per cent of those “adjustments” cost ú2.50. This is a disgrace. So even disability is subject to governmental obsession with “self-regulation”.

London Underground is one thing: its infrastructure is old, its cash limited, the task simply huge. But Bafta (see diary entry below)? The place looks as though it’s only recently been refurbished. I know stairs are beautiful: they’ve played many a good cinematic supporting role. What would Gone With The Wind have been like without that great staircase? But, as Picasso said: “Every positive value has its price in negative terms.”

It all puts me in mind of the (true) story of the chief architect asked by Swansea City Council to build a sports stadium for both able and disabled athletes. At the opening ceremony, he was asked to enter in a wheelchair. It took about 20 minutes and a number of strong men to get him even as far as the threshold. Morfa Sports Stadium had been built at the top of an Olympian series of steps. Can you believe that? It was captured on film, Bafta…

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