"The whisky got better, travel remains in turmoil and parks became palaces"
The landscape of International Day of Disabled People, #IDDP, is very different this year from what it was some years ago. My first recollections of the day go back to 2003. In those days we were busy drawing diagrams, giving out leaflets and tinkering with an early internet. Our big wish was to educate communities, people and planners about how they can change landscapes and buildings to be accessible.
Today we celebrate and consider as we think about hidden impairments, relaxed performances, Changing Places toilets, level boarding, inclusive playgrounds and so much more. It’s not utopia though as there’s still so much to do.
Our travel and transport systems remain an embarrassment in many places with broken equipment, failed apps to book non-existent services, people stuck on trains when boarding ramps fail to arrive for wheelchair users, buses being provided for temporary services with no wheelchair access or an ability to ‘kneel’ for people with mobility impairments.
The ‘adjustments’, as our legal friends call them, can be achieved, but they depend heavily on people and policy rather than practical issues. Often the perceptions of life get in the way as we listen to businesses say things like “we don’t see many disabled people here”, “they spend little so it’s not worth considering” or fabulously the age old saying of “it’s a historic building and we can’t change it”.
Really? Maybe we need to highlight the amazing things that have happened since the early days of IDDP. After all, North Link Ferries installed Changing Places Toilets on its vessels. HoverTravel built hovercraft with integrated wheelchair ramps and Greater Anglian introduced level boarding on their latest trains.
With our ongoing pandemic, so much has changed as we celebrate this International Day. The crisis has disproportionately affected disabled people across the globe. We have experienced the erosion of access to food, care and support, work and civic participation. All in the name of precautions and safety.
It’s not all bad news. Some discoveries were made and old joys rekindled as we rediscovered the wonder of outdoor spaces and places. Visiting the local park became an adventure and a reward for so many. Open spaces with accessible walks with good access and toilet facilities suddenly became go to places. Our palaces of calm and serenity in a period of uncertainty, worry and concern.
Against this negative canvas, it’s important to acknowledge that there have been some unexpected surprises since my early days of pondering over plans of accessible parking bays, accessible loo measurements and ideal heights for kitchen units.
The outstanding thing for me, reflecting on the changes I’ve seen, is how some sectors of our communities have picked up the metaphorical baton and pursued access and inclusion with a degree of unexpected vigour.
This past year I have been drawn to how here, in Scotland, the whisky industry has embraced the challenge of sharing their passion, their heritage and their stories with as many people as they can.
I’m reminded of the amazing experience of visiting so many distilleries; both old and new. The discovery of Glenkinchie and its beautiful garden, a balcony moment looking out to a mysterious seascape as Clynelish or peering over the stills at Kingsbarns, the traditional setting of Cardhu, or enjoying a wee dram over at Holyrood.
The visitor centres who have embraced accessibility and gone above and beyond the usual expectations of disabled guests. The Scotch Whisky Experience in Edinburgh with its multilingual and BSL / ASL tours and the amazing up close and intimate feeling as you explore the Claive Vidiz Whisky Collection of nearly 4,000 bottles!
Nestling under the gaze of the Castle and on Edinburgh’s main thoroughfare, you have The Johnnie Walker Experience. Created to be inclusive from the outset, it offers a Changing Places Toilet, fabulous rooftop views and a wonderfully immersive storytelling as you journey on its tours.
So as I reflect on International Day of Disabled People 2021, I raise a glass to the many people and places who have worked hard this year to include disabled people in their storytelling… Slàinte Mhath!
Written by Paul Ralph, Access and Inclusion Director & Founder of Disabled Access Day