Is the "New Normal" Accessible?
Euan’s Guide London Ambassador Tina shares the concerns she and other disabled people have about changes that are being made to travel arrangements in what is being called the “new normal”.
As lockdown begins to lift, many disabled people are feeling very apprehensive. Over the last few weeks there’s been a lot of discussion about how our society is going to implement social distancing measures, under what is being called the “new normal”. For those of us who have been shielding and have not left our homes for several months, as well as worrying if it is safe to go out, we’re also wondering if the so called “new normal” will be accessible for us.
My heart sank a few weeks ago when I first heard of the Street Space Plan for London, and the similar schemes up and down the country, which focus on more people walking and cycling and less reliance on public transport. While change is inevitable and necessary to keep everyone safe, I'm very concerned that changes seems to be being introduced quickly, and it’s unclear if organisations have been working with disabled people’s groups to ensure that the new infrastructures in our town centres will be accessible to all.
Disabled people’s access needs to be central to new street layouts. Car Free Zones are being introduced in some urban areas, however many people with a mobility impairment are unable to walk very far or cycle. For some of us cars or taxis are the only accessible way to leave home, go to work, meet family and friends or attend medical appointments. All car free zones policies need to provide easy vehicle access and accessible parking spaces for those who need it.
The plans for pavement widening have been welcomed by many wheelchair users and people who use mobility aids, who have traditionally found it difficult to navigate busy streets. However, in London changes have been made by just placing a barrier in the road and letting pedestrians walk on part of it. While it creates extra space, this isn’t necessarily very accessible for wheelchair users, unless there are also step free access and drop kerbs. Likewise, people with visual impairments aren’t going to know when it is safe to walk on the road or where to cross, without easily accessible information about new street layouts and appropriate tactile paving.
Another change to our high streets will be street furniture. Cafes and bars offering more outdoor tables to accommodate social distancing, an increase in the numbers of bike racks or docking stations to accommodate the expected growth of cycling and queues outside shops, will impact disproportionality on disabled people. I've also read reports that in Newcastle, they are planning to remove street furniture. This is a huge worry for me if areas adopt this, as when I go for a walk I will often rely on seating, such as benches and bus shelter seating, to break my journey and help manage my pain and fatigue levels. If seating is removed, it will restrict the overall distance I and many other disabled people can manage to walk safely.
For a lot of disabled people cycling is not going to be a viable option for them. Some of the existing cycle lanes in London are problematic for people with mobility, visual and hearing impairments. For example, there are some bus stops which involve people having to step out onto a cycle lane when they exit the bus, which is potentially dangerous. On my commute to work, I regularly have cyclists riding past me as I try to cross a zebra or traffic crossing, even though I have right of way, and I also have to navigate round hired bikes which have been left in the middle of the pavement. I worry about how disabled people’s journeys will be with even more cyclists about.
People are being asked to avoid public transport if they can, however this isn’t an option for many people with mobility disabilities. The existing train and tube network still have many stations that are not step free, which means that many disabled people have limited choices when it comes to accessing public transport, and for many only buses provide a step free option. A huge concern within our disabled community is how special assistance will work within the new norms of social distancing and will there still be wheelchair spaces and priority seating. Face masks are now compulsory on public transport, but disabled people need to know that they are exempt, and the general public need to be aware too so that disabled people are not harassed if they are not wearing one. Systems need to be put in place so that people with hearing impairments that lip read, are still able to communicate. Transport organisations need to work with disabled people to ensure our access needs are met and delivered safely.
I also worry about the infrastructure and changes in layouts more generally. The introduction of new one-way routes into and around buildings will be a struggle for a lot of us. Many of us with mobility impairments will find the increased distances this creates a challenge, and for those who are visually impaired may will find their confidence and independence has been removed, as they learn to navigate new routes. Add to all that longer queuing times, possibly without the availability of a seat, while we wait to board transport or enter a building, and I can easily see the situation being too stressful for me and some other disabled people to the point that, we won’t want to go out altogether.
My request to all organisations, big and small, is please ensure that you meet the access needs of disabled people both now, when shielding comes to an end and in the long term. As disabled people many of us have felt our access needs have not been met during lockdown and we are hurting. We do not want to come out of shielding to find that the “new normal” has reduced our access needs, marginalise our community and excluded us from society. Please be inclusive.
We hope you found Tina’s article useful. We are using this series to allow people to share their experiences of lockdown and raise awareness of topics that are important to them. We invite you to take part in our Covid Concerns and Precautions Survey to share your views on any concerns you have.