Five great tips for using London buses in a wheelchair


The photo is of a red Routemaster bus in London. The bus is number 88, to Clapham Common. It fills the image, and is on a road. In the background of the image are some shops, and the bus is being followed by a taxi
Routemaster bus number 88 to Clapham Common

Having lived in London for three years, I’ve taken a lot of buses. In that time, I’ve been sworn at by drivers, had a woman accuse me of trying to kill her baby, been shouted and sworn at by passengers, and been chased off a bus in tears – all for trying to assert my legal right to have priority in the sole wheelchair space – the only space on a bus where I can safely travel. I’ve also learned a lot about how to travel on London buses in a wheelchair. Bus travel has improved in 3 years. Buses are far more likely to stop for me than they used to be. Other passengers are far more willing to share the wheelchair space, and ramps are far more likely to be in operation. However, there’s still a long way to go.

Always film the bus. When you see the bus pulling up, have your phone out, filming if possible. There’s no need to be obvious, but this means you have the exact time and numberplate if something goes wrong. In my experience, TFL are far more likely to be responsive if you can offer them video evidence alongside your claim. Keep filming until you are safely placed in the wheelchair space and the bus is pulling off. Other passengers can be horribly abusive, and a video or audio recording makes good evidence. Had I had this evidence, I could have reported hate crimes in the past – but without it I knew the report would go nowhere

Flag the bus obviously. As the bus pulls up, move in front of the other passengers, and flag the bus visibly, so it’s certain to know you’re there. If you can’t signal, ask someone else to point to you. Once the bus comes to a halt, if the driver hasn’t seen you you can pull round the side and press the ramp request button. If the driver completely ignores you and doesn’t stop, report them to TFL

Have someone guide you up the ramp and clear the space. I struggle with going up ramps backwards, but going up forwards makes it hard to turn into the wheelchair space. I make sure someone’s always got my handles as I reverse and is guiding me straight. That person also makes sure everyone’s moved their buggies and shopping, with a fixed smile and a repeated “can I have the wheelchair space please”. The advantage of them coming up the ramp with you is that the bus can’t pull off before they get on, separating you. Having that person there also means you won’t be stranded if there’s aggro with the other passengers. That person can then go down, tap in, and let the driver know your destination. I find this helpful because I often miss hearing the announcements, and the display isn’t visible from the wheelchair space on most buses.

Know your rights. In early 2017, the Supreme Court ruled that wheelchair users have legal priority in the wheelchair space, and people with buggies should fold their buggy and vacate the space. TFL asks bus drivers to keep the front door closed until wheelchair users have boarded the bus, which makes it easier to get on as other passengers aren’t moving through the bus and into the wheelchair space just as I try to get on. It also requires bus drivers to repeatedly announce that buggies must fold and vacate the wheelchair space. If they refuse after several recorded messages from the driver, then the bus driver must radio the next bus to inform them of the wheelchair user waiting before they leave the stop. If the driver has not done all of these steps, then they’ve breached TFL guidance. To complain about this, fill in this form. Remember your video evidence.

If conflict is flaring, leave it. If people really refuse to move their buggies out of the way to let you us the space, it’s worth the person you’re with asking the driver to require that they move again. If that doesn’t work, and people start raising their voices and swearing, it is often safer to get off the bus. I understand the temptation to get into an argument, but if someone’s that angry I wouldn’t want to remain stuck on the bus with them anyway. I’ve narrowly avoided physical violence (really, over a wheelchair space), and I don’t plan to change that.

In general I find buses easy to travel on compared to trains, but I do discover that at certain times of day it can be harder. After school, there are lots of parents with buggies trying to collect their children and take them home. This means between about 2pm and 4pm you’re a lot more likely to encounter conflict over the space. Conflict is also a risk in the mornings, when people are trying to get kids to school. Finally, at rush hour, between about 5pm and 7pm buses can be so full that there isn’t literal space for you on them. Don’t let this stop you from travelling, but do be prepared.

I tend to leave 3 buses of leeway. That way if I miss 3 buses for whatever reason then I can still get to my appointment on time. It”s really frustrating always arriving early, but it’s better than being late to something important because you couldn’t get on the bus.

What are your tips for travelling on London buses? Comment here or tweet me at @jamierhale

A Poet in London? Not if you’re travelling by wheelchair!

A cast iron sign saying "London" with a pointing finger

Building a career as a poet in London is hard enough – doing it while relying on wheelchair accessible public transport is almost impossible

The problem with trying to build a performance poetry career in London is that London is a big city, and early-career you really don’t want to turn down any bookings. This means being willing to travel to all ends of the city for a 5 minute set in an empty room – challenging and dispiriting for anyone, but when you can’t use most of the transport network (and no, I’m not exaggerating), this becomes almost impossible.

When I could still walk, even with crutches, public transport was a pain. I fell on steps to the Underground, had to sit and rest in the long tunnels, or later had to ask people to carry my manual wheelchair while I dragged myself down the staircases. Now that I’m in an electric wheelchair, most of the tube network is closed off to me – and even a number of the ‘accessible’ stations have a gap that is insurmountable. Transport For London design a ‘step-free tube map’ [link] in which you will quickly see that much of London is wiped off.

Out of 270 London Underground stations, about 70 have some degree of wheelchair access. Of those, about half are completely flat access (the other half require a ramp or similar). But wait! Even the stations TFL gives their highest rating for offering flat access could have a step of 5cm and a gap of 8.5cm. Indeed, stations TFL shows on their ‘step free’ map can still have a step of up to 32cm (higher than the long side of an A4 sheet) and a gap of 25cm (almost as long as an A4 sheet). I know no electric wheelchair that could do that safely.

Transport for All [link] have some good resources on their website, but let’s be honest, unless my booking is somewhere very central (rare for an early-career poet), I’m going to be taking a route that takes twice as long as it would someone who could climb steps, and will probably rely on staff remembering to turn up with a ramp in the right place at the right time. This goes wrong about 20%-25% of the time in my experience, leaving me stranded on a train while the doors try and close on my footplates and the person I’m with goes running after a staff member to find the ramp. This delays the train and angers the staff, but it’s my only option if I want to get off!

So, buses. Often my only option. They’re meant to all have ramps, wheelchair spaces, and drivers who will let you use both. However:

  • Drivers don’t like getting the ramp down, it takes time
  • Standing passengers don’t like moving out of the wheelchair space (despite wheelchairs having legal priority in that space)
  • People with buggies really don’t like moving out of the wheelchair space (despite wheelchairs still having legal priority in that space)

This means in practice that I don’t get on about 20-25% of buses I try to get onto either. Sometimes because drivers won’t ask the buggy to move, sometimes because the buggy won’t move, sometimes because the ramp is ‘broken’ (I’ll believe it when I see it), and sometimes because the driver is an arsehole and decides despite acknowledging me and hearing me press the ramp request button on the side, he just wants to pull away anyway.

The reason there’s a wheelchair space on buses is because disabled people chained themselves to buses to demand one [link]. If I hear of a protest from people with buggies, chaining themselves to buses to demand an additional buggy space, I’ll bring them thermos flasks of tea and sandwiches (if I can get there), but until then I’m going to exercise my legal right to travel in the sole wheelchair space.

I’ve had people screaming at me, and accusing me of trying to kill their baby for asking them either to fold their buggy and carry their child or to get off and ask for a transfer token, . I’ve had drivers pull away while my wheelchair remains unsecured in the middle of the gangway. I’ve been shouted at and sworn at for delaying buses. I’ve fled them in tears. Never once has another passenger intervened to help me – people just stay silent and look away.

If I have to get a bus (which I hate doing, but it’s better than relying on someone to remember the ramp when I want to get off the train), like everyone I have to calculate for traffic. On top of that I then have to calculate a route that will get me there on time if I have to miss three buses because of rude drivers, broken ramps and angry people with buggies. If a bus is every 20 minutes, then I have to leave an hour earlier, just in case my legal right to travel is impeded.

Once I get to the venue, I then have to believe the organiser when they say it’s flat access. This often means in practice “flat access as long as you can wheel safely up an Everest-steep ramp”, or “flat access… but not to the stage” or “flat access via a stair-lift with 100kg max weight” (my wheelchair is hundreds of kilos, because it’s quite specialist).

And then… time to perform – by which time I’m exhausted, frazzled and upset. It’s enough to make anyone quit.

If you’re booking disabled performers, think about the extra support we might need. Consider setting up a taxi-fund for us, so that we don’t have to spend our earnings on taxis. Similarly, ask if we’re going to face any other additional costs (e.g. paying aides) and contribute to those if you can. If you’re funded by Arts Council England, then put these costs in from the beginning.

Similarly think about space and equipment. Are you offering BSL translation of the performances (if not, why not)? Does your venue have a hearing loop and do you know how it works? Have you got quiet spaces set aside where appropriate? Do you have an accessible toilet (and is it big enough for two people)? Do you have a Changing Places toilet [link] or do you know where the nearest one is? Do you have audio-description set up? Audio-description can be done by someone sat next to audience members who require it, or can be pre-recorded onto an .mp3 player. Have you asked your performers what access needs we have (and if you have, are you prepared to meet those)?  If your event has no budget whatsoever and you cannot acquire a BSL translator (and you’ve tried very very hard) do you have performance scripts to lend to D/deaf audience-members?

Many disabled people are prevented from earning money because of restrictive benefits regimes, while others are limited to earning a certain amount each week. If your performers tell you they can’t accept money, see if they have any costs associated with performing that you can pay instead – care, taxis, equipment, props…

I’ve been lucky – bookings at the Barbican Centre last year and Invisible Festival earlier this year went smoothly, with the maximum assistance from the organisers, while Crip Casino @ Platform Southwark later this month [link], and the Barbican Centre for my OpenLab week bode well.  Only the Barbican Centre can offer a Changing Places toilet (I’ll write about my need for them soon), but Platform Southwark is near one. At Invisible Festival I had to occupy the entire toilet area, because the single accessible toilet wasn’t big enough for my PAs to change me in – but nobody complained!

While many of the challenges disabled poets face reaching venues are built into London, there’s a lot a good event organiser can do to mitigate those – whether through meeting the extra costs we face or through very precise planning to make sure that everything you can do is being done. When you’re considering diversity amongst your performers – race, gender, sexuality, class etc please also consider booking disabled performers, and for the love of god it’s 2018 – there is no excuse for booking wheelchair inaccessible venues for your event.

Assisted suicide: a shift to neutrality is not a neutral move

A black shield on the left, and the words "Royal College of Physicians" on the right

The views in this article are entirely my own and do not reflect that of any organisation I work with. They should be considered reflective of my position at the time of writing, which may have since changed.

The public debate about assisted suicide is constantly being argued and reargued in the media, courts, and institutions. Just five years after it last polled its membership on the legalisation of assisted suicide, the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) is going to repeat this task. The principled opposition of the RCP to the legalisation of assisted suicide has been of great significance to the anti-assisted suicide movement. It has also told ill and disabled people that our doctors are present to support us to live, not waiting to end our lives. The fact that the RCP is polling its members so soon after last time is concerning.

When its members were polled in 2014, the majority, 58%, would not participate in ‘assisted dying’. At that time, 44% of members felt the RCP should continue opposing a change in the law to permit assisted suicide, with a further 31% preferring to be “neutral / no stance”. It maintained its position opposing assisted suicide, but that is now up for debate. Based on the results from the last survey, they are likely to move to a neutral position – not because of a shift in opinion, but because of a shift in the questions.

This blog is going to focus primarily on my concerns around process and effect rather than the roots of my opposition to assisted suicide. I want to explore whether the approach the RCP is taking towards polling its members introduces bias into the system. I will also touch on whether direct democracy is the most ethical way of solving these disputes, and finally. I will consider some of the unintended effects that might occur if the RCP shifted from opposition to neutrality. While my opposition to assisted suicide is steadfast, that will not be the focus of this blog. I have discussed the risks to disabled people of legalising it extensively elsewhere (1), (2).

Alterations to the survey questions – introducing bias

Surveys of the members of the RCP in 2006 and 2014 used several similar questions, in order to track the changing opinions of members. The RCP have stated that in their 2019 survey “following feedback from fellows and members, we have slightly altered the questions. The new questions are similar enough to the ones we asked previously that we will be able to track change in opinion over time if it exists, but the most important thing is to know what fellows and members think now.” This statement is not accurate – the alteration to the questions is neither neutral nor slight, and makes it impossible to compare the results of the surveys. The change in language will entail an introduction of bias.

In 2014, members were asked Do you support a change in the law to permit assisted suicide by the terminally ill with the assistance of doctors?”, while in 2019, they will be asked whether they support Do you support a change in the law to permit assisted dying?”. This change in terminology is already reflective of a shift in position – with no transparency on how or why this shift was made.

“Assisted dying” is typically the preferred phrase of pro “assisted dying” lobbying bodies such as Dignity in Dying, who maintain that there is a meaningful distinction between this and assisted suicide. Assisted suicide is the term typically preferred by activists opposed to its legalisation. Language and phrasing appear to have a significant effect on populations answering survey questions on this topic. By reframing it from “suicide” to “”dying”, the implication is of the doctor assisting someone in an ongoing natural process, rather than intervening to directly and deliberately end a patient’s life prematurely. This change in language to a softer gentler word will affect the answers people give.

Furthermore the question in 2014 focused on “do you support a change in the law to permit assisted suicide by the terminally ill with the assistance of doctors?” while in 2019, the members are being asked “do you support a change in the law to permit assisted dying?”. The definitions given for “assisted dying” in the consultation document clarify that this refers to terminally ill patients, but that clarification has been removed from the text of the question. The new framing will allow quotes from the results of the survey to be used to support a legalisation far more broad than simply for terminally ill patients.

In 2014 members were asked “What should the College’s position be on ‘assisted dying’ as defined in the RCP’s consultation document.” The options were “In favour“, “Opposed“, and “Neutral/no stance“. In 2019, members are being asked “What should the RCP’s position be on whether or not there should be a change in the law to permit assisted dying?” and the options are “In favour“, “Opposed“, and “Neutral“. The phrasing of the question is different – it is no longer referencing the consultation document to define exactly what “assisted dying” means. This allows the question to be removed from its context and used with a media spin in the future to argue that doctors would support a legalisation far broader than the people answering “In favour” might have intended.

The change in options is also significant. A neutral position, and not taking a stance, are very different things. A neutral position implies members being poised between supporting it and being opposed to it, while not taking a stance suggests that the RCP has chosen to remove itself from having a single firm position in the debate. Members are now forced to select between three active positions in 2019.

These alterations will have an impact on how people respond to the survey. Despite the assertions of the RCP, they make the data on percentage support for various measures broadly incomparable between years. The introduction of such a significant degree of bias through altering the questions is only part of the problem.

Shifting the goalposts

In 2014, the position of the RCP was that the majority position was that taken. In answer to the question “What should the College’s position be on ‘assisted dying’ as defined in the RCP’s consultation document.”, 44% of respondents answered “opposed“, a further 31% answered “neutral/no stance“, and 25% answered “in favour“. This was a clear majority in favour of opposing it, and as a result the RCP maintained its position in opposing assisted suicide.

For the 2019 survey, it has been decided that unless there is a ⅔ majority either in favour of ‘assisted dying’ or opposed to it, the RCP will take a neutral position. This looks fair at first glance – but it is not. It would theoretically be possible for an additional 20% of respondents to oppose ‘assisted dying’, taking the percentage from 44% to 64%, and the RCP still to shift their position closer to that of supporting assisted dying. The change to this decision more-or-less guarantees that the RCP will move to a neutral position.

Here, someone might argue that taking a neutral position or having no stance (which are not the same thing, despite being grouped together in the 2014 question) is not a shift towards assisted suicide. Certainly if the RCP had not had a position on assisted suicide previously then their decision to be neutral unless there was a significant majority in favour of a position would be appropriate. However, as they currently maintain an opposition, a shift towards neutrality is also a shift away from opposition. This potential change in position would be celebrated by advocates of ‘assisted dying’ as another step towards full legalisation.

If the RCP were set on moving the goalposts to require a ⅔ majority to formally support or oppose ‘assisted dying’, it might have been more appropriate to say that they would take no stance without that, rather than that they would take a neutral position. Taking a neutral position is an active shift from opposition towards assisted suicide, while stepping away and not taking an active stance in the debate would have better reflected the disagreements between these camps and the challenges inherent in taking a position.

Democracy in ethics

I have considerable concern about direct democracy as a method of solving ethical and philosophical dilemmas. The debate over assisted suicide is one that goes to the heart of medicine – how do doctors best serve the needs and desires of patients, what may patients ask of their doctors, and whether palliative care truly has the capacity to give patients the lack of discomfort they wish for. However, it also goes to the heart of ethics – choice, autonomy, obligation to act, beneficience, non-maleficience, equity.

One problem with referenda is that the population being polled haven’t had adequate time and energy to commit to understanding all the issues on all sides of the debate. Doctors responding to this consultation may not have had the time to read a considerable amount of material on the implications of their choice. They might not have considered all the issues, and their vote might be easily swayed by emotional considerations.

This is an argument in favour of representative democracy instead of direct democracy, that the population cannot adequately learn everything about a single topic and make a fully informed decision, and thus they elect representatives to whom they delegate that responsibility.

I believe that polling the vast membership of the RCP is not the best way for it to evolve its stance on assisted suicide. A process of seeking consensus is needed when it’s such a contentious issue. As it stands, there is no agreement between competing camps, and the RCP shifting its position following a survey consultation is not going to mend those divisions.

Unintended effects

A shift in position from opposition to neutral is not a neutral act. It would embolden activists in favour of assisted suicide to push again for legal change, but it could also have a very real impact on the care patients receive. While a change in RCP position would not change the legal framework under which doctors must operate, it could easily have the effect of subtly changing how doctors face decisions at the end of patient lives. When a doctor is faced with a terminally ill patient in considerable pain and asking about assisted suicide, what dose of opiates should they prescribe, and to what extent does the doctrine of double effect apply.

This could manifest in a process of encouraging leniency in decision-making. The Liverpool Care Pathway identified patients who were actively dying, then focused on their symptom management rather than providing treatments designed to extend life. It was accused of hastening the deaths of patients who might otherwise have survived through sedation and dehydration. It also had a significant impact on elderly people, who feared being put on it.

A change in position could also reduce trust in the doctors on the part of ill and disabled patients. Many disabled people don’t believe the medical system values our lives (often with good reason), and a belief that our doctors were supporting assisted suicide could reduce trust in the treatment they propose.

The change in the framing of the questions and weighting of the results appears designed to legitimise the use of ‘assisted dying’ rather than ‘assisted suicide’, and to force the RCP closer to supporting it. It will be very difficult to compare percentages to the 2014 survey with the significance of the change in the questions, and the results of this survey may have effects beyond the intended one of knowing “what fellows and members think now.”.

Icarus

A statue of Icarus

Icarus, by Jamie Hale, published in Poetry Quarterly – Winter 2018

Icarus is told as a tragedy

But to love life that much

For one perfect moment – he soared

And his end obscures that

The arching of our backs

The aching for wings.

It’s only when I flew myself

That I understood the precipice

Over which he danced

Let the wind last just one second longer

To keep these few moments flying

I’ll risk the plunge into the spray

Spread my arms and face the gale.

That moment before orgasm

Where sweat rolls down your face

Arching with pleasure

There’s nothing like wings

Lost to the wind’s ferocity

Cradled only by chances

And if these chances – moments –

Are all I have, like Icarus

I’ll give up the future,

Let the wind tear my skin from my bones

And dance with it between the stars

Let the sun melt my wax

To keep me flying

Sacrifice it all

For those endless moments

The Guardian: We’re told we’re a burden – no wonder disabled people fear assisted suicide

Disabled campaigners against assisted suicide, outside the High Court

The views in this article are entirely my own and do not reflect that of any organisation I work with. They should be considered reflective of my position at the time of writing, which may have since changed.

Performer, exhibit, excluded. Who’s on stage and whose stories are suppressed?

When we see performers on stage, what bodies are reflected in front of us – and what does that mean for the future of performance?

Transpose is an evening performance at the Barbican theatre, London, 6th & 9th December, curated by CN Lester and directed by Kate O’Donnell. The line-up is entirely trans and queer artists, and the performance will contain ‘‘poetry, music, video art and storytelling with a revelatory quality’ from a diverse line-up of artistsThis year it looks at how historically the stage has been a space of both expression and imprisonment for trans and queer people, will explore the way stage, theatre and performance have limited and expanded our realities, providing space for us to be ourselves and express our genders, sexualities, and desires, while also pathologising and controlling us.

The stage is often inaccessible to disabled performers. I mean that literally and metaphorically. Even in venues that offer wheelchair access to audiences, the stage is rarely accessible — especially in the smaller venues where younger and less experienced performers start out. How are you going to develop the experience and name that gets you to larger venues, when you can’t start at smaller ones? Even for performers who don’t require wheelchair access, long rehearsals, lots of stairs, and the commitment of time and energy required to build a performance history leaves disabled artists in the dust. We are not competing on an even playing field when compared to abled artists.

Similarly for trans and queer performers, the stage makes demands of us that our identities make it impossible for us to meet. I am often faced with either being squeezed into the box marked ‘women’ or thrown into that marked ‘men’ with no acknowledgement of my histories of womanhood, transition, and mixed identity. CN Lester has talked about how, as a genderqueer classical musician, they’ve experienced discrimination and exclusion from teachers, directors, and companies. Living outside the normal boundaries of gender and sexuality,

I would love to make a name for myself in London’s small poetry scene, but how am I meant to do that, when I can’t get to half of it? Either it isn’t wheelchair accessible or the time it takes to get there on public transport (most of the underground is inaccessible so the only option is buses) makes it impossible for me to do so.

This is why I’m so pleased to be able to announce that I’m part of the line-up for this year’s Transpose at the Barbican. I performed there last year as a last minute addition, but this year am on the programme from the beginning. Transpose is an evening performance by a line-up of trans and queer artists, and will be raising money for Bent Bars, which links LGBTQ people inside prisons with LGBTQ pen-pals outside prison. The curator, CN Lester, has contributed the curators fee towards this.

This month is disability history month, and the history of disabled people on the stage is primarily as freak show exhibits. One of the poems that I wrote and will read is about Charles Byrne, ‘The Irish Giant’, who was a ‘freak’, performing in Victorian London. He wished to be buried at sea after his death to prevent his skeleton becoming a museum exhibit, but John Hunter, a famous Victorian surgeon made no secret of his desire to obtain Charles’s bones.

Leave him, the star exhibit

The Hunter caught his prey.

The bones weren’t buried at sea.

Of course they weren’t. His

Desires held no water. His name was Charles,

And “bury my bones” at sea he begs

From behind the locked coffin of glass

Far from the ravenous waves

His bones remain part of the permanent collection at the Hunterian Museum, Royal College of Surgeons, to this day.

Neither trans nor disabled people are given ownership of our bodies. The medical model of disability portrays disabled people as in need of curing, fixing, returning to abled status (or an approximation of that), regardless of the costs of such ‘treatment’. We are blamed for our inability to engage in society, our wheelchairs are posited as the problem, rather than the lack of ramps. I will be challenging that as a part of my performance:

…and no you don’t get to

Cast me as the angry cripple or the bitter cripple when it’s

You barring me from access you don’t get to ask me to

Be nicer about being deliberately banned

Transpose is an event where I will be able to stake my claim to a place on the stage as an openly trans, queer, crippled artist. I will be able to take all my identities and identifiers into the performance and explore them in writing and performance, and this is incredibly valuable to me. Where there are so few spaces I can actively participate in, being able to perform at Transpose is a gift.

I will read about crippled sex, the language we use around rape and sexual assault, the subjectivities of physical impairment, mental illness, and severe physical illness, the difficulties of maintaining friendships while sick and how it alters the way people engage with me, my life, and my story, what people mean when they say ‘get well soon’, and of course will finish on Charles Byrne.

Does this sound interesting? It should be. My poetry won’t make you comfortable, and it shouldn’t. I will challenge the audience to reflect on their contribution to the disabling of people with impairments, but I will also confide in it about the realities — good and bad — of having these impairments.

Standard tickets are £15, but people aged 25 and under can join ‘Young Barbican’ for free and get £5 tickets. Disabled people who have joined the ‘access membership’ scheme (also free) may also qualify for concessions, and groups of 10 or more get 20% off their tickets. Tickets can be bought from the Barbican website.

Shape Up on Wheelchair Access (seriously)

Wheelchair access isn’t an optional extra, and ‘the left’ needs to stop treating it as if it is

Creator not found — if this is yours, please tell me and I will attribute accordingly. Pen and ink drawing-style cartoon in black and white showing short-haired person dressed in black, sat in hospital-style manual wheelchair. The person looks grumpy. In front of them is a flight of stairs, with a sign saying “WAY IN, Everyone Welcome!”. An arrow on the sign points up the stairs.

Stop pretending wheelchair access is optional, not essential

We need to talk about left-wing venues and talks, vegan restaurants, queer spaces, upstairs rooms in pubs, poetry nights, related “alternative” events, and why they often ban wheelchair users from participating.

It isn’t good enough to not provide wheelchair access. It was unacceptable 20 years ago and it’s still unacceptable now. There isn’t an excuse for holding your event somewhere wheelchair users can’t attend (whether or not you think any of us would want to). The fact that organisers think it’s reasonable to physically bar wheelchair users from their events whilst still claiming to be ‘alternative’, subversive, or left-wing is beyond the pale. You don’t get to use the excuse that it was an accident — choosing a space that bars obligate wheelchair users from attending is a choice, and a political choice. It shows how much you and yours value our opinions, and demonstrates an absolute lack of understanding about the bare-bones of prejudice. Everybody would see that holding an “open” event in a building that only allowed men in was horribly sexist, yet nobody thinks twice about holding events in places where obligate wheelchair users are banned. Making somewhere accessible is a series of processes, options, and decisions, but wheelchair access is a clear, obvious starting point.

Everything should be wheelchair accessible. Everything and everywhere. I’m focusing on you, the ‘alternative’, the ‘left’, ‘social justice’, ‘LGBT groups’, ‘queer spaces’. You say that you’re better than the ‘mainstream’ (often sneeringly). Mainstream supermarkets are generally accessible, small vegan shops often aren’t. Chain cafes are often accessible, small ‘alternative’ ones often aren’t. Churches — the absolute example of a historic institution with ancient buildings — often manage to be accessible. I’m not even necessarily asking you to be better than everyone else when it comes to liberation and prejudice — I’m asking you to at least be as good as the rest of society.

Wheelchair users shouldn’t have to ask you about wheelchair access — you should make it clear on your website or event page from the outset. If you don’t have it, then at least admit that. Admit it and explain what you’re planning to do to change that, and when you will have it made accessible by — because an apology isn’t enough without action. This guide from Access is Everything will help you figure out what to put on your event page or website.

What’s possibly worse than the lack of access is the range of excuses that places give when I ask about access.

-Places with a few shallow steps refuse to get ramps to cover those steps.

-People offer to lift wheelchair users instead of providing proper access. My chair and I weigh almost 300kg, and if I was dropped I could be very severely injured. If you’re not manhandling everyone before letting them in, it isn’t acceptable to do so to us.

-Places that are offended when I ask.

-Places that go on about their credentials in other areas and ignore the question about wheelchair access.

-Groups and organisations that claim there was nowhere else they could have rented or afforded.

-Places that say they didn’t expect wheelchair users so they don’t have access.

None of those excuses are good enough. Places, people, and events are entirely unabashed about literally prohibiting wheelchair users from participation. There is rarely even an acknowledgement that what is being done is fundamentally prejudiced.

Consumer boycotts are not always the answer, but sometimes they are a tactic that should be used to put pressure on business to make a clearly defined change. In this situation, if anyone that considered themselves at all ‘alternative’, ‘left’, or ‘social justice’ refused to use wheelchair inaccessible spaces, refused to shop there, eat there, rent venues there, or to hold events there, places would shape up pretty quickly. They would have to. If their customer base put its money where its morals should be, places would find ways of becoming accessible. If our purported ‘allies’ cared, that’s what they could do — refuse to use those venues until all of us can. People will always argue that it’s easier or cheaper to use those venues, but those people are making a deliberate and prejudiced decision to exclude disabled people, and we should be making it clear that that is fundamentally wrong and utterly indefensible.

I am writing here about wheelchair access, not because it’s more important than other kinds of access, but because it’s simple, obvious, and easy to get right — so if somewhere hasn’t bothered with this, they’re unlikely to be properly accessible to people with other needs either.