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.