Being Seen: Wheelchair Users

Photo of a white person with pink hair using a mobility scooter. They are bent over awkwardly sideways in their chair trying to get under a low overhead barrier that is blocking the pathway in a woodland walking footpath. They are laughing. photo is part of a blog on wheelchair users.

Welcome to our long read blog series: ‘Being Seen’. The first of these focuses on Wheelchair Users.

For this series, staff at Inclusion Barnet get together to discuss their lived experiences of being disabled. The aim is to provide insight into the barriers we face, share tips with other people living with similar challenges, and suggest ways that everyone can be more effective allies in the fight for equality. In the first blog, staff who are wheelchair users share their experiences and advice, including proposals on how to make a more inclusive society.

 

Overcoming misconceptions

The group began by sharing many situations where inappropriate language and actions had been directed towards them, such as talking to the person accompanying a wheelchair user rather than to the user themselves or physically moving them without asking their permission.

Although there is sometimes a deliberate intention to belittle or offend, often these behaviours stem from misunderstanding or inaccurate beliefs. But whatever the reason, the effect can be equally damaging. As one member of staff concluded “I talk to (disabled) people who say, why do we even bother to go out?”

See the person

Wheelchair users who had experienced these situations found them dehumanising, upsetting and, at times, intimidating. The group agreed that the solution is simple: recognise the person who is using the wheelchair, not the wheelchair itself, and treat them as you would any other person.

Impairments vary

Misconceptions also surround the types of impairment which wheelchair users have. Some people believe that only those with spinal injuries or amputated limbs for example, would use a chair, but the truth is very different.

The nature of impairments vary widely and include invisible ones such as energy-limiting conditions, where individuals may need to use a chair in some situations and a walking stick or no support, in others. Which method they use can depends on factors such as the location they are in, length of the journey, or energy levels of the individual at that time.

People who use wheelchairs but can also walk, with or without assistance, are referred to as being “ambulatory wheelchair users.” More people are becoming aware of this, and on social media, the hashtag #AmbulatoryWheelchairUsersExist is gaining popularity.

Mobility aids can be empowering

A common misunderstanding is that all people who are wheelchair users resent the wheelchair they use and should be pitied. For several members of our discussion group, this was far from accurate. One person described it as empowering or freeing and even that “I’m proud of my wheelchair and what it enables me to do.”

Understanding this makes it easy to see why terms such as ‘The wheelchair’, wheelchair bound’ and ‘confined to a wheelchair’ are frequently considered dehumanising, othering and inaccurate by members of the disability community.

Users are capable people

One person in the discussion relayed a situation in a pub where they were discussing education. When it was mentioned that they had a postgraduate degree, a stranger leant over and said, “you can’t have a degree, you’re in a wheelchair”.

Another member of the group expressed frustration that, at a recent family event, no-one asked how their work was going, despite it being a commonplace question in social situations; “They assume I’m tragic or in bed all day… but I have a career that I’m proud of.”

Respectful questions are welcomed

Equally exasperating is the idea that all wheelchair users are unable to have relationships or that they are somehow eternal children who shouldn’t drink, smoke, or swear, like everyone else. The group cited many times when they had been asked personal questions around these subjects such as “Can you have sex?”, even by strangers.

Here, they made an important distinction between asking inappropriate questions and respectful ones, with the latter type being welcomed. In fact, avoiding asking genuine questions can result in a feeling of shame, which in turn can reinforce ignorance; “That shame response is really built into people… they see you and panic… but (as a wheelchair user) it’s better to answer a question than shut it down.”

Tips for wheelchair users

As well as wanting to raise awareness, staff found value in sharing their experiences and were keen to also use the opportunity to share tips with other wheelchair users.

Take photos for social media/reviews

One person suggested users take photos of incidents where they experience inaccessibility, such as finding an accessible toilet is being used as a storage space. Sharing the photo on social media and tagging the company in, or posting on review platforms, can raise awareness of the issue.

They were quick to clarify though that, to solve the issue, you need to follow the company’s procedures such as emailing them and remember “email complaints come with lengthy wait times but keep at it because that is where changes start to happen”.

Report inaccessible services and systems

Another member of the group emphasised the importance of reporting inaccessible medical services to the Care Quality Commission (CQC). While a common challenge faced by all was in relation to online booking systems: “I don’t think people realise how much research wheelchair users have to do to even find out if an event/venue has wheelchair seats and how to go about booking those.” It was clear that a major overhaul of booking systems is needed to address the issues they faced.

Self-advocate

The overriding message in all of the advice was that “it’s important to advocate for yourself” but they also recognised there are frequent occasions when this isn’t possible.

 

How to be an effective ally to Wheelchair Users

The energy required to raise awareness, or to point out or challenge inaccessibility, can be exhausting. This is on top of the day-to-day challenge of tackling barriers in society around impairments. The group were clear that allies are needed to advocate for disabled people and to help bring about positive change in society.

Request change and encourage others

Along with asking disabled people genuine questions, allies can challenge inaccessibility themselves, requesting others move their luggage from the wheelchair space on trains for example, or alerting the manager when a venue’s ramp is too steep for wheelchair users.

Likewise, if visiting a venue where the accessible toilet or changing rooms are being used for storage, disabled people aren’t the only ones who can point this out to staff.

Add information to accessibility tools

Anyone can help remove barriers for wheelchair users by using tools such as Wheelmap and Google Maps for accessibility. Wheelmap is an online map for finding wheelchair accessible places and anyone can mark places using a traffic light system. Google maps has an ‘Accessible Places’ feature which displays whether things like the entrance, seating or toilets are accessible for wheelchair users, and if someone confirms they’re not, it shows this too.

If both disabled and non-disabled people use these features, accessibility information on venues can be increase greatly and it may put pressure on inaccessible places to change.

Involve users in decision-making

The group shared many examples of times where a venue had described themselves as accessible online but when they had arrived at the location, they had realised that it wasn’t. As one member of staff explained, this sends the message that wheelchair users are “not worth a thought. I am worthy to pay my taxes, but not enough to ‘have a seat at the table’”.

In some cases, this happens because venues have paid lip-service to accessibility requirements, whereas in others, they have lacked awareness of what accessibility involves. As one member of the group said in relation to their experience at a theatre, “A lift isn’t accessible if I’m having to get a member of staff to help me out of it.”

It is of course essential to follow the government guidelines on accessibility, but of equal importance is asking wheelchair users to test the venue or service out as well. This avoids potentially humiliating situations for you and your customers, as well as greatly reducing the risk of being the subject of a discrimination case.

Ideas for improving wheelchair accessibility

The group identified three key barriers they face in society and ideas for how these could be removed. Some of these can be actioned by all of us and others are suggestions for organisations with the resources to explore them further:

1. Creation of a national organisation to standardise, regulate and enforce accessibility standards, in consultation with wheelchair users, similar to the Food Standards Agency, for example. This would have a grading system or easily recognisable kitemark which, when displayed, anyone could rely on to know that an organisation, venue, service etc., is wheelchair accessible.

While the Equality Act does address the subject, one member of staff explained, “it frustrates me greatly that the Equality Act doesn’t have more teeth and that there isn’t a body that enforces these things.”

2. Establishment of one universal booking system, with an accessible and consistent process for buying tickets, regardless of whether the tickets are for wheelchair users or not.

This would include:

  • accurate information on which venues are wheelchair accessible and how to book wheelchair seats.
  • no charge for carers tickets when buying a disabled person’s ticket.
  • Review the requirement for documentary proof that a person is disabled, so that disabled people can purchase tickets as easily as a non-disabled person can.

3. Every individual recognising the person using the wheelchair, rather than the wheelchair itself. As one member of the group explained: “We’re more disabled by people’s attitudes… than by our impairments”.

The third change underpins all of the challenges which the group identified in the discussion. And it’s a change which, if adopted by everyone, would naturally encourage a move towards equality. As one member of the group put it: “We just want to be treated like people.”

When you think about it, it’s really not much to ask.

 

Useful resources

Below are some of the resources available to check physical access for wheelchair users.

Important: The resources shared here are for informational purposes only. They do not constitute professional advice, official endorsement, or any form of legal or medical guidance.  

https://www.accessable.co.uk/

AccessAble conducts access audits in communities, to add data to their mapping app. They also work with companies to audit their premises.

https://www.deanfrankreynolds.co.uk/accessibility-audit-2/

Dean Frank Reynolds is an access audit company.

https://attitudeiseverything.org.uk/

Attitude is Everything addresses disability access at music and live events.

https://www.euansguide.com/

Euans Guide provides disability access information and reviews.

https://www.changing-places.org/find

changing-places.org is a map tool for finding changing place toilets.

https://www.google.com/streetview/

Google street view can be used to see if shop thresholds have level access.

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