The changing face of disability

Cliff Towson calls for the barriers that blight the lives of disabled people to be removed.

Samantha Renke, star of the current Maltesers TV advert and wheelchair user, was in the news recently when she was unable to access her reserved space on a busy train. She told the Guardian: ‘There was no consensus at all amongst staff … whether people should have to move their bags or not.’ Let’s just think about that for a moment, shall we? Staff actually stood around debating whether a piece of luggage should be shifted to allow a paying customer to take their reserved seat. 
Ms Renke finally accessed her reserved space but, still surrounded by bags, was unable to use the toilet for the duration of the three-hour journey. Paralympic athlete Anna Wufula Strike recently described how she wet herself when she was stranded on a cross country train with a broken toilet.
Comments prompted by these articles indicate that these are not isolated incidents – taxis refusing to pick up guide dogs, booked staff unavailable to assist, accessible toilets locked and lifts permanently out of order.
Let’s be clear, these barriers are put firmly in place by society and our stubbornly able-centric attitudes. A wheelchair user should be able to decide on a whim to leave the house, buy a ticket and board a train to Glasgow, a bus to Brighton or take in a show without requiring a qualification in project management to make the arrangements.
The social model of disability has been around since the 1970s. The idea is that society causes disability, through its physical barriers and negative attitudes, rather than a person’s impairment. This was once radical, and, in some ways, still feels that today. Despite the legal requirements of the Equality Act, it often feels as though disabled access is perfunctory, minimalist and ‘bolted on’.
Instead of having toilets for ‘men’ and ‘women’ and an (asexual) ‘disabled’ toilet why not just have individual toilets that everyone can use? Why not have a hoist and an adult changing table for people with multiple impairments as well? Why not have movable seats and ramps built into trains? What not have high contrast signage with Braille as standard?
Why can’t we write our workplace policies from scratch, with the starting point being wellness and inclusion? Policies should be designed to support employees with mental health problems, autism, dyslexia or a host of other hidden (or not) impairments. I believe that we have the knowledge and the technology – but not the vision or the right starting point for our thinking.
The CSP Disabled Members’ Network is open to any member who self-identifies as disabled. We provide peer support and campaign for the adoption of a social model of disability.
You can join us today at
  • Cliff Towson, convenor of the CSP Disabled Members’ Network
Cliff Towson, convenor of the CSP Disabled Members’ Network

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