Disability and the Liberal Democrats

Recently, a Party member campaigning to be elected as the local Liberal Democrat candidate contacted me to attend a coffee morning to meet him. Certainly, I said. I must check first though; I assume that the premises are wheelchair accessible? They were not, and the reaction of the candidate when I contacted him was little […]

Recently, a Party member campaigning to be elected as the local Liberal Democrat candidate contacted me to attend a coffee morning to meet him. Certainly, I said. I must check first though; I assume that the premises are wheelchair accessible? They were not, and the reaction of the candidate when I contacted him was little more than a shrug. This is unacceptable; not least because this candidate bases his entire persona and candidacy on LGBT rights.

Frankly, I am completely fed up. Over and over again, I find people campaigning for justice for survivors of sexual assault, the LGBT community, immigrants, and so on, but they do not consider disabled people. Nearly half of disabled people feel excluded from society, and one of the direct causes of this is architectural barriers. This situation is unacceptable and cannot continue.

Then, last Monday evening I attended hustings to support a candidate, and I was pleased to do so. With the Liberal democrats, I expected that full accessibility would be in place, as a matter of course. This is why in fact I joined the Liberal Democrats; for the emphasis that the Party places on liberty and on eradicating ignorance and conformity. Those are Liberal Democrat values, after all.

I was extremely disappointed, therefore, to find that there was a huge step and it was impossible for me to access the Church hall. Other members came out, and, whilst they imagined they were being kind, I was astonished and insulted at their ignorance. Members offered to lift me over the step. No; this is impossible. Not only do I have no desire to make a spectacle of myself, but it is humiliating, removes independence, and it is unlawful, under the Equality Act 2010, that access is not in place to start with. I also have no desire for other members to hurt themselves as a result of the organisers’ negligence.

This has to be said, and this situation needs to end, urgently.

I insisted that an accessible entrance was cleared and admit to being pleased that my favoured candidate won, as my encounter with the previous candidate had left a taste of hypocrite in my mouth.

Let me state this very clearly: I am a former lawyer, I run my own business, and I have a spinal cord injury. I am an active member of society and no one should consent to being patronised, humiliated, and treated as less of a person in this day and age.

The Liberal Democrats should be leading for societal change in this area.

When the Liberal Democrats book a venue, they must book that venue so that all members can attend. Organisers check lighting and electricity; as a matter of course, they must also check accessibility. To do otherwise is prejudice and discrimination exemplified. I also note that I have concerned myself with only one feature of accessibility; there is a lot more to do.

Upskirting and cannabis legislation are all very worthy causes I’d suggest, however, that tackling the exclusion of half of society is critical.

* Alexandra Singer is a member in South Manchester and campaigns on access issues.

Baroness Celia Thomas writes….The disabled man in the airport

A few days ago, it was reported that last year a paraplegic athlete, Justin Levene, shuffled through Luton Airport on his bottom because his own self-propelled wheelchair was stuck on the plane. He didn’t want to accept Luton Airport’s offer of a different non-self-propelled wheelchair, not least because of the danger of pressure sores, but […]

A few days ago, it was reported that last year a paraplegic athlete, Justin Levene, shuffled through Luton Airport on his bottom because his own self-propelled wheelchair was stuck on the plane. He didn’t want to accept Luton Airport’s offer of a different non-self-propelled wheelchair, not least because of the danger of pressure sores, but also the indignity of losing his independence that had been so hard-won.

I have seen various accusations; that it was churlish, offensive, arrogant, publicity seeking – the list goes on.  However others, notably disabled people themselves, have applauded him for drawing attention to the difficulties people with disabilities face if they travel, particularly the inadequate facilities at airports. Some people have accused him of making a fuss but, until you have experienced how little people seem to consider accessibility issues, making a fuss often becomes the only thing you can do to ensure people take notice. The news coverage of Justin Levene is case in point.

This comes at the end of a week when I attended a meeting about disabled access and inclusion, with two Ministers, civil servants and disabled Peers. We were told about the new cross-departmental committee on disability, and its consultation with the Disability Charities Committee – a group I’d barely heard of.  After a bit, one of the Government-supporting Peers let fly.  He told about attending a VIP dinner at a high-end hotel in central London, only to discover that there was no accessible toilet there, but that he could be led to a bedroom some way away which had an accessible bathroom attached to it. He said he felt worthless and demeaned by that, and made sure he was dehydrated.

His point was that disabled access needs to be taken much more seriously, and can’t just rely on “goodwill” and pockets of good practice here and there to make life better for disabled people.  My other disabled colleague and I spoke about the stalling of the whole independent living agenda – accessible housing, transport, enough personal care assistants, employment etc. which is now in danger of going backwards. The answer, surely, is not to encourage us to go to court to fight for our right to live independently, a  right only afforded to those with the money and personal wherewithal to go to court. Access to justice is getting harder for disabled people, not easier, even if we do have nondiscrimination legislation.

What did the Government-supporting Peer make of this?  He reckoned that if access everywhere was much better, and seen to be better, then the rest would fall into place.  I am not nearly so sanguine, but I take his point.  The optics of disability are very important.   The man shuffling along on his bottom in  Luton Airport has done us all a huge favour.

* Celia Thomas is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords.