I’ve always had a bit of a problem with stick people. Yes, I’m very aware that sounds odd, but I remember as a child wandering into supermarket toilets huffing and puffing about the girl always having to wear a dress. I never wore dresses after all, I liked dungarees. More recently, this has been addressed by the revelation that it was never a dress, it was in fact a cape, but there is still one stick figure that I’m not so sure of; the disabled one.
We see them everywhere; the priority seats reserved on transport for disabled people that are accompanied by a helpful graphic of a stick figure wheelchair user. Disabled toilets, with a big ol’ sticker whacked on the front and yellow paint carefully slicked across the parking spaces closest to the shop. And I get it. I get that to convey an image in a short space of time you have to strip it back. It has to be simple. But I think this part of a much bigger problem in society, where we equate disability with wheelchairs.
I’m currently scooting about Scotland doing research for the Scottish Green Party, meeting lots of ace Green folk, learning and finding out more about how we can make our Party more inclusive. Some of the people I am interviewing self-define as disabled and some do not, but all would be included within the definition of disabled used in the Equality Act 2010. Not one of my participants currently uses a wheelchair, yet when we talk about accessibility in branches invariably the first thing mentioned is whether or not there is step free access at meetings. For the vast majority of my participants, steps don’t pose an issue, yet the relentless association of disability and wheelchairs has left little room within our conception of accessibility for those with other requirements.
It goes without saying that *obviously* step free access to meetings and events is crucial, and sadly this isn’t yet the status quo. But if we were to think more broadly about what an access requirement is; something that ensures people are able to – and feel safe and comfortable to – participate, then we need to look beyond venues having functioning lifts.
Over the past few weeks I’ve spoken to people with varied and complex mental health problems, who have so much to offer but freeze before speaking as their anxiety takes over.
I’ve spoken to people with chronic illnesses who may well make use of the lift options if they were to make it to the meeting, but the distance from the venue to the nearest public transport makes their attendance impossible.
I’ve spoken to people with dyslexia whose attention spans simply cannot cope with a two hour meeting with no breaks.
I’ve spoken to so many people and for so many of them, small adjustments would increase their ability to participate in Politics tenfold. Yet the vast majority they feel as though even their asking would be an inconvenience. And I know how they feel.
I wish that when sent an email enquiring about access requirements I thought it sensible to explain that small spaces freak me out. And that I sometimes panic if I don’t know my exits, and no, you might not always know I am panicking but I know it from the heat that spreads within me and the rate of my heartbeat. I wish it was common sense to say that reasonable breaks really shouldn’t be a luxury, and no we can’t just ‘push through and get it out the way’, well not if you expect me to contribute. Anxiety is a royal pain, but it’s not uncommon. How many more people are sitting, freaking out, yet unable to say why?
We need to broaden our understanding of disability and access, and respond accordingly. Let’s think beyond step-free access – and make sure that everyone’s voices are being heard loud and clear. Wheelchair or no wheelchair, cape or no cape, politics belongs to all of us.