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I recently took on the #feneticchallenge for Fenetic Wellbeing* to see how accessible my local town centre was. Being friends with Martyn from ‘Inside Martyn’s Thoughts‘ who has Muscular Dystrophy and therefore limited mobility I have recently become more aware of the inaccessibility of a lot of places. In June we went to dinner after BML16 in London and the restaurant had originally allocated us a table upstairs, which was impossible with no lift!
I had high hopes for Welwyn Garden City,as it’s a ‘new town’ (designated in 1948) and was designed by Ebeneezer Howard in the 1920’s. It’s also in commuter-ville, being only 30 minutes to central London by train. We don’t have cobbled streets or narrow lanes and the buildings aren’t massively old so I figured we should therefore have a massively accessible town.
For the most part I was right. The streets are wide, there are lots of multi storey carparks with disabled spaces and a few on the road. However, when it came to the cinema there were only 3 spaces in the entire enormous car park and one of those I had to go searching for, it was quite well hidden! The cinema is also pretty small so disabled people only have the option of sitting in the front row which is really close to the screen. They do however, have autism friendly screenings, which I was really impressed with.
I was also quite picky with the shop – I chose John Lewis, having been in there a couple of times and always struggled to navigate my way around. It’s probably one of the oldest buildings in the town. Each floor has several levels with just a few steps between them. At almost every set of steps there is a lift. Occasionally a wheelchair or less abled shopper would have to go back and down to the previous floor then up in a different lift. This was especially noticeable when we went to see if they sell kids cycle helmets. Going from toys to sports a less abled shopper would have to go back down to the previous section and around to a different lift to get to sport, just because of a few steps.
One of the things we weren’t expecting was how accessible Pizza Express was. Having worked in hotels, restaurants and bars R and I both looked at each other and were like, “there’s no chance there’ll be enough space in there!”, but actually there was. The only time you’d have trouble is if you were a walk in at peak time and the only tables left were the ones you have to squeeze in to. The only criticism I would have was that the toilets were right at the back down a corridor, having to navigate past the kitchen and desk. The space looked quite narrow.
The little things…
I suppose the background in hospitality has given us a bit more experience than a lot of people in regards to accessibility. We have both been trained to think in certain ways. For example automatically offer the lower part of the desk for those wheelchair bound. For me, it’s normal to see those things because they were a part of my daily life when I was working. It’s easy to forget though and I had to really force myself to notice some of the smaller things. One in particular was accessible changing rooms in the shop.
What the locals say…
“John Lewis access lifts are too small for most motorised wheelchairs and unless you have arms like Inspector Gadget you wont beable to reach to press the buttons…The rails are too close together and the ability to move around the store is seriously hampered by the lifts to each area. The lack of baskets that can be used by wheelchair users is also interesting as you balance items on your lap and travers the crowded store.”
“Disabled access changing rooms are rare, with little space to do anything but look in the mirror in frustration”
“Places with good accessibility are the library, waterstones, starbucks and Sainsbury’s”
“Things you can’t do in a wheelchair in Welwyn Garden City…
1. Change a baby’s nappy
2. Catch a train after 7pm
3. Use a public toilet
4. Shop above the ground floor in Debenhams
5. Charge a motorised wheelchair”
– Wanda Armstrong-Bridges
“I operate a wheelchair accessible taxi in Welwyn Garden City and find that most of my customers love shopping and eating in the town centre”
– Dave Archer
A bit of a mixed bag, what’s clear is that even when you’re looking you don’t fully understand the challenges that disabled people face doing the things that we take for granted. In an aging population and one that is becoming more aware of disabilities in all forms there is really little excuse for town centres to not be accessible.