Tell us a little bit about yourself.
A: My name is Emma, I’m 23 years old, & as of 27th December 2019 I will have been married for a whole year!
I was born & brought up in Bradford, moving to Leeds when I went to the University of Leeds to study nutrition. I graduated with a 1st class honours degree, & after a short & somewhat miserable stint in NHS, I returned to the university where I now work in medical research.
Outside of my proper job, I have a blog (http://diaryofadisabledperson.blog), a YouTube channel (Diary of a Disabled Person), & multiple social media platforms where I openly discuss my experiences of disability, ableism, & all things accessibility. I also write a ton of access reviews to help other disabled people navigate the UK!
What is your experience of life as a disabled person?
I became disabled as a teenager, & up until that point I think the worst illness I’d ever had was flu when I was so young, I don’t even remember it. It was quite a shock to the system when I went from a picture of health to sickly adolescent in a matter of days. Those first few years of becoming accustomed to a new way of life were hard, but once I went off to university, things began to change. I found a lot of things I can safely enjoy from my wheelchair, so much so that I stopped hating it, & started seeing it as a kind of liberty.
I’ve encounter ableism almost every day; predominantly from inaccessibility, but also stemming from the notion that I couldn’t possibly be capable of independence which leads to being patronized & “helped” at inopportune moments. This is why I write & talk about disability so openly; to educate people, to highlight good practice, & to demonstrate what not to do!
How would you describe your disability?
At 14 years old I developed viral meningitis, eventually resulting in a diagnosis of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS)/Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (M.E). Pain, dizziness, nausea, & overwhelming fatigue mean I can’t stay standing for very long at all, so I use a powered wheelchair every time I leave my apartment.
Since the meningitis I’ve also experienced a myriad of other health problems, including asthma, depression, iron deficiency anaemia (which was successfully treated with iron supplements), gall stones, & endometriosis. These have all contributed to my disability in some way.
What is accessibility like where you live?
I still reside in central Leeds, West Yorkshire, where in all honesty I have encountered the best widespread accessibility of any of the cities I’ve visited including London. Roadworks nearly always with excellent accessibility provisions, most of the shops & businesses are fully accessible even in listed buildings, & the universities offer excellent employment options for disabled people.
There are, of course, many things that still need improvement. There are a distinct lack of adult changing facilities, many independent businesses choose to be inaccessible (i.e. blocking the access door & recommending that people use the one with steps), & listed is very frequently used to excuse inaccessibility.
There is also a huge problem with pavement parking that is rarely, if at all, policed.
Where is your favourite place for accessibility & why?
There’s an old, listed basement just off Millenium Square called Assembly Underground, with a narrow flight of stone steps leading down into it. However, go round the back & you will find a little lift, & voila, you’re in. From there it’s fully accessible; level floors, wide spaces, & lowered counters at the bar & all the street food vendors.
The staff are excellent; I’m actually quite friendly with the owner of the establishment, who frequently collaborates with me on accessibility problems to find a solution.
They’re also dog friendly, so anyone with a service dog will have absolutely no problems whatsoever.
In places the access is a little cobbled together, but for an independent business in a listed building, that can be forgiven. They’re always looking to improve, & it’s their excellent attitude that makes them accessible.
What is one accessibility improvement that you would like to see?
I want to see legislation brought in that means that “listed” can no longer be used as an excuse for inaccessibility. There are grants & schemes to support listed buildings be adapted, & these need to be publicized more widely. At the same time, there needs to be some kind of “inaccessibility tax” that unless a business can show a significant commitment to improving their accessibility (even if they aren’t fully accessible at that very moment) they have to pay, representing the money they lose by excluding disabled customers.
I have been in so many accessible listed buildings, from centuries-old ruined abbeys in the middle of the countryside, to inner-city basements, to medieval guild halls. Where there is a will to adapt, there is a way. Sometimes the access may be a bit compromised. Sometimes it takes time to set up. But never should listed be used as an excuse to exclude an entire demographic; it’s bad for business if nothing else!