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The big red button

by Laurence Clark

4th November 2006

This month I'm writing my column whilst sat in the space for wheelchair-using passengers on a high-speed train to London, next to one of those ever-tempting big red emergency buttons. So it seems timely to write this cautionary, but ultimately uplifting, tale for anyone who has ever fought the urge to take the next step, and press such a button.
The big red button is ultra-accessible. "Call for Aid" is written in large, tactile letters above it, beside an equally large tactile arrow which points directly to it. For added effect these words are also written in Braille. All usage problems were clearly well thought through at design stage. Indeed it's difficult to imagine how anything could be made any more accessible.

I have reason to believe that the real problem with the button, however, is that disabled people aren't ever expected to press it.

I arrived at this theory whilst travelling with my family a couple of months ago. My 2-year old son was screaming very loudly for milk, but the buffet car was several inaccessible corridors away, and my old friend the food trolley doesn't seem to be in service any more. So I decided to press the ultra visible disability button to ask if someone could bring us some milk; I didn't want my fellow passengers further disturbed by noise. How wrong could I have been?!

Upon pressing the button, a highly irritating, "BEEP BLIP, BEEP BLIP, BEEP BLIP" alarm sounded in every coach on the train. This had the instant effect of making me the sworn enemy of all passengers, most of whom were trying to sleep. And then, just in case anyone was in any doubt about who was to blame for the disturbance, the train manager used the PA system to point the finger of accusation:


This wasn't the first, or the last time that I've been victimised over a train's intercom system.

As someone who regularly travels to and from London by Intercity, I can testify that the oddly-designed, curvy sliding doors on the accessible toilets are seldom in working order.

Last week, whilst feeling both particularly assertive and desperate to pee, I insisted on swapping carriages during a scheduled stop, so that I could use a toilet with a door that worked properly. It seems 'customer accountability' meant that the entire train had to be informed what the delay in their journey was - me.

During my 'walk of shame' up the platform to the first class coaches and bladder relief, I could feel each and every resentful stare as I passed carriage after carriage of disgruntled passengers. But this time it was different - this time I realised how I could take control of the situation, and avoid the now ritual humiliation over the intercom.

You see, the train manufacturers designed the big red button so that it would over-ride everything else in an emergency, including the PA system. So I had the power to cut the train manager off at any time if he attempted to berate me, simply by pressing the big red button again, the one conveniently situated beside me. This is what the passengers heard:




Our battle over the intercom waged on for about ten minutes. Eventually the penny dropped as he realised that it might just be possible for the button to be used for the purpose it was actually put there for. Looking very sheepish, he finally came to offer me assistance, much to the visible relief of my fellow passengers who were rapidly growing tired of the alarm.

This got me thinking about how many more of the aids and adaptations you see dotted around public places nowadays are only there for the sake of appearance. Obviously, there are all those locked accessible toilets, which look very helpful but clearly aren't there for our benefit because otherwise we would be able to get into them.

And have you noticed that it's becoming increasingly common to see pristine, cellophane-wrapped platform stair lifts, which make organisations look really inclusive but were never meant to be used. This is made abundantly clear when you ask to go upstairs and are met with a look of horror from a member of staff trying desperately to remember a half-day training session on how to use it from two years ago.

So the next time you see a big red 'disabled' button or a brand new platform lift and you've a few minutes to spare, why not test it out? It could be that you need assistance; or simply want to piss off the guy on work experience who's never seen accessibility lift in his life, let alone used one. What the hell! These things are meant to be there for our benefit after all!
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