What are you doing on Disabled Access Day?

By Emma Tracey
BBC News, Ouch

Image caption,
Euan Macdonald (front, left) runs a website that rates the accessibility of different places

A new day encouraging disabled people to go out and try something new has been launched, but is this easier said than done?

Though an access symbol might appear on the website of a venue you want to visit, disabled people and their families don't tend to take it for granted that it is accessible enough for them. If you've visited a cafe, playground or sports centre and find it to be good, then you're more likely to keep returning so you don't have to do yet more research ... but that can make life a bit repetitive.

"We got bored of always meeting friends for a drink in the same few pubs, just because they have a ramp and an accessible toilet," says Kiki MacDonald, whose brother Euan uses a wheelchair due to motor neurone disease. "But sometimes it's just easier to go to the same places over and over, because you know that they are accessible."

The two run Euan's Guide, a website and app where disabled people can upload their reviews of public places for the benefit of others, and who have kick-started the idea of Disabled Access Day.

Macdonald says she and her brother wish they could be more spontaneous: "It would be lovely if just off the hoof, we could go somewhere new."

Well-known problems like steps aren't an access barrier for Barbara Wilson who is blind but she still tends to go to the same café in the small Northern Ireland community where she lives. This is because she was taught the route by her guide dog instructor.

The one-on-one learning, coupled with practice, means she knows exactly where the tables and chairs are and can easily place her order at the counter. But she also feels comfortable there. "The staff there know me and so will be less inclined to speak to me like a three-year-old," she says.

When she tries somewhere different, her anxiety levels become very high. She says a walk from the door to where she thinks the counter might be, can feel like a hundred miles and she imagines everyone is staring. "When you reach it you feel like you've just climbed Mount Everest - and then you have to find the door again on the way out."

If disabled people do decide to try somewhere new, particularly those who use wheelchairs, they tend to plan meticulously in advance. Experience has taught them that if venues do publish access information, it doesn't tell the full story and can lead to disappointment.

Powerchair user Fleur Perry takes no chances. "Before I go to a hotel or restaurant that I haven't been to," she explains, "I give them a quick ring and say this is what your website says but is there anything else we should know? I also travel well prepared and carry a set of portable ramps in the car just in case."

No matter what your impairment or access needs are, the Disabled Access Day on Saturday 17 January has been set up to encourage all disabled people to break out of their routine and try somewhere new.

Though people are being encouraged to try whatever they wish, there are over 200 events and freebies all over the country that they can take advantage of and Cafe Nero is giving away free drinks in 170 of its stores on the day. London's National Theatre is allowing disabled people back stage, and hotels are opening up their accessible rooms for viewing.

It is hoped that disabled people who do try something new will start conversations on social media about the good and bad access they find, and add comments to review websites. The aim is to let more disabled people know about places they can go, and to encourage more companies to make their businesses more accessible and show off the access they already provide.

The idea for the day came from one person's positive experience of a local "try a bus" event. Paul Ralph, a powerchair user from Edinburgh, had always thought public buses were inaccessible before he attended these sessions aimed at disabled people.

Image caption,
Paul Ralph has found confidence recently and now regularly gets the bus

"It was great to be able to try getting on and off the bus and manoeuvring into the wheelchair space," says Ralph, who was given the opportunity to try these things with no time limits alongside other disabled people. "It was equally important to be able to ask questions about how the ticketing worked and about bus stop layouts."

Confidence restored, Ralph now travels frequently by bus and goes to many places he would not have previously gone. He contacted Euan's Guide with his story and says: "We thought that it would be great to widen that experience to other places and facilities so people could try them out without feeling under pressure, and in the knowledge there were staff on hand to help and answer questions."

People who have pledged they will go out on that day have been sending messages to Euan's guide via their website.

One person commented: "Pleased to get out and about with my disabled daughter, her quality of life is much improved if we go places and do things!"

"My partner and I are both disabled and will go to the cinema on Saturday. It will be the first time in eight years," commented another.

Are you doing anything for Disabled Access Day? If so, what and why? Leave a comment below.

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