Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Your Accessibility Needs to be Accessible

So I went swimming today as I do every week. I go to my local leisure centre (local council run swimming baths and sports facilities for none UK readers) and it’s generally OK. It is a recent build and they actually thought about accessibility when building it. It’s all level access or accessible by lift. There is a well equipped hydrotherapy pool (which I use sometimes) with winch and step free access ad two adjoining disabled changing rooms.
The main pool also has winch access and two accessible changing rooms adjoining the general changing room.
The Accessible Changing Rooms (hereby shorted to ACR for ease) have beds, toilets, loads of grab bars, adjustable shower with shower seat, wheelchair and electric winch. Really good.

The problem is, that an ACR is not accessible if you don’t allow access to people who need it.
Whilst the hydrotherapy pool needs to be booked in advance so you know when to open up that pool and the adjoining ACRs for use, the main pool is, during it's general swimming hours, open to everybody. Perhaps you don't realise it, but that everybody includes a number of people who are disabled or otherwise have accessibility needs.

I regularly attend the General Lane Swimming session on a Wednesday. It's the time anybody can come along and swim lengths. The lanes are labelled slow, medium and fast. It's a broad range of users. There is usually at least one other walking stick propped up next to the steps when I go to swim. There is a guy with a prosthetic leg who regularly swims at that time. They are just the easily visible people. There are going to be others with invisible disabilities as well.

We need those rooms to be open and accessible. When they aren't they make swimming, which may be our only form of exercise or part of rehab or physiotherapy, at best more difficult and at worst impossible for us.

I have fairly limited needs when it comes to an ACR but I still benefit from them. I have pain and stiffness in my limbs which can make manoeuvre in a normal small cubicle difficult and painful. I get dizzy and wobbly and benefit from extra grab rails as a safety feature. My muscles spasm and seize and being able to sit under a hot directed shower helps to reduce the issue. I need to dig out medication and find it easier when I can lay things out in the space provided. 

There are people with far greater needs than me who don't look disabled and who don't attend a special "disabled swim session". Those accessible changing rooms need to be accessible. Otherwise this happens.

I pay at the front desk, I walk to the pool area, I walk down the corridor to the changing room and it's locked. Not in use. Locked.
So I go to the second accessible room. That's locked too.
That means I have to retrace my steps back along the corridor to the front desk to ask somebody to unlock the door. Then walk back to the room in order to use it.
They unlock the room, explain they've locked them because groups of teenagers have been in there "making a mess". I point out that maybe that makes it a touch inaccessible for those who need it.

Anyway, I grumble, change, shove my stuff in a locker, swim, come back, grab my things from my locker. I am now tired and wobbly due to swimming. I am wet and cooling down. I am holding a bag of stuff and my boots. 
And the room I used is occupied. OK fair enough, there are a number of disabled people who swim at this time.
So I go to the other changing room.
Which is still locked. Not occupied. Locked.
So I, dripping, wet, getting cold, with all my belongings, can't go back to the reception go to the poolside and tell a member of staff there. They can't leave poolside but can radio to reception.
And then I have to stand, dripping wet, wobbling a bit, clutching my boots, waiting for somebody to come with keys, and watch as they saunter casually toward me to oh so graciously grant me access to the accessible changing room.
For somebody with fatigue and pain problems this is a huge deal and can change the pace of the entire day and disrupt the benefit of swimming at all.

I was told that they are being kept locked because when it's busy, there have been groups of people using it who shouldn't be in there. Groups of kids or teenagers messing around. So in order to stop them making a mess, they are locked. I was told that if the room was needed we could ask at the front desk. Of course, nobody tells you this at the front desk. There is no sign or inquiry. It also places extra responsibility on the customer. Do able bodied patrons have to ask to be allowed to use a changing room? Do able bodied people need to wait for somebody with keys to come along? What are we supposed to do if, and I know this may be hard to believe; more than one disabled person wants to swim at the same time?
Do doors get locked immediately after we leave? Will there be somebody to unlock the doors on our return so, when dripping wet and trying to balance our bag, there is a room free for us to dry and dress in?

Your accessibility has to be accessible and that means that you can't just rely on the building having the right facilities. You have to consider who actually uses those facilities and why. You need to make sure that your policies, staffing and actions are suitable and fit for use. 

This leads on to another issue I encountered, one which comes up almost every time I'm at this particular place. To be fair it comes up in almost every other accessible bathroom or changing room I visit too. Emergency cords. You know, those long red cords that hang from the ceiling with a red toggle on them? Those things. They are designed so that if somebody using the ACR falls, becomes stuck or otherwise needs emergency assistance, they can pull on it and an alarm will sound. As with any other accessibility feature, it has to be accessible to be functional. all to often they are not.

Tell me, how accessible do these look to you? If you are able bodied, imagine you have had a fall and are stuck on the floor. Imagine your muscles have gone i to spasm allowing only a small range of movement. Imagine your hip has dislocated and you can only move a short distance. Imagine you need help but you are unable to raise your arms above shoulder height. 

Do you think you could reach these? Do you think these are going to help somebody in an emergency? They are literally not accessible what ever their original intention was. These pictures were all taken on the same day at the same location, the leisure centre I regularly use. This is an issue every single time I visit and is something I bring up with the staff regularly. I am always promised that it won't happen again. That staff an cleaners will be reminded and yet ...
This isn't an isolated issue. As I say I see it in almost every facility I have used. It is such an issue that there is an entire campaign with handy cards dedicated to it

image from Euan's Guide
I have only ever seen one of these in the wild and it was in the Accessible Loo in the cafe 200 Deg in Leeds who tell me that it is their policy to have one in each store to keep it accessible. This is a brilliant example of how easy and how beneficial it is to actually think about accessibility (and is one of the reasons I have become a very loyal customer of theirs).

This isn't formatted as an open letter to the, but a letter with very similar content is going to be set to the leisure centre in question. For now I will probably still go there because that's the option I have but I want to see some changes.

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