Done your Christmas shopping? I went on Tuesday night after work. I boxed the whole thing off in an hour, mostly because 60% of the people I buy for just want money. All of which just left me with two presents to buy. This greatly reduced the stress level for me but it seems not everyone has been having it so easy this festive season.
The BBC are reporting that shops across the UK are missing out on as much as £249bn because their stores are inaccessible to disabled customers. This figure is apparently the combined spending power, or thereabouts, of the disabled community in the UK. My colleagues would have you believe that £248bn of this comes from my Disability Living Allowance but I would like to take this opportunity to refute that allegation. I don’t spend all day with those clowns for the fun of it. Anyway, naturally enough Memoirs Of A Fire Hazard is compelled to comment regardless of the fact that I found the Christmas shopping experience fairly painless this year. I’m not just here for myself, you know?
Take Michaela. The Beeb’s story doesn’t deem that Michaela requires a surname but what we do know about her is that when she was eight months old she was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy. This is a progressive condition which causes muscle weakness and loss of movement. Michaela uses an electric wheelchair which, she says, is woefully catered for by most high street stores;
“There are many shops where I have a one way system that I can go and if I go any other way I will get stuck.” She says. They are her words by the way, clumsy as they are. I feel that pain though. What wheelchair user hasn’t at one point or another, gone down a tiny aisle to get a closer look at something that has caught their eye in a particular store only to find that turning back from whence they came is not an option? I know I have. Before you know it there are 13 people behind you, wanting to get to where you are. And they’re shopping so they’re stressed and irate. They’ve got precisely 20 minutes to find something nice for someone they barely know but somehow feel compelled to buy for and you, you biff, are in their way.
“It's horrendous.” Adds Michaela;
“I don't have the loudest of voices so if I'm stuck where there's lots of noise, and there's music on, I can't call whoever is with me for help.”
I’ve got to be honest at this point and admit that I don’t have this problem. I have a voice that could cause an earthquake in Edinburgh when I choose to use it. But weirdly I often don’t when I am in shops. I find that just hanging around looking at something for long enough will compel a member of staff to take pity on me and come over to offer their assistance. It’s a good job they do because, while we are on the subject of poor access in stores, 80% of things that I might want to buy are displayed high enough so that I can’t reach them without that assistance. And no, I’m not talking about Razzle. That Tuesday I mentioned I was in Debenhams in Liverpool looking longingly at a Ben Sherman jumper. For once my strategy failed me and nobody came over to help, and I was on my own as Emma had been off work that day and wasn’t compelled to travel all the way to Liverpool to help me buy two presents. Normally I would have bellowed at someone, but this being Debenhams there were a million and one other menswear departments to browse through so I took the easy option and bought something I could reach. Don’t get me wrong, I liked what I eventually bought. We haven’t reached the stage yet, I don’t think, where disabled people buy tat that they hate because they can’t reach the good stuff unassisted. Or have we, you tell me? But the point is that in 2016 I should not have to settle for something else or even bother looking for something else because the first item I like is out of reach. Many people feel self-conscious about asking for help in shops and would rather just not bother. Perhaps this is where the BBC’s figure of £249bn in lost sales from the disabled community comes in.
It isn’t only myself and Michaela who are enduring this struggle. The Beeb say Fiona-Jane Kelly from Hounslow described Clintons Cards and Ryman Stationers as ‘abysmal’ on account of their narrow aisles. I can attest to this too, having been in Clintons on the same day as I visited Debenhams. If you use a wheelchair in Clintons you won’t get five metres without having to apologise to someone for being in their way, or without having to tap someone on the back to get them to move because they have ignored your continued requests to be excused so you can get past. This happens in pubs a lot, and I have physically shoved people out of my way before now. Those bloody crips with their chips on their shoulders. Well, fucking move when I ask you for the 14th time then. They don’t. They just look around at the level of their own eye-line and deduce that there can’t be anyone there because nobody could possibly have the temerity to have turned up in a wheelchair.
At least Fiona-Jane got an apology from Clintons, who said;
“We are sorry on this occasion that [full accessibility] has not been possible.”
Did anyone else pick up on that? They are sorry on this occasion? Have there been other occasions on which they were not sorry? Anyway, sorry really isn’t good enough. Don’t be sorry, just fix the problem.
The report cites similar problems experienced by disabled people in Marks & Spencer, Poundland and Next. And what have we heard in response from the government? Minister For Disabled People (yes, there really is such a thing and I’m not quite sure how I feel about that fact) Penny Mordaunt said;
“We need to let businesses know how dumb they're being and we need inspirational people to help us do that.”
Ignoring the vom-inducing Americanism ‘dumb’ what troubles me most about that is the phrase ‘inspirational people’. Inspirational People? No no no no no no no. It is not ‘inspirational’ to go fucking Christmas shopping. This column hardly needs to explain to you again its feelings on inspiration porn but to hear it from an actual government minister is deeply disturbing. What we ‘need’ is for ordinary people with mobility problems to raise these issues as and when they occur and then for our elected government to do something about those issues instead of always coming down on the side of the businesses. Mordaunt goes on;
“We want to give consumers, and their friends and families, more information about the stores that are doing things well. People will ultimately vote with their wallets.”
The figure quoted by the BBC suggests they will, but many won’t. That figure of £249bn would probably be even bigger without online shopping. Unfortunately not all disabled people will tackle this head on like Michaela and Fiona-Jane. Some will accept their fate and go home and do their shopping on the internet. Which you may not view as necessarily a bad thing. I certainly appreciate the fact that Emma likes to do our weekly shopping online rather than having to wander around Tesco once a week looking for the right brand of soup. But you can’t force that on to people through inaction. To do so is just another example of the many and varied ways that society, including businesses like those referred to by the BBC’s report, are trying to keep segregation alive and well in a supposedly developed country like the United Kingdom. Put simply, if we stay at home and do our shopping via Amazon or Tesco online then retailers won’t have to worry about making their stores more accessible. So my advice to you, my fellow crips, is to get out there as much as you can and force the bastards into making the necessary adjustments. And if they don’t then we shall carry on shaming them in pieces like that seen on the BBC website and here on Memoirs Of A Fire Hazard.
Which may have a slightly lower audience.