The fifth in our “mini-series” of personal stories & case studies for the National Outdoors for All Working Group (NOfAWG) – “We need to raise the bar on what is accessible and what isn’t”

The fifth in our “mini-series” of personal stories & case studies for the National Outdoors for All Working Group (NOfAWG) – “We need to raise the bar on what is accessible and what isn’t”

This is the fifth story in our “mini series” of personal stories and case studies collated for the National Outdoors for All Working Group (NOfAWG), to accompany the group’s report on barriers to accessing local green spaces. We’re still in Sheffield, where we hear from Zanib…

Accessibility is often assumed to be achievable by assessing things from just one aspect – the venue/place’s facilities (ramps, bathrooms, etc). However, to make things accessible, we need to look at all the things that can impact our journey, from the moment we leave the house, to the moment we return.

We know that people living with physical and/or hidden differences are eligible for free bus and tram passes and discounted train tickets. But are all buses, trams, and trains accessible? If not, is there sufficient, affordable, accessible taxis and vehicle hire for people who do not own their own adapted vehicle, or who live with someone who drives an accessible vehicle? The journey to the destination is equally as important as the destination itself; what is the point of investing all funds into ensuring an outdoor green space is accessible, if the journey to and from said destination is nothing short of stressful – or even worse, a complete disaster?

I am an active wheelchair user, and in comparison to one of my Disability Sheffield colleagues, my degree of mobility is different, even though we are both active wheelchair users. Where manoeuvring  on and off the trams in Sheffield is quite easy for me, for my colleague however, it can be difficult. Most trams require tipping off the chair, and then pulling oneself onto the tram using interior bars on the sides of the doors, whereas I reverse out and control the drop of my chair when getting off trams and buses. It never occurred to me that someone else with a difference in mobility and strength may struggle to do this, until my colleague mentioned it.

As for accessible vehicles to transport people with physical differences, these are most likely to be big brand companies such as City Taxis, who only have a handful available and need at least half an hour’s notice *rolls eyes*. And even then, it’s not guaranteed they’ll show up at all – as I found during the recovery of my shoulder cuff repair back in 2019. We deserve better than raised trams with wide gaps from the platform, limited space on buses, and a potential non-requirement that every taxi service has an adequate number of accessible vehicles – ramps included.

It’s easy to miss the minor adjustments that make a huge difference if you’re not around people with different abilities. It’s basically the diversity argument but for different abilities. How can you know the real issues people with different abilities face when trying to access urban green spaces, if you don’t spend time with them? I work with various abilities and advocate for them too. I hope by saying that if you design access in, out, and around the venue, with individuals who are most restricted with mobility in mind, you will not go wrong. You will actually cater better for all abilities. We tend to see barriers zig-zagged on the entrance to parks, or narrow or high gates, and it begs the question, “has the local authority asked the opinion of somebody using a wide electric wheelchair if they feel the space is accessible enough?” Or even decided to use some initiative and liaise with local mobility shops for their recommendations on spacing? My own village park has a set of these barriers in place at two entrances. For many years these were the only accessible entrances to the park for residents at the bottom of an extremely steep road. My village is home to many elderly folk who would have struggled to walk up the road to try to access the park from the top entrance. Should they have had wheelchairs, walkers, or frames of any kind, they would not have been able to access this public green space in the heart of their community. Sadly, I see the barriers at the bottom entrances today, and even though they have been adjusted to be made wider, I know that some of my students at the local college would still not be able to fit their electric wheelchairs through them, due to the simple fact that they are just wider and sometimes bulkier chairs, to cater for the essential needs of said individuals.

Unfortunately, the point of inaccessibility does not stop there, once inside the park. It is important to take notice of the even finer points, such as the steepness in gradients, and uneven pavement surfacing which can result in trips and falls when using crutches or frames. Steepness alone can be unbelievably limiting. You will find that there is a whole spectrum of abilities that depend on various aides to move around. Lifting crutches and walkers can be a very tough task and individuals may struggle with steps and slopes. So how can this be overcome? Why not make sure there is just as much beauty to see at the bottom of the slope as there is at the top, or perhaps increase gradients ever so slightly when working on greenspaces that are open to slopes and hills.

It is also worth thinking about ensuring there are bathroom facilities very close by. It isn’t our place to know every single detail about how one’s difference may affect them, and we should remember to acknowledge the needs of those with hidden differences in emphasising that inside-the-park bathroom facilities may be needed as a part of the general standard of accessibility. And if not in the park, then at least close by. I do actually tend to avoid green spaces that do not appear to have accessible toilet facilities nearby as a general rule of thumb. It just makes the whole experience daunting, especially as I use public transport to get around and there is always a risk of delays and missed trams, buses, or trains.

The return journey should be reminiscent of the journey to the venue in that there should be no worry of running out of money, no worry over high curbs or steps. I travel alone mainly; I’ve never had a Carer or Personal Assistant. And embarking on a journey to the Monsal Trail in the Peak District was the most relaxed journey I’ve ever made to a green space. The bus was accessible with my free pass and direct to Bakewell from Sheffield interchange. There was adequate information online about the accessibility of the trail and through the testimonials of my colleagues. I did notice that the road up to the trail was particularly steep. I only just managed it, but once again I have to say that not every wheelchair user would, due to varying degrees in mobility. I worried less about making that trip than I do when planning one to my local park, wondering about toilet facilities, if the buses will be frequent enough, etc.

I would like to finish by saying that I believe to make certain that green spaces are more accessible, wherever they may be – (as many disabled people are based in a much more rural setting) – and at least during the pandemic have been limited to only those communities, which raises the question of: If our more modern urban spaces are not accessible enough, what about our less modern and more remote areas? Issues such as regular public transport, bathroom facilities and steepness/steps overlap from one setting to another), we need to raise the bar on what is accessible and what isn’t. It is clear from what I’ve discussed that we are not even meeting basic requirements and therefore restricting public green spaces to people with differences.

Image courtesy of Sheffield Cycling 4 All.