Forcing a Way into City Shops

Article excerpt

Byline: By Peter Young

Thousands of disabled people struggle to gain access to a range of services every day. We find out how a law change will affect people in the North East.

Caroline Bowditch cannot imagine a world where disabled people have easy access to all places.

"That would be my Utopia," she said. "But there will always be places we can't get into."

The 32-year-old uses a wheelchair. She has a genetic condition called osteogenesis imperfecta which results in fragile bones.

She bought her first motorised chair at the age of eight and has spent a lifetime coping with access problems.

She said: "When I want to go somewhere, the first thing I think is `I won't be able to get in'.

"It's not the quality of service, the food or anything else - it is access that dictates where I go."

But Caroline's concerns and those of eight million disabled people in the UK should be answered with the new Disability Discrimination Act which becomes law next year. But while the Act promises much, there are real questions over whether it can deliver the goods.

And while the Act comes into force in only a matter of months, North East businesses have a long way to go before they can be said to be complying.

Caroline took me around Newcastle city centre to show what barriers disabled people come across when making what many able-bodied people consider to be a simple trip to the shops.

Within the space of 15 minutes, we found a range of services Caroline was unable to use.

Starting from Monument, we went on to Grainger Street and immediately found three shops in a row she could not enter.

Clothes shop Jigsaw, photographic goods retailer Jessops and travel agents Going Places had a small step at the entrance which proved a barrier to wheelchair-users.

She said: "Just by putting a ramp in, they would make it easy for wheelchair-users to enter.

"They seem like little insignificant steps but they are a great problem for us.

"A lot of the time you could be at the door with no way of getting in and no one will come to your assistance.

"Luckily I am a confident person and I don't have any qualms about shouting and asking for some help.

"But there are many people who find it difficult to ask for assistance and will just move on. I can't even begin to imagine how hard it would be for anyone with speech problems.

"Signage and information is another issue. There is no way of knowing if there is another entrance with easier access to many buildings."

Next we went to Barclays bank on the corner of Grainger Street and Market Street. It had a slanting step.

Caroline managed to get through the doors but had to carefully manoeuvre her chair and there was a danger of toppling over.

Moving on to Grey Street, we came across more premises with steps at the doors.

At the Barclays offices on this road, we met wheelchair-user David Burdus, 42, who told of his difficulty of accessing the building.

There are two steps, but a door bell is available to ring for assistance. However, David could not reach the bell from his chair.

He said: "There is a ramp once you get inside the building, but I can't get over the steps to start with. Someone else has to ring the bell for me."

Caroline could not go into furniture retailers Delcor, Sherlocks hairdressing and men's clothes shop Union, which all had steps.

She pointed out that Northumberland Street was quite accessible, where stores like Marks & Spencer and Fenwick have ramps as well as lifts and disabled toilets. But it's when you start moving out of the centre that problems begin.

We went on to High Bridge and came across men's clothes shop Maverick. It had a set of three steps, a small landing and then five more stairs.

Caroline, of Hebburn, said: "If there are barriers to shops, to me that means they don't want my money. …