A disabled consultant who played a key role in ensuring the accessibility of London 2012’s purpose-built venues has spoken of her frustration that the events themselves did not match some of those high access standards.
Margaret Hickish began working as an access consultant with the consortiums that produced the London 2012 “masterplan” in early 2007, before later joining the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) as its accessibility manager.
She spent years consulting with disabled people, including local organisations in east London, to ensure that the London 2012 stadia, including the Olympic Park, were as accessible as they could be.
The ODA’s efforts were widely-praised by disabled people and their organisations for ensuring an accessible environment for both Paralympians and disabled spectators.
Hickish, a powerchair-user herself, said she was “very proud” of the part she had played, and was thrilled when she sampled the accessibility for herself in the Olympic Park during the Paralympics.
She said: “I grinned from ear to ear almost every day. It was just wonderful to see so many disabled people be free to just enjoy it. I also enjoyed having really good access myself.”
One of ODA’s major aims had been to design the Olympic Park with as few steps as possible, and to ensure any slopes were as shallow as possible. Another was to try to bring disabled spectators into the various sporting arenas on the same level as their seats, so they wouldn’t have to move up or down in lifts.
She said: “One of the comments from a lot of disabled people was that the park felt accessible.”
But what she said she most enjoyed was the change in attitudes towards disabled people. “For me, the biggest thing was getting into a lift at Waterloo and finding everyone was talking to me. What is really nice is that that continues to happen.”
But while the infrastructure of London 2012 won praise, many disabled people who attended the Games were less complimentary about the accessibility of some of the events themselves.
Some were disappointed with the lack of audio description at many events, the confusion among games-makers about the equipment and services that were available to disabled people, the failure to provide subtitles and British Sign Language interpreters on the video screens, and LOCOG’s refusal to ensure disabled parents who use wheelchairs could sit with their children in unreserved seating.
Although Hickish is convinced that London 2012 was “the most accessible games ever”, she accepted that there had been problems, and said she felt “a degree of frustration” at LOCOG’s access failures.
She pointed to the failure to allow wheelchair-users to buy tickets online from November 2011, the shortage of detailed access information on the London 2012 website, and some confusing signage around the Olympic Park venues.
She also said that some businesses that ran food concession stands had not been briefed about their own access responsibilities. This led to some of them using the lower-height counters that had been designed for wheelchair-users to store food on instead.
Hickish said she regretted that LOCOG failed to continue consulting with the same group of disabled people that ODA had used for several years on its built environment access panel.
She believes LOCOG’s own consultative group did not enjoy the same relationship that the access panel enjoyed with ODA. “They felt as though they were told what was happening, rather than being asked what should happen.
“We (ODA) went to people who weren’t normally involved in these consultations, including going out and talking to local disability groups, whereas LOCOG, because they were putting on a show, were running at a much faster pace and didn’t perhaps remember to talk to people about their plans.”
As the years ticked down towards 2012, Hickish began working as a consultant for both ODA and LOCOG, and was then appointed as Paralympics adviser to London’s mayor, Boris Johnson, and was spending two days a week with LOCOG.
She worked on projects outside the Olympic Park, taking responsibility for the access improvements to the South Bank, and access arrangements at Heathrow and the capital’s London 2012 Live Sites.
Hickish quit her post with the mayor and LOCOG last December, in part because of “misgivings” about pressures on LOCOG’s access budget, concerns that were borne out by the access problems experienced by some visitors during the Games.
Two weeks ago, she was in Brazil for the official handover from London to Rio as the Olympic and Paralympic host city for 2016 and she ensured that ROCOG, the Rio 2016 organising committee, was aware of both the access successes and the “glitches” at London 2012.
Rio, she said, was 10-15 years behind the UK on access. “Rio has big challenges on transport, much, much bigger challenges than we had, because accessible transport is pretty hit and miss.
“There are only 48 accessible taxis in the whole of Rio, all run by one particular company. Accessible hotel rooms are just a non-occurrence, and there are really big challenges with the accessibility of public buildings.”
Stadium design, too, will test Brazil’s organising body, she said. Traditionally, if a disabled person wants to sit with their family, they will be carried to their seat by staff. At London 2012, family-members were able to join wheelchair-users in the accessible spaces.
But she said Rio had already made one improvement on London 2012’s package: its Paralympic symbol was “truly accessible”, with a pulsating heartbeat so that blind and partially-sighted people and Deaf people can engage with it.
6 December 2012