Councils and other public bodies across England are failing to consult disabled people before approving “discriminatory” measures designed to aid social distancing and encourage cyclists and pedestrians, say campaigners.
They have warned that public bodies are ignoring their duties under the Equality Act, and are making life more difficult for disabled people, including wheelchair-users and those who are partially-sighted.
The changes are being introduced across the country under cover of the COVID-19 pandemic, using the crisis as an excuse not to consult with disabled people.
Critics say the measures are often rushed, poorly planned and discriminatory.
Fazilet Hadi, policy manager for Disability Rights UK, said: “Changes to town and city centres are causing major accessibility challenges to disabled people: tables, chairs and signage on pavements, which need to be navigated around; temporary schemes to widen pavements and create cycle lanes with unclear and unsafe demarcation; and banning of cars from streets, excluding disabled people from shops and other services.
“For significant numbers of disabled people, parts of towns and cities have become no-go areas.
“It is totally unacceptable that planning authorities are excluding thousands of disabled and older citizens from participating in the life of our community.”
Broadcaster, campaigner and access consultant Mik Scarlet, who lives in north London, has highlighted temporary measures introduced by Transport for London near his home in Camden, north London, which have narrowed major roads for cars and lorries, supposedly to increase space for cyclists and pedestrians.
But Scarlet pointed to a lack of proper dropped kerbs and the loss of blue badge parking spaces, while he said hailing a taxi has become almost impossible in places, and partially-sighted people have suddenly been faced with entirely new road layouts.
He told Disability News Service (DNS): “It’s not just London, it’s everywhere.
“The amount of stuff that’s coming now from Manchester, from Newcastle, from York, little towns are doing it.
“We want a greener society, all disabled people do, but… for us, the pavements are far more important than cycle lanes.
“I think there are going to be a lot of people taking their councils to court.”
He said no thought had been put into the measures being taken in Camden and across the country.
He said: “We are just not being talked to. I can’t believe how little consultation and basic communication there has been.”
Scarlet said he believed that when disabled activists started coming out of shielding and noticed what had happened to access in their local areas they would have “a real shock”.
He said: “Eventually we will start coming out en masse and I think that that’s when things will get more vocal.”
In York, the short-notice pedestrianisation of several streets in the city centre, and the removal of blue badge parking spaces, led to the new York Disability Rights Forum warning last week (PDF) that the changes could discriminate against disabled people.
Among the measures introduced by the council was a free shuttle taxi service that picks up blue badge holders from a carpark and takes them to the city centre.
But among the forum’s concerns were the failure to consult with disabled people, and the lack of clarity (PDF) on how the measures would work and how safe they were.
The council claims that the drivers “regular disinfect the taxis” during the day, but there has been no clarity on how often this is happening.
Helen Jones, a disabled campaigner and blue badge-holder from York, told DNS: “City of York Council have drastically changed blue badge parking in the city centre, forcing disabled people to park outside the city walls and use a shuttle system.
“Yet they have provided no information about the shuttle, beyond its existence, and so blue badge holders are unable to make an informed decision about whether they can, or should, use the shuttle.
“Further, these significant changes were communicated after they had been made and the leaflet was already out of date when it was received by many blue badge holders.
“The language within it was patronising, used the medical model of disability and put the onus on disabled people to understand and shoulder the burden of the changes.”
Another disabled driver said the council had not considered the fact that, because of COVID-19, disabled drivers “require their independent access even more to protect themselves from contagion when travelling into York”.
Concerns have also been raised about the actions of Lichfield District Council in Staffordshire, again including a lack of consultation.
The council has temporarily suspended all blue badge parking bays in Lichfield city centre – and created more parking for blue badge holders instead in a nearby car park – “to allow for better social distancing”.
A councillor subsequently told the local news website Lichfield Live: “Disabled shoppers and businesses are paying the price for this.
“Indeed, I’ve heard of at least one person who is going to shop in a more disabled-friendly town in future because of this decision.”
Comments on the website from local disabled residents appeared to back that up.
One said she would not be shopping in Lichfield again.
Another said: “Disabled people like myself go to town when we need to.
“Can’t walk more than 100 yards so now can’t get to the bank, the pharmacy, the opticians and the market.
“Businesses really need all the help and support it can get which a lot of retired and disabled people can give.”
In London, the campaigning, user-led organisation Transport for All (TfA) spoke out about the failure to ensure access for disabled people as part of the mayor of London’s major new traffic restrictions around Bishopsgate in central London.
TfA said in a statement issued on social media: “We fully support attempts to reduce pollution, promote active travel, and avoid a car-based recovery.
“However, far more needs to be done to ensure that disabled people are not negatively impacted by these changes, in an increasingly hostile and difficult transport system.”
It added: “Disabled people were not consulted before these changes were designed and implemented, but will once again have to feedback with problems after they arise.”
Last month, TfA held its online TravelTalks event, with disabled people from across the UK taking part.
It looked at the impact of COVID-19 on the street environment and disabled people’s ability to move around their local areas.
In a report based on the event, TfA’s chief executive, Kirsty Hoyle, said disabled people were seeing “huge changes that impact accessibility”, including low traffic zones, relocation of bus stops, makeshift cycle lanes, and more street clutter.
She added: “At a time when many disabled people are shielding or otherwise not physically outside and accessing streetspaces, there’s a real fear that disabled voices are not present in decision making.”
The event highlighted the lack of consultation with disabled people and the need for clear information about changes to the street environment.
The user-led charity for disabled cyclists, Wheels for Wellbeing, also raised concerns last month that disabled people’s need for “safe, accessible walking, wheeling, and cycling space” was “not being put front and centre in post-lockdown plans”, which it said could have “disastrous consequences”.
Transport for London (TfL), City of York Council and Lichfield District Council have all defended the measures they have taken during the pandemic.
Sam Monck, TfL’s head of investment delivery planning for healthy streets, said: “We’re absolutely determined to make sure that our temporary Streetspace schemes introduced in response to coronavirus are inclusive and benefit everybody in London.
“All of our cycle schemes are designed to be accessible to adapted cycles and our schemes also undergo an equality impact assessment to ensure that they are inclusive.
“We will continue to work closely with our stakeholders on our Streetspace plans and would urge people to contact us with any feedback on the changes.”
A spokesperson for City of York Council said: “These are unprecedented times and we are not able to undertake the level of engagement with residents and groups as we would like.
“This has been the case with many of the transport measures that have been introduced.
“Our priority has been protecting lives and protecting jobs.”
He added: “We have specifically invested over £19,000 [since the start of the pandemic] in helping to ensure disabled residents are still able to access the city centre.
“We appreciate, given the need for timely intervention, we have not been able to address these concerns completely and we committed at the time of implementation to continue to work with representatives from all those with access requirements as the crisis continues.”
Lichfield council said it had taken advice on its blue badge measures from the accessibility information provider AccessAble, but it is not clear whether that advice was accepted and acted on.
Councillor Doug Pullen, leader of Lichfield council, said: “We recently made changes to the allocation of blue badge parking bays within Lichfield city centre to improve social distancing measures for pedestrians.
“In so doing, we gave consideration to advice provided by AccessAble, to continue to meet the needs of blue badge holders together with government advice on managing public spaces safely as a result of COVID-19.
“We have reserved 42 car parking spaces for blue badge holders across the two nearest car parks, which are both accessible and within the city centre, so are good alternatives.
“Many of our blue badge holders understand we need to consider the needs of all our shoppers and visitors, but we know for some it is an extra challenge and we are aware of the comments and feedback received from both blue badge holders and businesses.
“We are continuing to monitor pedestrian movements and behaviour.
“This will help inform whether we retain or change the arrangements.”
Anna Nelson, executive director of AccessAble, said: “AccessAble has recently begun working in partnership with Lichfield District Council to see how accessibility can be improved and promoted across the district.
“As part of that work AccessAble was asked to provide guidance on the potential relocation of blue badge parking bays as part of the council’s response to COVID-19.
“AccessAble’s advice followed best practice and guidance, as set out in BS 8300, and highlighted the need for bays to be positioned close to key amenities (within 50 metres) and on a route that is both accessible and allows for social distancing.
“The report was submitted for consideration as part of a wider discussion around supporting local businesses and implementing government guidelines.
“Our understanding is that the parking situation in Lichfield is being kept under review.”
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