London 2012 organisers broke at least one promise on access provision and “failed to deliver” on others, according to the chair of the independent body set up to examine the “sustainability” of the games.
When London won the right to stage the Olympic and Paralympic Games, it promised that London 2012 would be the most accessible games yet.
But disabled people raised a string of access concerns with Disability News Service (DNS) during the Paralympics, particularly over access to information, volunteer training, and the failure to provide services promised in advance by the organising committee LOCOG.
Among leading Deaf and disabled figures who have spoken out about access failures during the games are the performer David Bower, activist Ruth Bashall, Julie Newman, acting chair of the UK Disabled People’s Council, Sue Bott, director of development for Disability Rights UK, and Ron Newman, co-ordinator of the London 2012 disability advocate group (DAG).
Now Shaun McCarthy, chair of the Commission for a Sustainable London 2012, which was set up to monitor the sustainability of the games, has added his criticism of these access failures, and others discovered by his organisation.
He highlighted LOCOG’s failure to deliver on a promise to provide audio description at every venue.
Instead, an “enhanced” radio commentary – without the vital extra detail offered by audio description – was available for most Paralympic sports.
Blind and partially-sighted spectators at hugely popular sports such as cycling and swimming only had access to the same – even more basic – commentary that was sent out via the public address system.
Even for goalball, a Paralympic sport for blind athletes, the “enhanced” service was only available for the semi-finals and finals, which meant there was only rudimentary commentary available to blind and partially-sighted spectators for all of the goalball matches involving the two British teams.
Many of the “games-makers” – London 2012’s army of volunteers – had no idea that audio commentary was available, while McCarthy wrote in a blog how Andy Shipley, one of his commissioners and a guide dog-user, had “managed to get hold of a headset only to find it so cheaply made it fell to bits while he was using it”.
McCarthy said he believed that with audio description, LOCOG had “got that wrong”, and added: “Generally that whole area was a bit of a shambles. LOCOG should admit that in public.”
A London 2012 spokesman said these comments were “unfair and totally incorrect” and that all of its commentators had been sent on an audio description workshop run by RNIB.
McCarthy also said there was confusion among games-makers about the equipment and services that were available to disabled people.
He criticised the “communication and information available to games makers”, with the volunteers often unable to secure the answers they needed on access from senior colleagues.
London 2012 insisted that its games makers were “provided excellent training which included how to deal with people with disabilities”.
A London 2012 spokesman said: “With the numbers of people involved there may have been isolated cases where customer care could have been improved, but to have 70,000 people learning how to deal confidently with disability is a giant step forward and a huge positive that many will be able to use in the future.”
McCarthy said he would examine concerns reported by DNS on LOCOG’s failure to provide subtitles and British Sign Language interpreters on the video screens at London 2012 venues, and to train games-makers in Deaf awareness.
And he described the failure of the London 2012 sponsor Visa to provide an audio facility for blind people who do not use Braille at cashpoint machines on the Olympic Park as “completely unacceptable”.
RNIB, which worked closely with LOCOG in the run-up to the games, dismissed suggestions that it had been unhappy with access at London 2012.
But the charity admitted there had been “a few problems, such as incomplete audio description at certain events” and that it was “still working with the organisers of the games to understand these issues and make sure solutions can be found so future events can build on the progress made at London 2012”.
McCarthy said he had heard reports – similar to evidence provided to DNS by Ron Newman – that the training of games-makers on disability and access issues had been poor for the Olympics, but had improved for the Paralympics.
McCarthy said: “We need to be very clear about where LOCOG didn’t get it right and start to make recommendations about where things can be improved in the future.”
He said LOCOG had “set out with very high ambitions for accessibility and I think they have taken the agenda forward”.
But he concluded that they “could have done better” on access, and added: “LOCOG clearly promised a lot. In some areas they didn’t deliver, in some areas they did.”
Among its successes, he said that many people with mobility impairments, including wheelchair-users, had praised the accessibility of the venues and the Olympic Park.
Like many others involved in the planning and delivery of the games over the last seven years, he also praised the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) – which consulted widely with and listened to disabled people in drawing up its plans – for its work designing and building the venues, in contrast with LOCOG’s much less impressive performance in ensuring accessible facilities during the games.
He said: “The ODA approach to inclusive design is an example that everybody should follow.”
LOCOG’s access failures will be covered in the commission’s post-games report, due in early November.
Among other access issues reported by DNS, and passed on to the commission, were:
- A guide-dog user was twice told her dog was a “health and safety hazard” by London 2012 staff during the Paralympic opening ceremony, because it was lying next to her seat, on the steps of the stadium. David Blunkett, the former Labour home secretary, reportedly had a similar experience with his guide-dog
- The failure to provide easy-read or Braille versions of spectator information such as the daily athletics schedule and how the Paralympic classification system works
- The refusal of the LOCOG ticketing team to send out information on the location of power-points on the Olympic Park to powerchair-users, and the failure to provide this information on the London 2012 website
- The failure of the customer service helpline to tell a powerchair-user if she could take a charger through security, or if there were any power-points to recharge her wheelchair if necessary on the Olympic Park
- LOCOG’s refusal to ensure disabled parents who use wheelchairs could sit with their children in unreserved seating, particularly at the ExCeL multi-sport venue
- The decision to prevent wheelchair-users buying tickets through the London 2012 website from November 2011, forcing them to use an 0844 telephone number to check availability of seats and to buy tickets, and so making it impossible for them to buy tickets for themselves and their children.
A LOCOG spokesman said in a statement: “We are proud that the London 2012 Olympic Games and Paralympic Games were the most accessible games ever but with events of this scale, inevitably there will be instances where perhaps things did not live up to individual expectations and could be improved.
“Over the coming weeks we will be talking to various stakeholders and groups to discuss how we can capture some of the lessons and pass these on to future organising committees and other event organisers.
“However, overall we believe great strides have been made in helping to raise the bar in terms of making sporting events more accessible.”