Voices: Brighton has forgotten the meaning of the word ‘inclusive’

Accessible toilets that are accessible to everyone! Well that’s just dandy. Hugs! Welcome to Brighton: inclusion city, alongside York, Waltham Forest and a number of other places that splatter verbal policy diarrhoea all over their civic websites while flying flags, penning tweets, and gratuitously fobbing off people with disabilities while they’re at it.

Here’s the thing. Can no one see the problem with putting “accessible to everyone” on the only convenience disabled people can use? Perhaps you might understand if I describe how I arrived at the sign, on display at a large-ish civic institution that I won’t name because even though it almost had me blowing a gasket, I’d have been in quite the jam without.

Brighton offered a small taste of what it must have been like to be disabled in the 1950s, when you were expected to stay indoors. Out of sight, out of mind.

A friend of mine, also disabled, once sent me a newspaper clipping of a royal presenting those sky-blue mobility buggies to some disabled people, with the headline boasting of the cheers from the “cripples” they were metaphorically cuddling. We haven’t moved on as far as some people would have you believe. My family and I went to Brighton because we fancied a day out. By the end of the day, I was left calling our judgement into question. Faced with a two-hour shlep back to London, there was nowhere to take a piss.

At activity one, the disabled loos were out of order. It always seems to be that way. Except they weren’t really – it’s just the lock that was bust. The facilities were perfectly useable with someone keeping guard. That is, of course, if you can navigate a small obstacle course consisting of a Henry vacuum cleaner and various other bits and pieces (this also happens all the damn time).

The place we went for lunch at didn’t have any sort of facilities for disabled people, and the directions to where such facilities might be found proved wanting. The public toilets? They were, of course, closed.

Finally, we found the “accessible to all” facility. Now do you see the problem? When it comes to accessible facilities for disabled people, there is a marked shortage of supply. That also applies to parking spaces, medical help, and pretty much anything in between. Disabled people knew all about the “shortage economy” long before The Economist was writing lengthy pieces about it. It’s just everyday life. This is why that supposedly inclusive notice in a supposedly inclusive city is so appallingly wrong.

If the facilities are “accessible to everyone” they’re accessible to the lazy bloke who can’t be bothered to walk two metres further down the corridor to the gents. The “accessible” facilities thus become much less accessible to the people they’re designed for. That’s people who need them and have no alternative provision available. People who might need to go rather more often than the average person, might take longer, might have other challenges to navigate. Disabilities are all different. The only constant is that they’re a pain in the neck. Often elsewhere, too.

I also understand the problems faced by people with hidden disabilities, like the autistic guy who saw me waiting outside the accessible facilities at a London cinema and proceeded to apologise profusely for using them. I explained to him that he absolutely had the right to use the accessible facilities, and should continue to do so. Men’s toilets can be filthy, unpleasant, and absolutely intolerable to autistic people.

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Those of us with kit that makes it clear we have impairments recognise this. We can – usually, anyway – tell when people have hidden disabilities, and when their only disabilities are laziness and obnoxiousness. It’s a dead giveaway when they make a big song and dance about unnecessarily holding open doors we are quite capable of opening ourselves.

But that sign didn’t remind anyone that there are people with hidden disabilities, as some do. It said “accessible to everyone” – including those sorry-ass, lazy louts.

I should say, at this point, that most of the people we encountered on our day out were lovely. I still like the place a lot. But the authorities, the council, the people who run places, maybe the MPs: they need to go back to school to learn what inclusion means.

If you make spaces “accessible to all” on the grounds of inclusion, you can easily start to exclude people who really need them.