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Disabled access

Steve Wilkinson
Politics Show viewer from Tyneside

How effective is government legislation to make shops, bars and restaurants accessible to disabled people? Steve Wilkinson investigated.

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I was born in 1953 and diagnosed with Spina Bifida.

Steve in wheelchair
Steve in wheelchair tests retail outlets disability access

I use a wheelchair to get out and about, although I can walk a few yards with the assistance of sticks.

So for me, accessibility is all-important.

In October 2004, the government introduced legislation that was meant to make businesses and other premises more accessible for people with disabilities like me.

This required them to make 'reasonable adjustments' to remove physical barriers preventing disabled people from accessing them.

While a number of businesses have complied, and disabled people are able to use their facilities, there is still a significant number who are still inaccessible.

Many disabled people will say this legislation is not working and 'enough is enough'.

Something should be done.

With that in mind, I toured Newcastle with a Politics Show camera in tow to see just how accessible cafes, bars, and restaurants are - four years on from when they are meant to have made those 'reasonable adjustments'.

Sadly, there was often more evidence of inactivity than best practice.

A lack of appreciation of the issues faced by disabled people accessing their services was noticeable in many instances:

One sandwich shop belonging to an international chain had a large step at the entrance.

Wheelchair
'Lack of appreciation of the issues was noticeable'

At the time there were no customers in the shop, but two members of staff failed to see me at the door wanting to enter - and there was no bell to press to alert them to my presence.

In Newcastle's Chinatown - an area trying to develop itself as a tourist attraction - there are some restaurants that say they have disabled toilets.

One of these does not quite have a disabled toilet that would meet the expectations of most disabled people I know, being rather small, but they have made an effort.

The toilet has been fitted with grab rails and staff seem aware of the needs of people like me.

For this, they should be commended.

Another restaurant we visited with an 'accessible' toilet, had made it inaccessible by stacking up chairs inside.

Nevertheless, at least making some effort is better than nothing - and there are many examples of where nothing at all appears to have been done so far.

Steve in Chinatown
Steve heads off to test out Chinatown

We then headed towards the Bigg Market, and a bar that has done a great deal to improve access since 2004 - showing just what can be done.

It has an entrance that can be used by disabled people who use a wheelchair, clear signs indicating where this is, and a bell to attract the attention of staff should this be necessary.

But it was a different story at a bar just off the Quayside. These premises do have a disabled toilet.

So far so good. BUT - and it's a big but - there are steps to negotiate before you can get to it.

Staff there are willing to help, if you don't mind being carried, but having a disabled toilet at the top of some steps seems to defeat the object and be a wasted effort.

Since we filmed, the bar in question is now looking at how it can install an additional ramp and grab rails that would make the disabled toilet accessible from anywhere within the building.

Of course I appreciate that to provide for every disabled person's needs is virtually impossible.

But new buildings and those being refurbished have a better opportunity to provide better facilities.

And businesses have to remember that not every disabled person is in a wheelchair.

Clear signage, large print menus, colour contrasts on doors and steps can provide benefits to many partially sighted people.

Braille reading
Braille menus and signs bring information to life for the blind...

Likewise, an induction loop or a member of staff who can sign a little will benefit the deaf or hard of hearing. Simple and often inexpensive things can make all the difference.

So some premises have made the effort - or some effort - to become more accessible. But that leaves the question of why many have done nothing at all?

Perhaps they don't see any benefit or threat.

If so, they're failing to recognise the potential income millions of disabled people and their friends and family can bring.

But, as it stands, there's also little threat of legal action being taken, as the burden is on the disabled person to take action through the small claims courts, which is a complex process.

This, in my opinion, is unsatisfactory.

What we need to do is persuade business owners and managers to appreciate there are commercial benefits to be had from making more of an effort in being accessible.

To try and persuade the government that this is all a good idea I have petitioned the prime minister to amend the Disability Discrimination Act, making it mandatory for every business to display some signage and a bell.

This would be a catalyst for change in the mindset of business owners.

I have also recommended that a body should be set up to ensure that this is done and impose fixed penalties where this does not happen.

This e-petition will run until March 2009.

Watch the Politics Show on BBC One at 13.30BST on Sunday.

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