Fierce debate over standard of disabled access in Sheffield city centre

Community leaders have taken part in a debate over the standard of disabled access in Sheffield city centre.

Tuesday, 4th June 2019, 08:49 am
Updated Tuesday, 4th June 2019, 09:24 am
Sheffield city centre.

For our latest Telegraph Voices feature we asked:- Is disabled access good enough in the city centre? If not, how can it be improved? 

This is what people think. 

Sheffield city centre.

 

Olivia Blake, cabinet member for finance, resources and governance and deputy leader of Sheffield City Council 

We have a vision for Sheffield to be the fairest city in the UK, where everyone feels included and able to access what the city has to offer. 

Creating an accessible city centre is an ongoing journey that the council has been working  on for decades to deliver, and our progress can be seen in areas like Tudor Square, The Peace Gardens and The Moor.

MP Jared O'Mara.

Our expert design team and landscape architects work to continually develop city centre public realm areas with a high level of disabled access, to create connected spaces that are easy to navigate.

Their close working relationships with access forums in the city, in particular the Access Liaison Group and Transport for All (T4All), enable people’s voices and experiences  to be factored in to our developments.

As part of our commitment to promoting independence we work in partnership with AccessAble and have produced guides for 727 venues in the city to help people navigate Sheffield as easily as possible. The AccessAble guides provide crucial, practical information that enable disabled people to make the most of Sheffield, lowering the anxiety and challenges of visiting somewhere unfamiliar. Last year these guides were used more than 38,000 times.

However, we are not complacent and know there is still much we need to work on. The national government programme of austerity has especially impacted on the quality of life for disabled people and we’d like to know what the main issues are and what we need to prioritise to make the most impact with the limited funding available to us.

Steve Chu, chief executive of Age UK Sheffield.

We are keen to hear about areas of the city that are not as accessible as they could be, particularly for those who have hidden disabilities. People can get in touch through the Disability Equality Hub, a city wide forum which works to advise the council and other partners on the big issues for people  with disabilities. 

Christine Sephton, of the Changing Sheff action group 

Legislation over the years has increased the opportunities for people with disabilities but there are still many areas that need improvement and continuing vigilance.

Councillor Olivia Blake.

Not long ago I was unexpectedly confined to a wheelchair for a number of months. I was fortunate that I have a husband who could push me around and help with my tasks but am not sure I could have coped independently. The main city centre problems came from the infrastructure – badly laid pavements, uneven tram track crossings, broken down road edges and steep kerbs; side road pavements were blocked by large waste bins; there was a proliferation of ‘A’ boards on narrow pavements, many of which were caused by thoughtless or untrained staff.

These obstacles affect the unsighted community as well as wheelchair users and many people who are visually impaired will not visit the city centre for these reasons.

Seasonal events such as fairs and markets make life difficult for wheelchair users and the visually impaired and are best avoided because they create obstructions, narrow pathways and crowds that are difficult to navigate. A new phenomenon for guide-dog-aided people is the unpleasant experience with untrained dogs belonging to the begging street community.

The independent electric wheelchair user has a different problem; many doors are heavy to pull open from his sitting wheelchair position.

There is no doubt that access for people with disabilities of all kinds has improved and many more people can enjoy the experience of shopping and entertainment in the city than ever before. However there does need to be vigilance and more careful planning by businesses, Amey and the council to ensure that needs are being met and maintained by premises and the staff running them, together with a commitment to repair broken infrastructure quickly.

Christine Sephton.

 

Steve Chu, chief executive of Age UK Sheffield 

Travelling around a large city can sometimes test us all, but for older or disabled people it can be a real struggle. To help, there are a few relatively simple things that people in Sheffield can do to help older people get out and about in the city.

One is remembering to park considerately. For disabled people who use their own vehicles, disabled parking bays and the Blue Badge Scheme are vital to enable them to park closer to their destination. Able-bodied drivers using disabled spaces may prevent a disabled person such as a wheelchair user from being able to park at all.

I would also urge people to pay attention to items left on pavements. Many older people use mobility scooters or wheelchairs to get out and about. When cars are parked on the pavement, or block dropped kerbs, the person can become stuck with nowhere to go. Advertising boards and poorly placed rubbish bins can also block access and force a disabled person to travel on the road – a very scary prospect.

In terms of public transport, I would like to see more bus drivers being sensitive to the needs of people with limited mobility when getting on and off. And travellers on both the bus and the tram should be alert to leaving space for wheelchair users, and priority seating for older people.

In the city centre itself, access is generally better than in the past, thanks to the Disability Discrimination Act. In some shops, the size of doorways and lifts can represent a challenge for wheelchairs and scooters, especially when layout is tight.

One other thing older people often tell us is that there are not enough public toilets. So it was great to find out that the city centre has a list of seven locations where people can use their toilets. I wish more shop owners would be part of this scheme.

 

Diane Jarvis, manager of Sheffield BID

Creating cities for diversity, inclusion and equality is becoming more important. If cities are built with accessibility in mind, then people with disabilities will feel included socially. Sheffield city centre already has many public spaces and facilities that are safe and accessible to users of all ages and abilities.

One of the aspirations of Sheffield BID is to make Sheffield an outstanding, access-friendly city centre.  

We have implemented several schemes, including partnering with the council to fund a new mobility scheme, Mobile Sheffield. With scooters, wheelchairs and walking chairs available, Mobile Sheffield allows people to explore the city centre in a way that is convenient for them. Many of our family-focused events cater for children with special needs.

In response to the lack of public toilets, we created LAVS – a community toilet scheme that allows anyone to use the toilets of participating premises, providing access to clean, safe facilities in convenient locations including adult changing places at The Moor Market.

Working, socialising and tourism are the pillars of the visitor economy, and people with physical or learning disabilities have become a large and important part of it.

In November we took part in the first national Purple Tuesday, a day dedicated to promoting better accessibility for disabled shoppers. Purple, the organisation behind Purple Tuesday, is committed to bringing businesses and disabled people together to unleash the spending potential of the ‘Purple Pound’.

Technology can play an important part in making Sheffield city centre more accessible, helping people with disabilities navigate transport, retail spaces and other indoor and outdoor spaces. With the introduction of free, public-access WIFI there is now a real opportunity to introduce some innovative solutions that put accessibility first to create a truly disabled-accessible city centre.

 

Jared O'Mara, MP for Sheffield Hallam 

I'm biased in favour of disabled people obviously. But I've spoken to loads in Hallam these past two years whose experiences and disabilities are markedly different from mine and therefore a tad foreign to me.

So making metaphors or drawing parallels to my own life is my method of understanding. I want to be the best person I possibly can so placing myself in other people's shoes helps.

I've never tried to get off a packed Supertram in an electric wheelchair. A lovely bloke I met recently has to do that every day. I can't drive a car either because of my cerebral palsy, so I've never tried to reverse out of a space on a double parked and busy road. However I reckon the latter might be a good metaphor for non-disabled people to better understand how people with disabilities often have a battle on getting to our city centre in the first place. The tram doors shut before they can even get off.

Access isn't just physical barriers though, it's attitudes and awareness too. Our city centre is better than others in my opinion. But our country as a whole needs to make more effort to understand and include disabled people.

That starts with realising that most disabilities are not visually obvious and we often try to hide their symptoms out of shame and fear. We're not scroungers, liars or exaggerating and we're not weak or feckless freaks either.

There are countless people who spread such prejudice and hate. I experience this myself every day, but other people have it far worse. It makes many of us scared to leave the house, let alone get on the tram. We need everybody's help with that. Even more than we need an extra minute between stops.

 

Jennifer Jones, a founding member of Sheffield’s Disabled People Against Cuts 

I'm 38 and I have fibromyalgia, M.E and bipolar affective disorder, despite being disabled myself both mentally and physically I am also carer to my little boy who is seven-years-old and who is autistic. When I'm out and about I need to be mindful of my son's needs as well as my own. For many parent carers it's an ongoing daily task. 

One of the really important ways of coping when you have a chronic pain illness is to pace yourself, have regular rest points, to sit down wherever possible.

I am unsteady on my feet, I am very sensitive to pain and the fact that im so unsteady it means I can be knocked off my feet completely. 

Typically we take the bus from where we live in S2 into town. 

There is a tram stop that would be about 10 minutes walk away to someone who isn't disabled physically, but it's too far for me to go in one go. There are no rest points that I can rely upon along the way.

No benches or even little wall that I could perch on in order to pace myself so using the tram from bus stop is out of the question is simply not accessible from where I live. 

There is no bench or seating at the bus stop so I have to make sure I carefully time it in order that I'm not left standing for too long, as this can end up causing me great pain, giving me no choice but to go home.

When I get on the bus I use my mobility travel pass and try to find a seat near to the front. it's fair to say that not everybody who occupies these seats are people who are elderly or who have mobility needs. I wish that people would be more considerate and try to leave these seats free for people like us. 

I absolutely can't stand on bus journeys, I would simply fall when the bus turns corners/stops etc, so I'm sometimes put in the embarrassing predicament of asking the passengers if somebody might be able to give me a seat if a bus is full. Most often the people that do offer a seat are youths, and I'm always thankful.

When I get to town I struggle judging when to stand up to get off the bus, if the person next to me needs to get past me in order to get off , they often become irritated when I say I can't get up until the bus has stopped. 

This is something that I can't help and means on many occasions have been tutted at or huffed that before I even get to town on some occasions people even swear at me and I know I'm not the only person that this happens to, it's humiliating and upsetting. Imagine being talked down to every time you get the bus? It gets a bit much after a while.

When I visit the town centre I typically visit the Moor area or the Fargate area.

Something that has become problematic over the last six to eight months or so, is that some premises have added pin number entry locks to their accessible toilets.

Due to having chronic pain condition and suffering panic attacks as well as having a bowel condition I have a right to use the accessible toilets.

I don't have long to get to the toilet when I feel the need to go (and there are very many other disabilities that will cause people to experience the same thing here) so can you imagine how worrying it is to be able to make it to an accessible loo, only to find you've got to join a queue of sometimes as many as a dozen people and purchase a drink in order to be able to use the bathroom.  

On several occasions when I've been put through this situation in the Pinstone Street area it's quicker for me to get the 51 bus home then it is for me to queue for the toilet code. By time I have been through all that I just stay in. It's so upsetting. 

This can mean I've not got all my errands done like purchasing gas and electricity top-up etc, and means I'm not out interacting with other people at all and adds to the isolation that being a disabled person so often brings.

There is a scheme called the radar key, those of us with applicable disability can purchase a special key that enables has to use accessible toilets.

Putting a PIN code lock on accessible toilets really shouldn't be allowed and I wish that the local authority would look into businesses that practice this in our city, we're already discriminated against in so many ways there are already so many barriers this really feels like just another setback.

I don't want to be put through the humiliation of wetting myself in public. Who would?!

There are some stores that mean well and have even put signs up saying that people are free to use their amenities even if they're just passing by which is a great idea in principle. 

It's become apparent that there aren't enough quiet areas that people can use as a safe space in town.

For example if you are somebody who suffers with panic attacks and anxiety or if you're somebody who may experience sensory overload in the town centre due to being autistic or having some variant of sensory processing disorder.

Sheffield has a lot of accessible and inclusive spaces and transport systems, but it's far from perfect and each of us as passengers, as shoppers, and as people who work in town centres can play our part to improve the city centre for deaf, blind and disabled people.

 

John Quinn, chair of the Disability Hub and a volunteer at Disability Sheffield   

One thing that all disabled people have in common no matter what their particular impairments are is that they have problems with everyday life that are very often not obvious to the rest of the population. So they have to point them out to get anything done.

Sheffield is of course, a city famously built on hills, and while the main city centre itself is comparatively flat, it is still part of a district originally built on heavy manual industry where very few - if any - concessions were made towards those who might have problems with movement, not to mention other disabilities - both physical and mental - which can affect people in a variety of ways.

However, as local pop group ABC once had it, that was then but this is now, and much of the western world has become more disability-aware, helped in Britain by legislation which while a long way from perfect, makes it more difficult for businesses to discriminate, actively at least.

Newer buildings, such as The Circle on Rockingham Gate, owned and managed by Voluntary Action Sheffield (VAS) have been designed with accessibility in mind and is used by organisations including Disability Sheffield.

But there are still too many places it is almost impossible to access if you happen to be a wheelchair user or not particularly mobile. Or where 'reasonable adjustments' consist of convoluted routes round the back of - and sometimes through other - buildings. 

There are also problems in the city centre with uneven - sometimes even cobbled - walkways, steep kerbs and street displays which can get in the way of those trying to get past.

For those who wish to actually get in and out of the city centre, complications include restricted parking for those with cars and access difficulties for those using buses, as drivers often have to get off to set the ramps up, unlike in London where  all buses now have automatic ramps. Supertram is pretty easy to get on and off, but unfortunately still only serves certain parts of the city's outskirts.

Sheffield BID manager Diane Jarvis.
Jennifer Jones.