Nettie Sutherland from Perth and Kinross on accessibility: Lack of communication is a key issue.
Advertisement and reality, hidden obstacles, and why city councils ought to hire disabled people
Last Friday, we had a candid interview with Nettie Sutherland – a trustee for the Centre of Inclusive Living for Perth and Kinross. She’s a mother and grandmother, and manages that successfully. She’s always had pets. Her dog Bott is sitting nearby during our conversation.
‘People think you can’t have a dog if you’re in a wheelchair,’ began Nettie. They step forward to assist without asking if you need assistance first. Do the non-disabled people automatically assume that disabled people are helpless and that you don’t need to bother to ask first before helping?
‘Some people talk to you like you’re an idiot,’ Nettie said when she shared a couple of real life stories. One of them involved her dining at a restaurant when a member of staff hunkered down beside her to take her order. This is not only unprofessional but really quite condescending. There was absolutely no requirement for waiters to treat a wheelchair user this way. They wouldn’t hunker down to take a child’s order, so why do that to a disabled pensioner in a wheelchair. When Nettie asked the waiter why they had hunkered down, the waiter’s response was ‘But you’re in a wheelchair…’
Similar situations arise whilst doing voluntary work, or when offering to help out. Nettie is frequently and repeatedly asked ‘You sure you don’t need any help?’ as if the first time of saying, ‘No, I can manage, thank you’, couldn’t be believed. That member of staff was following Nettie around practically begging to be helpful.
Nettie doesn’t see these intrusive actions as badly meant. Rather, that the non-disabled people are concerned for the welfare of a disabled pensioner. Nettie believes that the non-disabled in society need better education about the disabled.
‘I really wish able-bodied people would allow the disabled to integrate into mainstream society via the social model rather than the discrimination faced by the medical model.’
Accessibility is about active inclusion — not passive listening
Some believe it’s enough to support the presence of disability by ticking the box next to specific accessibility requests. While it’s infinitely better than sweeping issues under the carpet, it limits communication and simplifies it to ping-pong-like conversations. ‘We need accessible shops’ — ‘We built you ramps’, ‘Public transport needs improvement’ — ‘We made those improvements.’
Indeed, most city councils today act in observance of Equality Act 2010. But what exactly happens when only non-disabled governors control accessibility?
For instance, Perth and Kinross commissioned new electric buses that killed two birds with one stone: accessible and environmentally friendly. But Nettie notices something important about the interior of those green vehicles.
‘Those behind electric buses didn’t consult disabled people at all,’ she says. ‘They’re dull blue and grey in colour.’
This is a crucial detail that the project has disregarded: the colour scheme inside of the bus is incorrect. When Nettie brought it up, not everyone understood why would a wheelchair user complain about colours. ‘Disabilities can be hidden or visible,’ she emphasized after recalling that she had to stop driving once her own vision had worsened.
All in all, blind-friendly buses aren’t difficult to implement if you consult a blind person beforehand. The same way we’d expect an emergency hammer to be red, handrails and handles must contrast with the interior, too. Why?
Contrary to the popular belief, blind people do not see “black void”. While the majority can distinguish between light and dark, it’s actually depth perception and spatial awareness that are disabled. Therefore, bright elements are necessary to make it possible to navigate. Dull blue and grey handrails will blend in with the environment rendering them inaccessible.
Is there a limit to what cities should make accessible?
When Nettie talks about historic landmarks and ancient buildings, she’s firm that destroying them for accessibility is over the top.
‘I have no quarrel with Scottish beautiful old architecture. Most wheelchair users accept that we can’t access them in a normal way. It’s better to look it up online before you travel. Sometimes making it accessible would mean hacking it away. What I object to is when a building has a doorway that’s already wide enough.’
Nettie shared that this fallacy is common among walk-in stores and black cabs. Similar to blind-friendly buses, ramps and accommodating space for a wheelchair seem easy to implement. But non-disabled implementors have no idea of complicated specifics that catch fire once a disabled person gives them a try.
‘We see the shop advertised online as “Accessible” if you walk in on the first floor, but nope. There’s a small step there!’
By “small step” whoever built a ramp there assumes an average 20cm step. The shop lady suggested Nettie she could tip and push herself. That would bring painful jitter and a risk of damaging wheelchair parts. Moreover, if you’re self-propelled, push-and-tip makes the process even more difficult than intended.
“There’s a misconception among people there about what is accessible.”
Then there are famous black cabs.
Fair City of Perth are an example of a company offering properly engineered wheelchair accessible vehicles. But are they better than their colleagues in big cities like Glasgow and Edinburgh? Once more Nettie reveals proof by contradiction.
‘First, a similar cab company in Edinburgh is impossible for outsiders to use,’ she said. ‘You must live in Edinburgh to book it and then wait for 8-12 weeks to go on your booked trip.’
The fallacy that both the capital and Glasgow share when it comes to taxi is their aperture. Although they provide longer vehicles to accommodate a wheelchair, getting inside may require a bit of neck gymnastics.
‘Taxis aren’t adapted for modern wheelchairs. They’ll take in shorter, manual ones fine, but a modern wheelchair usually sits much higher — about 7-10cm.’
Nettie knows people who avoid cabs after constantly bending their necks to dodge the doorway.
Finally, when touching on buses, Nettie wishes their companies learned about the use of clamps. Currently, some operators attach them to wheels. In sudden movement of the bus, the seat can be wrenched off the base, nullifying the wheelchair insurance.
‘Insurance on wheelchair is invalidated if it’s clamped incorrectly. There are metal rings where clamps are actually supposed to go — and it’s not where wheels are attached to.’
“They [disabled people] would like to see the Council employ someone disabled. We want them to involve us in planning.”
Evidently, the amount of problems boils down to a lack of communication. It’s comforting that the Council makes strides in advancing accessibility. However, without employing and consulting disabled people on new projects, those efforts are at risk of being done in vain.
Social progress and feminism: it starts with good education
Nettie worked in NHS as a psychotherapist. After retirement, she decided to do volunteering work while also empowering women.
She goes to high school to class for special needs kids and sometimes takes an educational walk with non-disabled people. The latter ones often “have no idea” on her perspective of what it’s like to move around busy streets. Hence comes her advice for us: “Educate where possible.”
When we asked Nettie to tell us more about her stance of feminism, she replied:
‘Feminism isn’t about bashing men. It’s about finding equality. I very much promote and send message to women: Nicola Sturgeon got a job. She’s just as capable as you if that is what your choice is. We have amazing women athletes, lots of really nice examples of “doing it”.’
She also shared a sweet story that happened between her and a girl with severe social anxiety, finishing our discussion on a hopeful note.
‘She opened up to me — she loves animals, and we did some exercises. Like, think about, “What exactly I’m going to say?” and “I will say it when I feel ready.” But — it’s okay to go out of the door. It’s just not your moment.’
A special thanks to Nettie for staying in touch with us to ensure the accuracy of the key points throughout article.