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How Accessible Are Public Spaces In the UK?

Matriarch's Tilly discusses the accessibility of public spaces in the UK.

As someone with physical and visual disabilities, I can’t help but notice how inaccessible spaces in the UK are, and this includes digital spaces too. I mean, why are toilets in bars and restaurants always either upstairs or downstairs?

According to a GOV.UK survey, there are 16 million (one in four) disabled people in the UK, with 23% being working-age adults and 45% pension-age adults. In fact, 32% of households in England have at least one disabled person and 37.9% in Wales. Such statistics highlight how important it is to make public spaces in the UK accessible. While laws and legislation like The Equality Act 2010 have helped improve accessibility in the UK, there are still many obstacles that people with disabilities face every day in spaces and functions, such as restaurants, hotels, airports, transport facilities, roads, and digital spaces.


As I have already mentioned, it seems that bar and restaurant bathrooms are almost always either upstairs or downstairs and rarely on the main floor. I also rarely see lifts in these buildings. Doing a study on accessibility ratings in the UK’s top ten restaurants, Age Co Mobility found that none of the ten restaurants offered perfect accessibility ratings, which, unfortunately, is unsurprising. The ratings were based on their offering of the following facilities: accessible access to the restaurant, accessible toilets, accessible menus, and the welcoming of assistance dogs. Moreover, while eight out of ten of the restaurants offer an accessible entrance to their restaurant, only five of them have accessible toilets, with three of them welcoming assistance dogs and none of them offering accessible menus. Disabilities don’t just include mobility impairments but also other impairments, such as hearing and visual. Therefore, it is shocking that none of the restaurants offer accessible menus, which would be menus with braille for diners who are blind or visually impaired.


The same study looked at the ten highest-rated hotels in the UK on Trip Advisor for their offering of wheelchair accessibility in the hotel, lift availability, accessible rooms, emergency cords in the bathrooms, and the offering of accessible parking. It found that only one of the hotels had a perfect accessibility rating, with four of the ten hotels not offering accessible parking and being described as not wheelchair accessible, and seven of them not offering an emergency cord in the bathroom. They also found that not all the hotels have lift access to upper floors, which, to me, is shocking. Hotels should be welcoming to all people, so not offering these simple accessibility facilities will deter disabled people from staying in them and prevent them from having somewhere to stay when travelling in the UK, which is completely unfair. The study also neglected an insight into how the hotels offer accessibility to those with non-physical disabilities.


On the flipside, Age Co Mobility also looked at the UK’s ten busiest airports to see if they offered the following accessible facilities: accessible entrances, accessible toilets, the welcoming of assistance dogs, accessible parking, and wheelchairs available to hire. It was great to see from the study that all ten of these airports received full marks in terms of accessibility and that they all have accessible entrances, accessible toilets, accessible parking, and wheelchair hire. As a person with disabilities myself, I find airports in the UK fairly accessible, with my usual airport being Manchester. The airport gave me a flower print lanyard that subtly makes airport staff aware of my hidden disabilities so that they can guide me to the fast track queues free of charge, let me on the plane before non-disabled passengers, and offer assistance. These lanyards also work in spaces such as theme parks and trains and have no obvious indicator to show the public that people wearing them have disabilities, so people will not question why I or anyone else is wearing one. If you have a hidden disability, including learning and neurological difficulties, you can ask the information desk at any airport to give you a lanyard. However, the study predominantly focuses on people with physical disabilities and wheelchair users, and I can’t say that I’ve seen much to help those with visual disabilities, such as braille departure information or visually accessible routes through security and around the airports. Thus, whilst the accessibility of airports is encouraging, there is definitely room for improvement, and as the study suggests, such accessibility standards have only been noted for the big UK airports and not for the smaller ones.


According to the Ramp People, buses “have always been some of the most accessible forms of transportation in the UK”. Since January 2017, all buses have been required to have wheelchair ramp systems, wheelchair bays, priority seating and other adjustments that could be made to accommodate wheelchair users. Bus drivers are also required to allow all guide and assistance dogs on their buses, not ask a disabled passenger to leave the bus because of their disability, allow wheelchairs up to a certain size on their bus, be familiar with the wheelchair adjustments (including ramp systems), and must deploy a ramp for all wheelchair users.

The Ramp People also explained that Stagecoach has too implemented accessibility requirements for their company, including:

• Drivers must stop for any waiting person at any designated stop.

• Drivers must inform any blind or partially sighted passenger for their service number and destination.

• Drivers must assist with payments.

• Drivers must inform any blind or partially sighted passenger when they reach their required stop.

Moreover, Stagecoach has also made some changes to its website to make it more accessible, including creating more accessible keyboard navigation and changing its font, colour, and links, new windows, and layers. However, I have not seen if they’ve added Alt text for visually impaired people.

Moreover, Disability Rights UK found that while “user surveys suggest that accessibility for local buses is good with up to 99% of local buses in Great Britain having been issued with an accessibility certificate, the widespread availability of accessible public transport does not mean that all passengers feel equally confident in their use of buses and in particular coaches.”


Trains are taken for granted I’d say as for those of us who cannot drive, they are a popular mode of transport for traversing across the country. But, while trains may seem accessible with their ramp use and the implication of lifts in various train stations across the country, not all stations have step-free access, including Farringdon and South Kensington. Train stations also do not always accommodate other disabilities like hearing or sight impairments. For example, any last-minute delays to train schedules are often only announced over an intercom, meaning that people with hearing impairments are left unsure about when and if their train will arrive.

Everyday accessibility

There is also room for improvement for everyday accessibility as not all buildings have ramps or lifts, and where there is roadworks, ramps aren’t always set in place, leaving wheelchair users unable to get past.

Therefore, while the UK isn’t doing too badly in making its spaces more accessible, there’s still room for improvement, and there is a need to focus on disabilities other than physical ones, particularly with neurological disabilities, such as autism as being in public spaces can be difficult for those who are neurodivergent too.


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