The fact the capital will host the 2012 Paralympics should spur you to comply with the Disability Discrimination Act. But you might face the high jump long before that
Everyone is euphoric that London has won the 2012 Olympic Games, but there is less being written about the fact that the city has also won the Paralympics, the equivalent olympiad for disabled athletes.
With more than 4000 athletes from 136 countries competing, this is a major event in its own right, but it has its own challenges. All the Olympic facilities will have to be designed to be fully accessible to disabled athletes and many buildings and much of the infrastructure in London will need to be adapted and modified to accommodate the thousands of supporters who will come to watch, many of whom will also be disabled.
Although the Paralympics is focusing minds, providing access to all has been a continuing issue after the phased introduction of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. The Games will deliver the ultimate test of London’s response to the act, and if it is found wanting, apart from the embarrassment to the city, there will be a series of high-profile court cases to follow. The act provides disabled people with a wide range of rights to enable them to gain access to goods, facilities and services with the same ease as non-disabled people.
It is true to say that since the first parts of the DDA came onto the statute book in 1995, the pace of change in some sectors has been painfully slow. Even after the introduction of Part 3 of the act in October last year, there has been little motivation to move forward at any great pace. The Paralympics are a big incentive to make headway. But the act itself should be an even larger concern.
The DDA is different from much statutory legislation in that it is enforced through civil proceedings brought by disabled people who have experienced discrimination. From October 2004 an obligation has been imposed on service providers to make “reasonable adjustments” to the physical features of premises to overcome barriers faced by disabled people in accessing goods and services. This must be done by altering, removing or providing reasonable means of avoiding such physical features. The DDA relies on cases brought under the act to define the parameters of the regulation and the obligations it imposes in terms of “reasonableness”. Many test cases are progressing through the system and will be determined over the coming months, with the judgment not only imposed on the defendant but applying to all those covered by the act, which is any person or entity in the UK that delivers goods or services to the public.
One of the key considerations for the Paralympics, and for disabled people generally, is transport. Travelling and moving around the capital is a serious challenge. Currently the DDA distinguishes between modes of transport: planes, trains and buses are exempt but the ancillary facilities, such as airports, train stations and bus stations fall under the act. The government has announced that it intends to bring land-based transport within Part 3 from the end of next year and this will have to be carried through to ensure the infrastructure in and around the capital is accessible to all users. Transport for London does have a headache – it would be embarrassing to stage the world’s premier disabled sports event in a city which is as inaccessible as it is now.
Accommodation is likely to be another key area. There are only a small percentage of hotel rooms in London that are truly accessible. Similarly, restaurants, pubs, tourist attractions, shops and public buildings will all need to be made accessible not only for the Paralympics but under the DDA.
Relying on those disabled people who have experienced discrimination in accessing services to bring proceedings under the act is far more subtle and effective than relying on a horde of “access inspectors” for enforcement. It also means that any person, irrespective of nationality, can bring an action; many visitors to the UK will be accustomed to a far high level of accessibility.
Americans, for example, who are not averse to litigation, enjoy greater levels of accessibility domestically than is currently the case in the UK, largely as a result of the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, which is similar to the DDA.
David Driver is a solicitor and legal director of Configure, the UK’s largest commercial disability consultancy.