Fighting institutional disablism

We should all have been shocked and embarrassed by the news that an Israeli minister was unable to access COP26 on Monday because she was in a wheelchair. This was followed by an attempt at victim blaming by Environment Secretary George Eustice who said that she should have told them about her access needs in advance. The Prime Minister eventually apologised, but used weaselly terms like “confusion” and “regrettable incident”.

The Black Lives Matter movement has alerted us all to the concepts of institutional and structural racism. They remind us that discrimination does not always result from hatred or prejudice, or even unconscious bias, on the part of an individual, but can sometimes be the result of built-in and unintentional practices within organisations, and indeed within society itself. We need to take on the same thinking when discussing the needs of people with disabilities.

Institutional and structural disablism can be very evident to those who experience it, but invisible to those who don’t.

Let me give you a small example. My husband has a rare neurological condition which affects his mobility and balance, amongst other things. He uses a walking stick but doesn’t need a wheelchair. We like to go out for short walks in the local parks and commons, and we are always on the look-out for somewhere to sit halfway through. We do find a number of seats but too often they are benches without backs and arms – which means my husband can’t get up from them. So the people who could benefit most from the provision of seating are often unable to use them.

The diagram of a person in a wheelchair is the universally understood icon for provision for disabled people – it’s seen on parking spaces, toilets, entrances and exit buttons. And indeed a wheelchair is the most visible sign of disability.  So when planners and designers are thinking about disabled provision they usually focus on wheelchair accessibility. But of course, most disabilities, like my husband’s, are less visible, with the result that places can be far less accessible than they should be.

There is a simple solution – involve people with a variety of disabilities in the design of public spaces. I wonder how often that really happens.

It goes further. In today’s Guardian Jan Grue writes about The high cost of living in a disabling world. He speaks about the frustrations of trying to open a child-safe gate to take his son to a playground, and of the invisible work – research and calculations – that go into planning his everyday life. He writes:

The only way to escape this work, short of a utopian remaking of the world, is to stop living. Disabled people know this. They know that they have the right to access, in principle and in law, but that they must work, continuously, in order to claim this right. They know that this is because there are many institutions, and people, that would much prefer a world without disabled people in it. Not a world without disabling forces; a world without disabled people. And so the invisible work is, at heart, the high cost of living in a disabling world.

I am writing this … why, exactly? Because, I think, I’ve had it with the pieties of neoliberal inclusionism. Because I’ve lost faith in our ability to put on the veil of ignorance – to construct the just utopia proposed by John Rawls, who thought we could best design a just world if we forgot our current social status, gender and religious beliefs, but who explicitly, as the philosopher Martha Nussbaum points out, excluded disability as an aspect of human diversity to be planned for in the New World.

We should all open our eyes to institutional and structural disablism, and join the fight to eliminate it.


* Mary Reid is a contributing editor on Lib Dem Voice. She was a councillor in Kingston upon Thames, where she is still very active with the local party, and is the Hon President of Kingston Lib Dems.

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  • Lorenzo Cherin 4th Nov '21 - 3:21pm

    Surely a priority issue, thanks to Mary putting it front centre.

    I too relate to this, with the hidden, and indeed, in my wife’s case increasingly not as hidden, disability problems.

    The conference fiasco was terrible. No excuses from them do. The venue was not prepared as it should be. And why was this minister put up in Edinburgh for a prime event in Glasgow?!

    George Useless, said it as he often does, with a mealy sort of mouth, well meant, but use…less…!

  • Andrew Toye 4th Nov '21 - 3:31pm

    This is the same venue that we have used for our own conferences – I wonder what has happened since we were last there? We certainly wouldn’t use a venue if it wasn’t fully accessible.

  • From my experience, mostly gained these past few years having had to deal with wheelchair bound elderly relatives and a deaf cousin, is that many involved in the provision of disabled facilities don’t have any real direct experience of disability.

    One of the jokes in our family is don’t let me push your wheelchair… I took an infirm aunt for a wheelchair walk to the pub in her village which has lots of disabled provision and so would tick the boxes; only it would be nice if the kerb ramps actually went down to the tarmac and didn’t have a 0.5~1 inch kerb, it would have been nice if the kerb ramps were such that you could take a chair all the way up on to the level pavement before having to effect a turn…
    In Central Milton Keynes there is a car park where the disabled parking is on the top floor – open to the elements, and requiring anyone disabled to negotiate lifts/escalators to return to the ground floor and the reverse to get back to their car.
    In my own village we have accessible paths, only there has been an in-consistent attention to detail which has caused problems, so routes people would use eg. to get to the shops and doctors don’t have kerb ramps for all road crossings…

    My current hobby project is a BSL version of Alexa…

  • Helen Dudden 4th Nov '21 - 9:10pm

    I slipped down a bus ramp this week, higher than the tried and tested 1\20, and wet. If I started listing the box ticking dropped kerb that are in one word, dangerous.
    The under current of both disabled and religious prejudices carry on. There has been times when both have reduced me to tears.
    I want to see safer bus travel, why all buses can’t be a set design is beyond belief.
    It’s open season for insults on what I believe in, after the historic destruction of the Jewish Community. In my opinion it’s allowed to happen.
    I hope I can be viewed and understood as a woman who cares, who cares about the world, and those who need understanding. What ever my religion.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 4th Nov '21 - 10:00pm


    Excellent piece very pertinent, your experiences need to be widely revealed.


    Here, surely elsewhere, you are respected and liked.

    As someone who is not Jewish, but whose favourite people , the Jewish communities of every country, are on top of the list of , my campaigning and writing against antisemitism, is important to me. The only people for whom, being Jewish, is thought of as a negative, are so awful, however dispiriting, realise they are awful and not worth your attention or worry. You are with friends! Trust everything’s ok?!

  • Kay Kirkham 5th Nov '21 - 10:04am

    Let’s be honest. Our party had been less than helpful when it comes to dealing with people with hearing loss at conference – both remote and physical. Limited availability of hearing loops in fringe meeting rooms; no subtitles on Hopin; speakers not always briefed to look straight into their cameras to help lip readers ;pre recorded presentations without subtitles ( full marks for the Welsh at the last conference for getting this right ). I could go on.

  • jayne mansfield 6th Nov '21 - 8:45am

    @ Mary Reid,
    I agree Mary.

  • Helen Dudden 6th Nov '21 - 7:06pm

    It does begin to wear thin when as disabled people, we have to constantly be asking for accessibility.
    Our OT service is over subscribed, with the need to be writing reports on housing and what is exactly needed.
    I fell out of my shower tray, over the high rim at one end which now has yellow and black tape that’s been in place for the five years since my fall and the continued wait for suitable housing. I can still fall very easy, but I have yellow and black tape.
    No suitable seat to sit in, it’s simply a small shower tray.
    I suggested it was unsafe,, but then who am I.
    We could add the 30 plus disabled people that lost their lives in the cladding fire. The situation with cladding is still ongoing, Boris Johnson has commented people are being over anxious. The other 40 people who perished and leave families to grieve is both shocking and disgraceful, where is the pride that our country once had in fairness and justice.
    Our health service is being run down by the terrible treatment of the doctors and nurses.
    The ordering of medical equipment not fit for purpose is another point.
    We are helpless as things move from bad to worse.

  • >I fell out of my shower tray, over the high rim at one end which now has yellow and black tape that’s been in place for the five years

    Sometimes, you can’t help people. My parents moved house at 80 and refurbished it, we failed to convince them the cost of a wet room and walk-in shower would be worth it. At 88 they were having problems getting in and out of the shower, thankfully the builder did at least fit a larger shower and so fitted a sit and a remote so that they could get into the shower once it had warmed up…

  • Helen Dudden 7th Nov '21 - 6:17pm

    Curo my Housing Association put it there, while I waited for a more suitable wheelchair friendly home. I very nearly banged my head on the toilet. It has to be paid for by Local Authority as I’m disabled. Not much point if it’s not Power wheelchair friendly but the wait is long.

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