Taking action on wheelchair access

Access to justice for wheelchair user
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Wheelchair access is still not a given…

Update 14 November 2017 – judgement delivered in the first Mill Road case

click here to go straight down to background on the case…

The first of Esther Leighton’s actions against traders in Mill Road, Cambridge reached the court this week. District Judge Capon delivered his ruling in 90 minutes.

The defendant, Mr Kahraman of Carlos BBQ, failed to turn up on the first day, and even at the end of proceedings, when damages and costs had been awarded against him, still appeared not to understand that he had done anything wrong.

Esther Leighton tried to get into Carlos BBQ on two occasions relevant to the case: 18 August and 27 September 2016. Each time, she was unable to do so because of a 5 cm step on the threshold. The judge ruled that this put her at “a substantial disadvantage”, which could have been resolved by providing a ramp.

Mr Kahraman was also accused of harassment, in attempting to push Miss Leighton and her powerchair into the restaurant, in a way that was not only unwelcome but dangerous, and subsequently, in trying to give back a letter that was handed to him about making reasonable adjustments for disabled customers.

Judge Capon awarded £6000 for failure to make reasonable adjustments and harassment, and £2000 in costs, £1500 of which is to be paid to the Access to Justice Foundation.

This article will be updated with future developments.

I am indebted to Sophia Graham for information about the case. She has written an account of the proceedings based on notes she made while attending the court. You can read it on her blog, Towards Access (link will open in a new browser window)
 
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Local news coverage paints disabled complainant as the villain

Mr Kahraman has closed his restaurant following the court verdict. He said that he could not afford the fine – which he could have avoided by the simple expedient of providing a portable ramp when the issue was first brought to his attention.

He chose not to engage in mediation or alternative dispute resolution of any kind, which would have resulted in a much lower cost solution, and did not, in fact, even turn up for the first day in court.

Other local businesses held an emergency meeting to support each other, following the judge’s ruling.

 
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Businesses should plan for disabled customers in advance

Wheelchair access rampThe Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) and its successor, the Equality Act 2010, made it compulsory to make reasonable adjustments in order to facilitate disabled access.

One area where you would think reasonable adjustments could very easily be made is in wheelchair access to High Street premises. A modest investment in a portable ramp and voilà, the challenge of wheeling into your shop is no longer a problem.

For some reason, there are still businesses large and small where this neat solution has not been taken up.

To the extent that a wheelchair user in Cambridge has recently taken legal action against no fewer than seven businesses in the same road.

Esther Leighton is using the law to improve wheelchair access

Wheelchair user Esther Leighton has taken action against seven businesses in Mill Road, Cambridge, after getting in touch with 28 originally, about improving access.

 
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Ms Leighton, who has lived in Cambridge since 2008, said:

“Like many wheelchair users, I have spent years being denied access to shops, restaurants and cafes. I’ve been raising these concerns with businesses on Mill Road for years.

“The most important thing to me is an apology, not getting money. The point is to be able to access the shops.

“Thanks to the changes made by those businesses that responded positively, I’m delighted to say that I’m now able to get in to the majority of the shops on the town side of the bridge, on Mill Road.

“I am open to mediation and negotiation, but I have now begun legal action against those shop owners who have ignored multiple letters.

“It’s baffling that they would apparently rather be sued than buy a ramp, which would be much cheaper for them.

“I’ve been encouraged and comforted by the support I’ve received from other disabled people who are fed up that the Equality Act is being ignored. It’s rightly illegal to ban other groups from shops. They shouldn’t be able to say ‘no power chair users’ either.”

 
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Legal claims made where traders haven’t responded to letters

Faced with businesses ignoring their obligations under the Equality Act, Esther Leighton decided that legal action was the only option where traders wouldn’t communicate with her about improving wheelchair access.

She has, apparently been communicating informally with traders about not being able to enter their shops since 2010, eventually following up with formal letters in 2016 and 2017, but has not received responses from some businesses.

The legal proceedings seem to have caused concern among traders, some of whom claim to fear that payouts could lead to shops shutting up for good.

 
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In a statement Mill Road Traders’ Association said:

“Mill Road Traders’ Association are aware of Ms Leighton’s actions against some of the shop keepers, however she has not been in touch with us directly.

“Mill Road is in a conservation area of Cambridge and is one of the few streets that is still full of independent stores. It is in a multicultural diverse area known for our open and friendly customer service.

“Mill Road hosts many events during the year including The Mill Road Winter Fair which last year saw 26,000 visitors of all abilities come and enjoy our unique groups of shops.

“These shops are run by dedicated customer orientated shop owners, who are already under pressure during this difficult economic time.

“Mill Road shopkeepers have many wheelchair users using our services on a daily basis, and we are constantly improving our services through our customer feedback.

“Mill Road Traders’ Association is working with our members in regards to Ms Leighton’s actions.”

 
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What to do in the face of discrimination?

It is important to remember that one of the principles of the Equality Act is that only the person discriminated against can take legal action.

Possibly, this is one reason why a significant number of businesses ignore their obligations. There aren’t many people with the determination shown by Esther Leighton, and legal aid is effectively non-existent.

Taking legal action sounds daunting, but is actually quite straightforward. Disability campaigner Doug Paulley has produced a helpful guide – you can read more here.

Very few cases actually go to court: after all, as Esther Leighton says, the point of the exercise is to get access to the shop, and most traders do, belatedly, get themselves a portable ramp or whatever other reasonable adjustment they need to make.

It’s just a shame that somebody has to go to the trouble of initiating action before they recognise their responsibilities.

You can listen to a podcast interview with solicitor Jonathan Fogerty about using the Equality Act to achieve access, here.

 
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3 Responses to “Taking action on wheelchair access”

  1. Dennis March 19, 2017 at 5:28 pm #

    We need more people who are brave enough to take on businesses that don’t provide access. I had to stop eating in my favourite restaurant when I started using a wheelchair. I suggested to the owner that he should get a portable ramp, but no dice. Seems he was completely unaware that he was breaking the law.

  2. John November 18, 2017 at 12:11 pm #

    Congratulations to the lady that has followed through the case with her time & effort. I’ve been to Harrogate lately. I could not believe the amount of shops I couldn’t access in my wheelchair. It’s 2017 for pity’s sake…
    It would be so good if more of us came together to get access sorted to all shops & restaurants ♿️

  3. Laura Branigan November 18, 2017 at 4:52 pm #

    I agree, John. York, where I live, is the same – beautiful as it is! I was invited by York press to tour the shops with a journalist and comment on inaccessibility/attitudes to wheelchair users. We concluded that many of the inaccessible shops made the valid (??) excuse of being a grade 2-listed building that can’t be altered, despite us mentioning a portable ramp. The over-riding conclusion we drew was that attitude was so important and leaves the wheelchair person in a good or bad/sad mood!
    Laura

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