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As Sheffield opens up, for some of us, our world shrinks

Lockdowns have been brutal for disabled people, but they have also made it easier for us to participate. We're now facing new barriers as the world opens back up.

A zoomed out full body shot showing three Black and disabled friends (a non-binary person with a cane and tangle stim toy, a non-binary person sitting in a power wheelchair, and an invisibly disabled woman) smiling and taking a cell phone selfie together
Disabled And Here

A few weeks ago, I was planning my first trip to an indoor venue since March 2020. I booked a table for two. I was feeling, as seems to be typical, a mixture of excitement and anxiety. Reassured by being double jabbed, it seemed to me like the time to start getting back out into the world. But would it be too much?

It was several hours after filling in the online booking form that I realised there was something I should have added in the 'Any other notes' field. Given that I wouldn’t be choosing my own table, I would need them to allocate one that was accessible to me. I dropped the venue an email requesting a table that didn’t have high stools and they quickly agreed.

My fears about feeling overstimulated when surrounded by other people were unfounded and, despite overwhelming moments, the experience of seeing a friend’s face without screens between us, and being fed and watered, was great.

Inspired, I started making other plans. I booked a table at an old favourite on Division Street before, several days later, remembering that part of the street had been pedestrianised. If I couldn’t drive there, and if I couldn’t park, I wouldn’t be able to go, because I can’t walk far enough to get public transport.

Steps at Sheffield University

Steps at Sheffield University

Tim Parkinson

Booking a third place, I scoured Google Street View to find out whether there was parking, and user-submitted photos on Google Maps to see whether there were steps at a venue I hadn’t been to before.

I'd forgotten about this process of doing accessibility checks before going anywhere. I hadn’t missed it at all.

Now I’m getting back into the swing of remembering that the world is a profoundly inaccessible place. Websites rarely include details of a venue’s accessibility and, when they do, they tend to limit it to wheelchair accessibility only. Wheelchair accessibility is very important but it's only one part of a complex puzzle that makes somewhere accessible – or not – to a disabled person. Is there a hearing aid loop system? Are there seats that pull out or benches fixed to the floor? Where’s the nearest parking spot? What’s the lighting like?

The Diamond

The Diamond

La Victorie

While lockdowns have been brutal, lonely and punishing, they have also – perhaps paradoxically – made it easier for many people to participate. I’ve attended conferences around the world, gone to numerous comedy gigs, and taken part in events that would otherwise have been impossible for me. That's partly because geographic boundaries have meant little when everything is online, but it’s also that by participating online I can manage my energy, have a lie down while a keynote speaker is talking, and go to meetings that are normally held somewhere with stairs.

It’s not that accessibility has been perfect. A lot of big stores sacrificed accessible parking so that customers had somewhere outdoors to queue, for example. Deaf people faced the impossibility of lip-reading people wearing masks and those in care homes were completely cut off from the world. But the day-to-day slog of researching every venue and every route has been glorious in its absence.

Now we have new barriers to overcome – like pedestrianised zones or changes in layout of public spaces due to outdoor dining – on top of the boring old accessibility challenges disabled people have been facing for decades. So while I relish the world opening up, it somehow also feels like it’s closing down.

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More News & Views