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Will eco-ableism compromise city centre green plans?

If the city centre moves forward but disabled people are left behind, Sheffield is failing its citizens. 

Two trams in Sheffield city centre
Jason Parrish

Marginalised groups will be more severely affected by ecological destruction, so tackling inequality must be an important focus of any climate action we take. However, campaigns to improve the environment can forget about the disabled population. This is short-sighted and counterproductive.

Recent changes to Sheffield city centre are arguably a case in point. In the rush to make space for Covid social distancing, accessible parking spots were lost and important routes into the city were pedestrianised, banishing those who rely on cars or taxis to get around. Even many bus users found they could no longer access key parts of the city centre, including Fargate and Tudor Square, because the Pinstone Street closure shifted their bus stops, leaving them to contend with a steep hill instead of a short walk.

It is not the first time that disabled people have been trampled in the clamour to make the world a better place. Seeing turtles and fish trapped in plastic is heartbreaking, but the sudden condemnation of plastic straws left many disabled people at risk of dehydration. To prevent the 0.03% of ocean plastic that straws account for, people were told to risk choking hazards or an inability to drink at all.

Let the plastic straw ban be the first and last anti-disabled, pro-climate legislation.

Hannah Dines

But it goes far further than plastic straws. At the much-vaunted COP26 climate conference, an Israeli minister and several disabled attendees couldn’t even get in on the first day, and captions and BSL interpreters were not provided. If disabled people are not even in the room – because they literally can’t get in – we begin to understand why our needs as disabled people are deprioritised by those who insist that we diminish ourselves in favour of looking at the bigger picture. Friends of the Earth calls this phenomenon “eco ableism”.

To try and get to the bottom of this means for Sheffield, I spoke to people involved in, and affected by, the current discussions about changes to Sheffield city centre aimed at encouraging active travel and improving air quality. I refuse to believe that we cannot improve the city while also respecting what disabled Sheffielders need, so we put our heads together to look at solutions that help the environment without compromising anybody’s human rights and dignity.

This is not a hypothetical discussion – it’s a vital conversation to hold if we are to enable disabled people to live in and visit Sheffield in the future.

Systemic oppressions will always be reflected in social movements unless an active effort is made to unlearn and do better.

Young Friends of the Earth Scotland’s (YFoES) Access and Inclusion Working Group
Traffic signs in Sheffield city centre
Chris Sampson

The city centre is inaccessible

Accessibility problems are not new in Sheffield city centre. Broken pavements, dropped curbs that don’t quite work, poor tactile paving and cobbled streets can be restrictions for many people.

Recent changes to bus routes and newly pedestrianised areas have exacerbated these inequalities. Parking spaces for Blue Badge holders have been lost and buses have been rerouted so many people can’t manage the walk, or the hills, from their new bus stops.

Eleni Chambers is a disabled person living Sheffield who has struggled to access the city centre since her bus was rerouted. She told me her regular trips into town to go swimming at St Paul’s Hotel have been disrupted.

“I used to get the bus from my house and get off on Leopold Street at the side of Orchard square, and then I used to be able to wheel down that short section to get to where I go swimming,” she says.

“Now, of course, I can't do that. I have to get off at the top of the Moor and wheel uphill, all the way from the top of the Moor – or I have to go up Union Street in the middle of the road, because the pavements are so shocking.”

People, including a disabled woman, watching children on trampolines on Fargate
Tim Herrick

This journey is so tiring that Eleni barely has the energy to swim if she does successfully get to the pool, she tells me. Even discounting the energy it takes, sometimes it’s simply unsafe to go up steep hills in a wheelchair, especially if the ground is wet.

Councillor Douglas Johnson, Executive Member for Climate Change, Environment and Transport at Sheffield City Council, points out that while some people have lost out with the new bus stops, others now find the city more accessible.

Looking at the distances people have to travel from their bus stop to certain key areas in the city centre, there are indeed some clear winners and losers. Access to the Town Hall, Sheffield Cathedral and Fargate suffer considerably with the changes.

Anybody coming into the city centre on the 11 or 11A bus from Herdings will find their journey to the cathedral around 400 metres longer, while Marks and Spencer’s accessible entrance will be 225 metres further away. But if somebody wants to go from that route to the train station or to Hallam University – two areas that will be particularly well served by the changes being made permanent – their journeys will reduce by around 300 metres.

A chart of sample bus route changes showing how different routes are affected by the changes, e.g. if you get the 11A to go to the Cathedral, your journey is now 401 metres longer, whereas the 52 and want to go to Moor Market, it's 77 metres shorter
Philippa Willitts

The situation is similar for anyone coming into town on the 51 route from Charnock. Getting to the cathedral will involve a walk that has expanded from 310 metres to 751 metres.

Considering the fact that people who qualify for the highest ‘mobility points’ in a Personal Independence Payment (PIP) assessment can walk no further than 20 metres, and those who qualify for a Blue Badge can walk no more than 50 metres, these are really significant distances for people with impaired mobility.

Eleni is quick to point out that what is manageable for one disabled person may not be for another. When she rules out a particular trek uphill for safety reasons, she acknowledges, “I'm relatively mobile, I would say compared to many other disabled people, particularly others in manual wheelchairs, and if I can't do it then I suspect most other people can't do it.“

James Martin is the Engagement Worker at Disability Sheffield, a local organisation that promotes independent living for disabled people in the city. He points out a further problem with the new city centre layout: the concrete blocks that have been put up to deter traffic.

“It's good that we got them marked up with high-vis tape,” James tells me. “But it's definitely caused people to have incidents; colliding, grazes, that sort of thing.”

The square outside the Crucible Theatre
John

Was disabled access considered?

Cllr Dawn Dale told the council’s Overview and Scrutiny Management Committee in September, “As we’ve gone on today, I’ve become less confident that this has been well thought through. I feel less confident that enough consultation has gone on, and I feel less confident about the consultation around the public transport plan.”

Councillor Johnson agrees. When asked how much consideration disabled access was given in the recent plans, he tells me he suspects “there wasn't that much,” because the changes were brought in due to social distancing requirements. “It was an emergency reaction to the particular changes of the pandemic of that time.”

Disability Sheffield and the council’s Access Liaison Group have in fact been consulted throughout this process. And when I speak to Matthew Reynolds, Transport Planning and Infrastructure Manager at the Council, I can clearly see that he has carried out painstaking research into the changes in distance from old bus stops to new ones, as referenced above.

The meticulous spreadsheet that Reynolds produced takes inclines into account when calculating distances, applying Inclusive Mobility standards. When comparing the distance from an old bus stop versus a new one to various central locations such as John Lewis (RIP) and Marks and Spencer, additional calculations were made to account for accessible entrances to those stores, suggesting that Council staff are taking accessibility seriously and are looking at it from a more practical point of view. For some people, being able to avoid hills does allow them to access the city more effectively, but for others, the slope of a street is only one of several barriers.

“What I've tried to do within this project is really get into the details of what this change means to people who will have it forced upon them and that's why we're talking to Disability Sheffield about it,” Reynolds explains. “It’s something which is very much at the forefront of the design decisions.”

Sheffield railway station at night
Mark Richards

But there have been at least two challenges that could have demonstrated a firmer commitment to accessibility from the city’s councillors. June Luxon, who pushes her husband in a wheelchair, told The Star earlier this year that since the bus routes have changed, she simply can’t get him up the hills into the centre. She challenged councillors to take her place for one of those trips, but nobody came forward.

Eleni tells me she made a similar proposal. “I offered to meet any councillor or any Council staff member in town with my spare wheelchair, and I would show them exactly what the hills were like, because I don't think they get it at all.

“Of course, nobody took me up on the offer.”

Reacting to June Luxon’s story, Cllr Johnson expressed scepticism, suggesting that getting off the bus at a different stop would ease the journey in question. He said he was keen to “untangle what is actually genuine access need” and what is “someone reacting to a change situation.”

“It's understandable that people don't like to change, but it’s different from necessarily being an issue relating to a disability.”

Eleni insists that she is not averse to change, though, recalling the shifts in her life from being somebody who walked everywhere, then cycled everywhere, and now uses a manual wheelchair due to having both legs amputated above the knee.

“Having to have the whole of your house adapted, having to spend the first nine months living downstairs in a borrowed hospital bed with a borrowed hospital commode, washing in the kitchen sink for nine months after you come out of hospital. And losing your job, having your job contract ended at the same time while you're still in hospital having your legs amputated.

“If anybody knows about bloody change, I do.”

Disabled people as scapegoats

It’s not unheard of for people to invoke disability rights to support or object to a plan when they never cared about disabled people before the campaign and never will again afterwards. But there is a simultaneous risk of determined politicians dismissing all interventions on this basis – and disregarding legitimate viewpoints as a result.

Cllr Johnson says “it's important that [access concerns] are taken seriously and not used as a tool to support the motorists lobby.”

Eleni disputes the suggestion that she is somehow anti-progress. “I'm a green person; I've never had a car, I garden organically, I have worm compost, I have all my proper light bulbs.”

Disabled people are often painted as dinosaurs who just want to keep cars on the road at all costs, when we actually can no longer get to the parts of the city centre we have known and loved for many years. Addressing inaccessibility includes not writing off real barriers as a pro-car campaign in disguise.

Harrison qi 1 U81m G Ne0qo unsplash2
Harrison Qi (Unsplash)

The future of Sheffield city centre

Cllr Johnson is keen for the Council to take up the opportunity to revamp Fargate and High Street, and these proposals are exciting. This could also improve access by dealing with the cobbles that currently scupper many disabled people.

As the very nature of city centres change across the country post-pandemic, with less focus on retail and more on living, socialising and community, James Martin of Disability Sheffield insists that access must be prioritised now more than ever.

Matthew Reynolds of the Council agrees, noting that making the city centre inaccessible “would defeat the object.”

“But we want it to be done in a way in which we can get the sort of environment we want in the city centre, to make it an attractive place to come and stay and visit and live.”

Could the changes be counter-productive?

By associating bus routes with difficult hills to climb and longer walks, Martin believes people could be discouraged from using public transport altogether. “The loss of convenience could actually make public transport less attractive potentially for some busy people”.

Eleni feels similarly, but tells me she is resisting an emission-heavy ‘solution’ to her own newfound access difficulties. “I could get a taxi from home to where I go swimming, three, four times a week, but I don’t want to do that. I just want to get public transport.”

Clearly, changes intended to ‘green’ the city should not be forcing people from buses to cabs and making others give up on the city centre altogether, however ‘improved’ it may look.

A bus on Arundel Gate
Mikey

Building in accessibility from the ground up

For an area to be truly accessible, measures added as an afterthought will rarely be satisfactory. Similarly, there is no single solution for accessibility dilemmas for every disabled person. A wide range of solutions is more likely to be effective, creating a patchwork effect where more people’s access needs can be met by a combination of factors. A FreeBee bus, Shopmobility provision, increased accessible parking and the availability of travel training are a good start.

FreeBee bus

Cllr Johnson and others talk positively about a potential return of the FreeBee, a city-centre bus that does a circular route around the city centre.

“Nowadays, you'd want the FreeBee to be an electric bus so it would be cleaner and quieter, safer”, he tells me. He quotes budgeting that suggests that the Council would have to spend “about a million pounds of capital money” to buy the buses, which would then be “in public ownership, owned by the Council under our proposal.”

James Martin and Disability Sheffield have been pushing for a city centre circular bus too, but have concerns that funding has not been promised and that a precise FreeBee route is yet to be decided.

This is further complicated by the fact that the decision on changes to the city centre will have to be made before there’s any confirmation that a FreeBee bus will even happen. That risks proposals going through that do not end up addressing key accessibility needs.

A person in a wheelchair
Disabled and Here

Shopmobility

Another popular solution to city centre inaccessibility is the return of Shopmobility, a service that rents out mobility aids to help disabled people get around. In 2018, the long-standing Shopmobility service in Sheffield lost Council funding when it was put out to tender, a move criticised by Cllr Johnson. Mobile Sheffield, a similar service operated by Sheffield BID, was re-launched in October this year.

This seems like an obvious win for both the Council and disabled people. Richard Pilgrim of Mobile Sheffield told Now Then that it was put together quickly when the need and lack of provision were recognised.

Anybody with a mobility issue can rent one of a variety of wheelchairs, both self-propelled and assistant-propelled, tri-walkers or an electric scooter (a second is to soon follow). Given that Mobile Sheffield is situated near the Winter Gardens, a tricky spot for some to reach, there are also two meet-and-greet points, where a member of staff can meet a disabled person with the assistance device they need.

Martin of Disability Sheffield agrees that Shopmobility is “an essential for the city.”

“But it needs to be made very clear that probably only solves issues for a small minority.”

While it would help me, for instance, it would be of no help to Eleni Chambers, who explains: “I can't get out of my chair. I've got no legs, I can’t walk. What am I meant to do? I couldn't get on buses, I couldn't get on trains, I couldn't get to the toilet, I couldn't get in shops.”

An accessible parking space
Steve p2008

Accessible Parking

Accessible parking spaces are in high demand and insufficient in number. Cllr Johnson is tempted to make all parking in the city centre Blue Badge only, while Matt Reynolds says that the Council is “completely reevaluating” the city’s curbside provision, including disabled parking, which “in some instances hasn't been looked at for decades.

“So it's the opportunity for us to take a step back, see how the city centre’s changing, see how it fits in with this project, and then start to go in and say: What's outside of the scheme area but is important?’”

Accessible parking is yet another area where guarantees have to be made before big changes are approved, because otherwise it risks falling to the wayside and leaving Sheffield’s disabled people even more isolated.

Mobility training

Mobility training, also called travel training, can be offered to visually impaired people or learning disabled people to help them to explore the world around them, practising the walk to a bus stop and a bus journey with support, as changes to familiar services can be confusing.

For Sheffield’s newly laid-out city centre to be accessible, travel training must be readily and quickly available for anybody who could benefit from it. It can help to reduce social isolation, improve mental health and encourage sustainable and independent travel. Using an individualised approach is essential, which can include assisting somebody to understand transport timetables, becoming familiar with routes that would be taken regularly (e.g. to the shops or the GP surgery) and understanding how to pay and how to behave on public transport.

In 2016, Sheffield City Council provided travel training to 20 learning disabled adults. 50-year-old David Knapp was one recipient of this training, and he told the Sheffield Telegraph “I didn’t want to travel. I just froze. And then I thought no don’t freeze. Just go and do it. And I did. And I’ve been going backwards and forwards for about a year on and off a bus.

“It’s made me do what I wanted to do for ages – go further than I have been. And it’s so enjoyable.

“I’m just going to keep on travelling.”

When bus stops move and timetables change, it is more important than ever that this kind of training is readily available.

Sheffield Town Hall
Mark Walker

Hopes for the future

When asked about Sheffield’s future accessibility, James Martin says his main hope is that under any ‘active travel’ plans, which prioritise walking and cycling over driving, people “obey the rules and stick to segregated cycle ways” – and that there is “proper enforcement to make sure that that happens.”

“Active travel is probably worse, particularly for blind and partially sighted people, in terms of the risk of being collided with, because most motor traffic makes decent noise.”

In terms of the current changes, he thinks improved paving surfaces is the predominant benefit of the current plans from the perspective of the city’s disabled people.

In my view, as a disabled person living, working and travelling in the city, there is still too much ‘if, then’. If we get a FreeBee, then it’ll be fine. If we move these bus stops, then it’ll be fine. And approving the Council’s plans without guarantees that the FreeBee, improved mobility training and relocated bus stops will be put in place leaves too much uncertainty and the very real potential of broken promises. Welcoming Shopmobility back to the city is a good start, but it only benefits a few of the people who are at risk of being excluded.

Improving the air we breathe must be a key priority of our Council. But failing to address disabled people’s exclusion – whether by accident, poor design or by a lack of appropriate consultation – is not an acceptable compromise.

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