I know it’s all too easy to knock Health and Safety rules, and the like. I’ve done it before and – yes – that smirky cynicism will be knocked out of me, if ever I get trapped in a blazing building because the Evac chairs have not been properly installed, or the emergency lighting isn’t working.
All the same . . . try this story.
The Classical Faculty building in Cambridge (where I tend at the moment, finishing my Pompeii book, to spend rather more hours of my life than I do at home) has just installed disabled access: (semi-)automatic front doors. This isn’t anyone’s fault. We were obliged to do this to be “compliant” (and, as one of my senior colleagues put it, to be “transparent” and “robust” too, no doubt).
So, until two weeks ago we had perfectly manageable front doors : a double set - one pair of outside doors plus another pair the other side of a small lobby. They were very easy to handle. The outside pair were heavy-ish, opened one way only and were still just about possible to manage if you had a large pile of books in your arms. The inner pair swung both ways and were easy to push or pull from whichever way you approached.
They have now been “up-graded’ to disabled use, and are almost unusable by the rest of us.
Both sets have been fitted with automatic openers, operated with a push button, wheel-chair height. If you choose not to push the buttons, they are unwieldy and certainly far too heavy to open with a pile of books in hand. If you opt for the button method, you have to stand and wait for several seconds while the doors graciously (ie very slowly) open before you. It’s inconvenient enough with just a few graduate students and elderly academics going to and fro during the vacation. Heaven knows how this system will work when confronted with hundreds of undergraduates, trying to go both ways.
In addition to this, these once relatively elegant doors are now encumbered with machinery and look quite ghastly. And given the complicated system and the couple of nice guys who took about a week to install it, I expect that we could have financed several Masters’ students for the price of all this.
How many disabled people visit our Faculty each year? A handful. Now, I realise that the current policy is that wheel-chair users or others who are “physically challenged” should not have to ASK for help; they should have free access wherever without having to draw attention to their needs. But surely, in most cases, it would be better, more efficient, cheaper and (frankly) more ideologically sound to change hearts and minds -- so that no-one at all would ever see a disabled user hoving into view without stopping to hold the door open, offer a hand or whatever. Shouldn’t we all think it our job to help those who need it, as a matter of course?
These, legislation-driven, installations are a way of making us feel that we’re doing something for the disabled, without actually having to do anything ourselves. A bit like all those emergency notices in Braille in American hotels – fine, if the blind know where to put their hands to find them. But don’t you imagine that, when fire strikes, we able-bodied will have scarpered, leaving the blind to find the notices we so kindly put up for them?
In our case in the Faculty, the disabled can now get into the lobby by merely pushing a couple of buttons. But what then? They can’t get upstairs (because the lift to the first floor is via another entrance). And the library has no push button doors.
So now we’re “compliant” because they can wheel themselves around the lobby and go out again.