Monday, 28 May 2012

Return to Derby - An Accessible City

Earlier this year I wrote an blog about my trip to Derby, and how fantastic the access was for disabled people. After reading my blog, the local council invited me back to Derby to show me around this historic city. Of course I jumped at the chance, and so in April I set out up the M1. I booked into the Cathedral Quarter Hotel and paid a visit to the very talented Derby resident and friend, local photographer Rei Bennett for a night out. She took us for a great meal at a Japanese restaurant called Moonsha. Truly superb food, great service and a totally accessible venue (as well as the yummiest house white I have ever tasted!). Already the joys of Derby if you are disabled were hitting home, as I had spent a great night where the issue of access hadn't raised it head once.
The next morning I went down to the lobby of the hotel accompanied by the darling wife Diane and met up with Andy Smart, a projects manager with Derby council, and Stella Birks, a visitor services development manager with Derby tourist board. As soon as we set out, the heavens opened. So rather than get soaked we retired to Jack Rabbits coffee shops for a latte and yummy cakes. This was already my kind of visit. While the rain fell, we chatted and it soon became clear that everyone at Derby council has a real commitment to making the city not only accessible but fully inclusive. On cue, as we finished our coffee the sun began to shine, so we set off out once again.
We walked down to the river side, and saw the works that have been carried out to create a community space that is used for public events and entertainment while also providing a great public space. Even the grass areas had been ramped and the whole site was a real triumph of inclusive design. impressed we then wondered towards the shopping centre. There are loads of live events on through out the year. As soon as you enter Derby City centre you discover how well shared spaces, once called pedestrian zones, really work. I know that there is a great deal of controversy around creating shared spaces, but Derby has been using them since the early 90's and they have ironed out many of the issues that some groups raise. Andy informed me that this has been done with the full cooperation of local disability groups.
Sure as a wheelchair user I do think that shared spaces are a great idea, but as someone who works in accessible design I also appreciate that there are major concerns about taking this route when trying to create accessible environments, especially within the visually impaired community. However, I must admit that it seemed to me that Derby had found solutions to many of these objections. There is a clear demarcation between the pavement and road areas, created by a dramatic colour changes in the paving around these transitions, for those with some sight, and using the drainage gully to mark where the pavement ends for those who use canes. The dreaded tactile paving, well dreaded  by us wheelies, has not been used through out, which may worry some people I know. The best solution is that huge areas of the centre are closed to traffic during the day. As of 10am all the cars vanish from the city centre and the roads belong to the pedestrians alone. Having said that, later on that night we were walking across one of these streets, now open to traffic, and a car slowed down a let us cross as if it was totally natural. If I'm honest I think that everyone who is interested in the issues around shared spaces should visit Derby and get in touch with Andy Smart.
Next we went to new arts centre, The Quad to meet up with Derby's very active disability group and the council's Equality and Diversity Manager Ann Webster to discuss the cities entry in to the European Award for Accessible Cities. Developments like The Quad are examples of great inclusive design, with all the facilities on offer being open to all, and as we chatted over sandwiches and coffee it became obvious how vocal local disabled people were in the evolution of their city. Just shows what can be done if you get involved. From this fantastic public facility we visited the local Shopmobility Scheme, which was staffed by a great bunch and really well equipped. Then off to see the new fully accessible bus station, which serves a fleet of accessible buses. I think you can see there is theme developing here.
Although this all sounds wonderful, the funny thing was that both Andy and Stella felt that there was still a lot to do. The picture above is of a proposed new access down to the river Derwent, that runs through the city centre. The plans for the new Council House, which is currently being developed, really demonstrates the commitment to inclusion, as do the proposals for the train station. A key element to Derby is the amount of historic and heritage buildings there are. Normally the preservation of historic buildings can be a bar to access and I know I have worked a couple of projects where all of my work has been stopped by the heritage lobby. But in Derby the council is so pro-access that they provide a fund available to local businesses to pay for any access works on historic buildings to ensure access is created that is in keeping with the preservation of the feel of several areas of the city.
This means that for anyone who is disabled and especially those of us with mobility issues, the entire shopping district is a dream. From the Westfield and High Street, through to the boutique shops in the side streets and even the local markets everywhere you go is just easy. In fact it is so good that when you do stop a shop with a step or two it actually shocks you. On top of the access, every one I have ever met in derby was really friendly and helpful. Before we parted I made sure that Andy and Stella understood that if Derby didn't win that award there was no justice. 

Back at the hotel we prepared for another night out with Rei and a gang of local creative types, including local disabled film maker Jen White. This time were we taken to a student pub The Friary and we weren't let down. Fully accessible, and very reasonably priced (hic), we had a great time, even if I was easily the oldest person in there. As we got ready to leave the next morning I felt a little sad. After two days of being able to do what I wanted, when I wanted as easily as imaginable, I was going back to the real world.

Now all this might sound like I am in the pay of the tourist board, but honestly I'm not. It's just that I discovered Derby by chance, and was totally blown away at how easy it was there for me. Every time I visit, I can forget my disability completely. Maybe it seems so good because I live in Camden in London, a place that is world famous for it's appalling access. All I know is that Derby has won a place in my heart. The council is totally committed to inclusion, as I keep saying, and that shows everywhere you turn. I now hold Derby up as an example of what can be done if you put your mind to it when I am talking to my access clients.

If you are disabled and haven't been... get yourself there ASAP! Check out the Visit Derby website for information of what going on and places to stay. I know I'm planning to go back very soon.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

The Upload begins....

I am currently at the start of a marathon encoding session, with a pile of old VHS tapes filled with some of the programs I recorded for TV. I thought I'd lost them, but my Mum found them all in the loft of our family home. It's weird experience watching yourself from over twenty years ago. I never really watched myself when these went out, as it made me cringe with embarrassment, so having to sit and watch hours and hours of TV where a younger version of me smiles out of my TV screen fills me with a myriad of emotions.

The craziest thing, other than how young I look, is the fact the I have so many hours of TV footage with disabled people in it. Think of today's schedules and we are invisible, unless it's some kind of stare at the freaks type program (mentioning no names). This series of clips from Beat That really shows how far backwards we have gone. Beat That was a prime time kids series on C4 that got millions of viewers per week, yet it was fronted by a wheelchair user and had a mixture of kids, some disabled, some not. The disabled thing wasn't really mentioned in the publicity or made a big deal of, and C4 was proud of the fact that their first kids series was fully inclusive without banging on about it. This was the future for TV. Disabled people would just be part of what you saw on your goggle box. They were really ahead of the game... so far ahead that no one has caught up, even today. Not even C4 themselves.

Actually that's not really true, CBBC regularly has disabled kids on some of their shows and doesn't make a feature of it. But they are the only ones. The second series of Beat That was transmitted in 1992, so it's exactly 20 years ago yet there are still very few disabled people disabled people on our TV screens at all. Even if there is a change in the representation of disabled people on our screens in the next few months, with the Paralympic coverage, it will only be catching up to the place we were at two decades ago. Why did the TV industry drop the ball in such a big way? I wish I knew. I do know that for someone who was one of the best known disabled people in the media, I suddenly found it impossible to find work around the year 2000. Now everyone seems obsessed with New Talent, but most of the people that are discovered during the many talent searches that have taken place since Beat That went out ended up being ignored by the industry.

I think it is really important that everyone remembers that not that long ago disabled people were on our screens. I mean between Beat That and the BBC disability show From The Edge I alone was on almost every week. And there were quite few other well known faces too. Whatever does come along in the next few years, we mustn't forget that we are only playing catch up.

Over the next few days I plan to put up some of my music stuff too, and if you think the TV industry doesn't like disabled people you wait until I tell you about the horrors I witnessed from music types! Stay Tuned Folks!