Event round up: Accessible London, can it work?

On a cold December evening, we were delighted to be joined by a panel of industry experts and Business Disability Forum (BDF) Members and Partners for a lively debate on the realities, challenges and opportunities offered by an accessible London. The event was kindly hosted by our Partner HSBC in Canary Wharf.

The debate opened by BDF Associate and panel chair, Geoff Adams-Spink, asking our six panellists with expertise in transport, tourism, employment and housing to rate London’s current level of accessibility out of ten. With an average score of seven across the panel, we were intrigued to hear the panellists’ reasons for their ratings.

Panel of industry experts sitting on long table

Transport – some good intentions but slow progress 

In response to the question: “Is the Mayor’s aim of ensuring 53 per cent of all tube stations are step-free by 2024 enough?”, Christiane Link, Trustee at Transport for All and Director of Ortegalink Ltd, was very clear that the target should be 100% Tube accessibility. Christiane acknowledged that while Transport for London (TfL) has made great improvements to the accessibility of London’s buses, the fact the only 25% of London’s Tube stations are step-free at present shows the need for a roadmap for an accessible Tube system.

In response James Grant, Senior Communications Officer at Transport for London (TfL) outlined TfL’s phased approach to accessibility. This includes an additional 28 step-free Tube stations as well as the launch of the fully accessible Crossrail in 2019, demonstrating that where there is a roadmap, financial backing and creativity it is possible to deliver a fully accessible transport solution.

Step-free access versus other accessibility requirements 

Mark Berrisford-Smith, Head of Economics at HSBC shared his experience as a visually impaired commuter who regularly uses the (sometimes overzealous) voice announcements and tactile markers in many stations across the capital.

The panel queried why these relatively straightforward but effective solutions were not rolled out consistently across all stations including smaller outer London stations. James Grant explained that TfL’s strategic approach to improvements focussed on central stations like Victoria and Bond Street which improved journey opportunities for larger numbers of people. The panel acknowledged that while this would benefit disabled tourists, local disabled people who needed to travel into the capital from outer London and further afield were still disadvantaged.

As a final point in the discussion on accessible transport, the panel stressed that one of the biggest public transport challenges for disabled people was still the attitude of staff and the general public towards disability. This issue is being addressed by organisations like TfL who have been working with Transport for All to deliver disability awareness training to their bus and Tube drivers.

A row of Victorian-style houses

Above: Older buildings buildings such as these Victorian style homes pose problems for people with disabilities that wish to adapt a home to suit their needs, giving rise to a preference for new builds. Credit: Nigel Chadwick, Wikimedia Commons.

Is London’s housing stock accessible for people living with a disability or long term health conditions?

As Helen Carter, Interim Director at Centre for Accessible Environments and Neil Smith, Principal Advisor on Access at Greater London Authority outlined a number of challenges in terms of planning and development, it became clear that there were good opportunities for improving the accessibility of new builds in the capital.

By combining the concept of ‘lifetime housing’ to accommodate the changing health and access needs and educating architects and planners, real improvements could and were being made in accessible housing. Disabled peoples’ organisations outside London increasingly look towards the capital for best practice examples in terms of accessible new builds. However there are still significant challenges in terms of adapting older properties both financially and practically.

Working in London

We recently blogged on Access to Work (AtW), an outstanding labour market intervention. This evening we heard more praise from employees and employers who use the scheme and real concerns about its future. In keeping with the theme of the evening, BDF Associate Joanna Wootten reminded the audience that AtW can be used to fund transport to and from work where accessible transport isn’t available. It was suggested that improving the accessibility of London’s transport system could ultimately reduce the requirement for AtW to help fund transport, freeing up funding to support other aspects of employment.

In general it was felt that since the implementation of equality legislation there had been a significant improvement in the accessibility of corporate buildings in the capital and indeed of understanding how disability discrimination law applies to employers. Those employers who are committed to making their business accessible to disabled staff are also benefitting from unique market insights from disabled employees and therefore to market insights and disabled customers. However we also heard a number of examples highlighting the disability discrimination that still exists on the high street.

View of the Tate Modern from the Thames

Above: The Tate Modern, named the most accessible tourist attraction in the UK by Vitalise. Credit: MasterOfHisOwnDomain, Wikimedia Commons.

How welcoming is London to disabled visitors?

As we approached the end of the evening, the final part of our debate proved to be the most uplifting in terms of hearing how London really can claim to excel in accessibility as a tourist destination. Helen Carter mentioned a recent accessible tourism award won by BDF Member Tate and shared some creative solutions to adapting older historic buildings from Kew Palace and the Royal Opera House. It was felt that one of the main reasons for success in this area was down to consistently consulting with disabled people to develop services in a meaningful and useful way.

Richard Knowles, Head of Visitor Services at The Royal Collection spoke about their holistic and person centred approach to accessible tourism. This included listening to feedback from disabled visitors and working with BDF and access consultants to think creatively about the needs of all visitors including those with disabilities. During the evening, we had heard about accessible solutions for people with mobility and sensory impairments. Richard spoke about how the Royal Collection used technology to offer online tours of exhibitions and venues to help people with conditions like Autism to plan their visit and address any concerns associated with visiting an unfamiliar environment.

Technology was also increasingly being used to provide accessible information about journey planning and TfL are now using a more personal meet and greet service on key transport gateways into London.

So, could London become an exemplar city on accessibility?

If we are all agreed that the London tourist industry can rightly claim to be leading European best practice in accessible tourism, then why has London not been a serious contender for awards like Access City?

While many visitor attractions capitalised on opportunities offered by the 2012 Olympics and many of our large corporates understand the value of investing in the access requirements of a diverse workforce, our transport infrastructure, high streets and public attitudes towards disability still need improvement. We think that the evening’s event offered both encouragement and new opportunities for us to continue to work with our Members and Partners to help bring about further improvements to accessibility in London.


Interested in attending our next After hours event? Email events@businessdisabilityforum.org.uk with your details to be placed on our Events mailing list.

Just how accessible is accessible?

Profile image of Geoff Adams-SpinkBy Geoff Adams-Spink

Cities are amazing, chaotic, organic entities that very often defy attempts to impose structure and organisation upon them. A city as old as London – dating back, as it does, two millennia – is more complex, more chaotic and more amazing than most – that is why it is one of the world’s great cities.

From time to time, planners, strategists, administrators have to make an attempt to impose some sort of order – whether it is classification by postcode, organisation into boroughs, imposing aesthetic criteria or laying down the infrastructure that allows people to move from one part to another.

Such attempts are often partly thwarted by the city’s inherent ability to resist: just try navigating the dank back alleys of Venice using the map application on your smartphone, and you will soon get lost.

Architects and town planners’ attempts to impose any sort of aesthetic conformity on London were – to a large extent – thwarted by the Luftwaffe.

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that cities have to be poked, prodded, cajoled and enticed in order to meet the requirements of accessibility legislation and aspiration.

A platform at Oxford Circus tube station.

Particularly recalcitrant is our ageing Tube: it suffers the disadvantage of having once been at the cutting edge of public transport technology. Tunnelling deep under the city in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was an engineering feat, of which the UK could be justifiably proud. Some of the avant-garde architecture of the more outlying, suburban stations is in stark contrast to the street upon street of ‘cookie-cutter’ houses that surround them.

Leaving the civil engineering challenges of the Tube to one side for a moment, it is, though, still possible to conceive of London as something of an exemplar in terms of the accessibility of its public transport: which other major world city can boast a fleet of licensed taxis that is 100% accessible? Try visiting Paris or New York as a wheelchair user and you will soon see how the black cab has opened up the city to Londoners and visitors alike.

Thanks to the forward thinking of the often controversial Ken Livingstone, London also has a totally accessible bus fleet. Of course, in the early days, there were problems with ramps that didn’t work, drivers that couldn’t be bothered to use them and companies that couldn’t care less. The much-beloved RouteMaster was taken off the streets – much to the consternation of newspaper columnists and other assorted reactionaries.

A black cab and a bus at traffic lights on Regents Street in London

Now, thankfully, bus companies are fined if a vehicle leaves the garage without a working ramp. Drivers have undergone disability equality training and the only remaining obstacle to wheelchair users is the competition for space between wheelchairs and owners of large prams The owners of these prams often stubbornly refuse to vacate the spaces allocated to wheelchair users.

From a vision impairment perspective, life on the buses has also become more bearable: those with residual vision can often see the large number displayed on the front of the bus, while on-board announcements tell passengers the name of the next stop. There are apps that tell you – in real time – how soon the next bus will come along as well as its destination.

Returning to our old friend, the Tube, around 25% of the 270 stations are now accessible. Several stations now have portable ramps and staff are far more disability aware than they ever were.

There are, though, some glaring omissions: in the West End, for example, only Green Park station has been made accessible. Some stations have accessible platforms in one direction only. And, of course, ‘cost’ is the oft-cited objection to overcoming the engineering challenges of the deep underground stations.

In 2004, I visited two European cities to compare and contrast accessibility, ahead of the final implementation of the Disability Discrimination Act. Barcelona had, 12 years previously, hosted the Olympics. The vibrant disability lobby in Catalonia had pushed the regional government beyond its original ambition of making the city accessible just between Olympic venues: they insisted that a fully accessible city be made possible by 2006.

It was this social and political pressure that brought about such a sweeping change. Brussels, by contrast, is a city that hosts an annual conference to mark International and European Day of Persons with Disabilities. Disabled people from all over the European Union converge on the city in December of every year – and find it wanting.

I took my TV crew on a typical day out with Nora Bednarski, then of the European Disability Forum. We visited – among other places – her local post office, which had a massive step at its entrance – so high that she was unable to manoeuvre her wheelchair in order to get inside. Next, we went to her local cinema multiplex – there were steps everywhere.

“To be honest,” the manager told me, “we find that most disabled people aren’t interested in coming to the cinema.”

The usual arguments were trotted out about antiquity being incompatible with accessibility. That was the reason why Brussels’s magnificent town hall was not the place to get married if you had difficulty negotiating steps. Even the EU building that houses the Commission Department that deals with disabled people had an inaccessible entrance.

Part of the order of ceremonies at the annual EDPD conference is the bestowing of awards for cities that have made outstanding attempts to improve their accessibility. Unsurprisingly, Brussels is never among the contenders.

A shot of a wheelchair from a low angle with a train in the background.

More surprisingly, nor is London. From a disabled person’s perspective, the city has an awful lot to shout about – and an awful lot that could be done better: London’s black cab drivers for example could be a little less reluctant to deploy their ramps for wheelchair users and be more accommodating of assistance dog users. Customer service, more generally, could be more disability-focussed.

Perhaps what would really concentrate minds would be to pinpoint a date in the future – borrowing the example of the disability lobby in Catalonia – by which the entire city would be fully accessible to growing numbers of Londoners and visitors with reduced mobility. We all know about the ageing population – so achieving full accessibility is something of a no-brainer.

Given the complexity of the challenges, that date may well have to be a decade or two into the future. Nonetheless, it would concentrate the minds of the city’s politicians, civil engineers, architects and transport strategists.

Of course, there is more to accessibility than simply making the means of conveyance fully accessible: however, simply making this or that public space, shopping centre, workplace, housing development or whatever ‘accessible’ is meaningless unless people can get around without encountering barriers.

Cities are wonderful places – they often frustrate and delight in equal measure. More than most other cities in the world, London’s delights and frustrations deserve to be opened up to the widest possible number of people.


Join Geoff and other experts on accessibility as we discuss the Mayor of London’s future plans for making the nation’s capital more accessible. The after hours event, Accessible London: can it work?, will be held on 15 December and is free for all Business Disability Forum members to attend. 

Opinion piece: London beyond sight: The city via audio description

By Zaynab Garba

Art Beyond Sight is a project that started in New York in 2006 which has recently come to London. It is a compilation of detailed audio descriptions and commentary of well known landmarks around the city, delivered by well known locals.

Last year 40 audio files were released to the public featuring commentaries of different landmarks around the capital delivered by some famous and infamous Londoners. Steven Berkoff speaking about The Shard and Sir Derek Jacobi on the Old Vic are just part of a wonderful line up of correspondents. Though my personal favourite has to be Alastair Stewart delivering his take on the Cenotaph. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to Alastair speak of his personal affiliations and views on what the monument represents, as well as his knowledge of it’s esthetic intricacies and mathematic proportions. Working with professional describers to deliver each piece, the narrator is able to talk about aspects of Lutyen’s monument that a seeing person may miss, like the fact that the Portland stone from which it is built mirrors that of the buildings around it and that it’s outer sides are designed at an angle which means they would meet 1000 feet in the air if they kept on rising.

Well known voices, enigmatic delivery and interesting content all serve in making this project truly beyond sight. The project makes London’s visual culture accessible to all, including those with visual impairments. You can view London Beyond Site through the link below.

http://www.vocaleyes.co.uk/feedpage.asp?section=213&sectionTitle=London+Beyond+Sight