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Disabled rights legislation falls short claims campaigner

By Pauline Reynolds

A VISIT to the hairdresser is something the able-bodied take for granted.

A VISIT to the hairdresser is something the able-bodied take for granted.

And for Kim Morton, a survivor of the controversial drug Thalidomide, she's lucky that her sister, Liz, runs a wheelchair-friendly salon.

But for other disabled people, accessibility can be a major problem with many obstacles, such as steps and stairs, blocking their way.

New legislation comes into operation on Friday, which aims to safeguard the rights of the disabled.

While Kim, a passionate equality campaigner, welcomes the move, she fears for the future of small businesses such as her sister's.

The problem is finance.

"This legislation is long overdue, but I believe it falls short, in failing to provide grants for those who want to make their property more accessible," said the Castlereagh councillor.

"Many small businesses, which desperately want to make adjustments, can't afford the work. It's a shame that we've come this far in the law, yet funding is not being released to enable people to make sure it's enforced."

Kim has to look no further than her hairdresser sister, Liz Gardner, who runs the Creative Hair salon in Dundonald, to prove her point.

Her business is just three years old and provides excellent facilities for the disabled.

However, the toilet needs to be extended to properly accommodate a wheelchair, and the money is not there.

"I applied to the Housing Executive, and they told me there was no grant available and it was my responsibility," said Liz.

"Quite honestly, there's no way I can afford it.

"Having a sister in a wheelchair makes it so important for me to have adequate facilities, and to do the best I can for Kim and others like her.

"I don't count her as being disabled.

"She's just an ordinary person, who needs a little extra help sometimes."

Kim is an inspirational woman, a mum-of-three who lives a full and active life.

She was born with the shortened and malformed limbs, associated with the medication Thalidomide.

At that time, it was hailed a wonder drug, because of its revolutionary sedative qualities.

No one suspected that it could pass from a pregnant woman's bloodstream into her unborn baby, with devastating consequences.

Kim has used a wheelchair for as long as she can remember, and knows exactly what legislation will and won't work.

"My main concern is the vulnerability of small businesses which will fall foul of the new law, simply because no one will provide them with money," she explained.

And even her beloved Linfield football team hasn't the finance to upgrade.

"I go to Windsor Park for their home matches every other week," said Kim.

"To get to the members' room I have to make my way up two flights of stairs, which isn't very dignified.

"It's too cold to sit outside, so I've really no other option.

"If they got a grant, they could make the necessary improvements.

"It's my understanding that new businesses will be entitled to grants, but if you're already established, you haven't a chance.

"I don't know where we can go from here."

Good for business

THE new legislation which comes into force on Friday, gives disabled people rights of access to everyday services, that others take for granted.

It marks the final stage of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, and means businesses and other service providers must have equal access for all members of the public.

They will have to make any necessary alterations to their premises, and failure to do so could result in the offender facing a court appearance.

From Friday, the law will impact on buildings which, for example, have a stepped entrance, high counters or heavy doors which prove difficult obstacles for the disabled.

Disability Action has long anticipated this legislation, and welcomes the changes.

Chief executive, Monica Wilson, said it was introduced to eliminate bias against disabled people, in their everyday lives and in the workplace.

"Discrimination is not always the result of a deliberate act," she explained.

"It can also be a failure to take positive action, to ensure that services are accessible to people with a range of disabilities."

And Orla McCann, the organisation's access manager, had this advice:

"Service providers should audit their premises and services, to identify potential problems and talk to their customers and to local disability groups, to figure out a way forward," she said.

"Good access should be good for business."

lDisability Action can be contacted on 028 90297882.


From Belfast Telegraph