March 25th, 2010
A community radio station exists to offer access to the airwaves and opportunities for self-improvement to those who need it the most. It is sad that even in the 21st Century this all too often means people living with disabilities.
Community radio offers enormous opportunities to disabled people. Disabled people offer enormous benefits to community radio. It is essential that stations don’t just make the minimum effort required to stay within the law and to get the token involvement of one or two such volunteers, but instead place the needs and involvement of disabled people at the heart of everything they do. Our sector should be a shining beacon of best practice.
Obviously we all want to treat everybody with respect and decency… but in the case of people who have a disability, we might not always know how to do this. Tackling this issue means understanding the various problems that disabled volunteers, staff and listeners might face, and making every effort to alleviate them. And it means communicating freely and listening closely to their wishes and needs.
Your legal obligation
As a service provider and (presumably) as an employer, your station is legally bound to comply with the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA). In simple terms, this says that you must not discriminate against a disabled person (described as someone with “a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on his ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities”) and that you must offer the same access and opportunities to disabled people that you do to everyone else. As we noted above, compliance with this law should be seen as a bare minimum standard for a community radio station, but of course you need to understand your legal position too – not least because a successful complaint against a community radio station under the DDA could lead to a compensation lawsuit which could be a financial and PR catastrophe for any community station.
Since October 2004, all organisations providing services to the public, whether paid for or not, are obliged to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to their facilities in order to make it possible for a disabled person to use them, or to allow a person with a disability to be employed there. Just what is ‘reasonable’ is of course a very big question. In the event of a complaint, the Disability Rights Commission (or for staff complaints, an employment tribunal) would intervene, with the principle intent of finding reconciliation rather than fault. Issues which would be considered would include:
- The size and wealth of your organisation;
- The consideration and priority given to the problems of disabled people;
- The efforts already made to increase access and provision to disabled people;
- How many disabled service users you would be reasonably expected to encounter;
- What alternative arrangements are offered to service users.
In short, they would apply common sense and expect you to do likewise. Because the letter of the law is vague, you are forced to comply with the spirit of the law.
To take a hypothetical example, a station may have its studio on the first floor of a building with no lift. If a wheelchair user wants to host a show and is told ‘sorry, we don’t have the facilities,’ then there would be a high chance of a successful complaint.
However if the station had made real efforts to find a more accessible but alternative home within their limited budget, if the volunteer had been offered the opportunity to pre-record shows at the nearby partner college, and if the station could be shown to have made extensive efforts to involve volunteers with disabilities in other ways, then the chances of a complaint being upheld would be minimal. You are not obliged to make changes that are impractical or beyond your financial means.
One lesson that you quickly learn in any community sector project is that you must always expect the unexpected. This particularly applies to access issues. Sometimes the volunteer with what may appear to be the most extreme and multiple disabilities can quietly get on with things, casually brushing away your offers of support and assistance at every turn. Others with apparently minor impairments will be unable to function without significant emotional and practical support.
Nevertheless there are some broad categories of disability that community stations should be prepared to encounter:
- Mobility. Most obviously this means wheelchair users, but may also include those who walk with difficulty or only with assistance.
- Visual impairment. The blind and partially sighted have a particularly close relationship with radio – for obvious reasons. They are likely to be your most avid group of listeners and should be involved in making radio too.
- Dexterity. Although generally overlooked in disability and access literature, many people have conditions which make fiddling with small buttons (an essential ability in most radio studios) extremely difficult. This could be caused by muscular or orthopaedic problems (e.g. arthritis) which make finger movements painful and difficult, or it could be a result of trembling hands – a symptom of several chronic illnesses and a sideeffect of some common prescription medicines.
- Learning difficulties. This is a broad category which spans everything from mild literacy problems through to severe Downs Syndrome, so generalisations are difficult. Appropriate interventions and support must be offered at either end of the spectrum (see Voxbox 11.01).
- Mental illness. As we discussed in Chapter 10, awareness of mental illness needs to be at the centre of your volunteer support strategy. It’s worth bearing in mind that the mentally ill are the group most commonly discriminated against. There is often an unreasonable fear and prejudice of the mentally ill and staff should take care to ensure they are not isolated and marginalised within the station.
- Deafness. No, it’s not a joke. While the profoundly deaf are unlikely to show much interest in radio, they are considerably outnumbered by the partially deaf and hard of hearing, who may well wish to be involved.
- Other disabilities. Epilepsy, asthma and many other long-term illnesses can cause genuine obstacles to participation in the station. Be prepared to offer whatever support and facilities may be required and be sure to have a hard and fast no-smoking policy if only to assist those with respiratory problems.
In all these cases and others, you need to find a good balance between anticipating and being prepared to meet the particular needs of any volunteer or staff member, and spending a huge amount of time and resources on providing facilities or making changes which are never used or needed.
“About three years ago we started working with a learning disabled project called 119 Project. We did a workshop every week, and initially it was just a small activity project. From that we began to realise the potential that was there in some of those people. From that grew a project called Radio119 which is an independent group working within our project. They are not a learning disabled project, they are a radio project in their own right. They produce reports for broadcast on BCB, and we think it’s the first time that learning disabled people have had a voice in the media.
That’s been really exciting. We didn’t know where it would go, and we couldn’t have imagined what would happen when these people get the opportunities. We have one guy who is autistic and the doctor had told his mum at one point that he would never even speak. He’s now not only doing a lot of independent work on the computer and editing suite, he has also broadcast a show on the radio. It just shows that whoever you are, if you have the right opportunity, how much you can achieve. That’s what community radio can do.” Mary Dowson, Director and CEO, Bradford Community Broadcasting
Improving access and usability
The physical layout and design of your premises, the usability of your facilities and the special needs of disabled staff and volunteers should be paramount in every decision you make from day one. These should certainly be major considerations in your choice of location and premises, and any time there is a re-arrangement of offices, furniture, decoration etc. They should also be under constant inspection – it’s almost inevitable that from time to time someone will move a desk without thinking of the implications. It’s better that someone notices and moves it back before a wheelchair user needs to get across the room in a hurry.
The areas in which you should consider the needs of disabled service users include:
Approach and entrance
There should be:
- Parking for disabled drivers (ideally reserved bays) close to the premises;
- A highly visible and easily found door. Try to avoid situations where a partially sighted person has to read a tiny nameplate on a buzzer system or negotiate a maze of corridors to get in;
- A street-level entrance/ramp for wheelchair users;
- A wide entrance for wheelchair users;
- The door should be easily opened. It shouldn’t be excessively stiff or heavily sprung, and the door handle must be within reach of a wheelchair user.
There should be:
- Wide doors and corridors;
- Clear passageways through rooms, particularly if they are ‘through routes’ or used by several people at once;
- Clear floors, without clutter, raised mats, rugs or (especially) trailing wires and cables;
- Disabled toilet facilities;
- A lift if necessary.
Design and décor
- Decorate simply. Doors (or doorframes) should be a different colour to the walls. People with visual impairments can be disoriented by complex colour schemes, and have difficulty distinguishing between walls, doors etc.;
- Beware of hanging fittings (e.g. lights) at or below head height;
- Have strong, preferably natural lighting in all rooms;
- Make sure all permanent signs are large and have good contrast.
Alarms and emergency evacuation procedures
- Alarms should be visible and audible;
- Emergency evacuation and fire alarm procedures must include provision for disabled staff, visitors and service users. Disabled users should be included appropriately in drill procedures.