Access & Disability

Although this chapter is full of well written wisdom, it is quite long, so if speed is of the essence please click on headings below to link to the relevant section.


A community radio station exists to offer access to the airwaves and opportunities for self-improvement to those who need it most. It is sad that even in the 21st Century that all too often means people living with disabilities.

Community radio offers enormous opportunities to disabled people.


The involvement of disabled people:

  • Should be at the heart of community radio.
  • Offers great opportunities to those people and the station alike.

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 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 we do.

Our sector should be a shining beacon of best practice.   That means understanding the various problems that disabled volunteers, staff and listeners might face, and making every effort to alleviate them. It means knowing how to treat disabled people with respect and decency. 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 and would 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 an applicant with a disability to find employment there. Just what is ‘reasonable’ is of course a very big question. In the event of a complaint, the Disability Rights Commission (or with staff complaints, an employment tribunal) would intervene, with the principle intent of finding reconciliation rather than fault. They would consider issues including:

  • 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.


The Disability Discrimination Act:

  • Forbids you from unfairly discriminating against current or potential service users or staff on the grounds of disability.
  • Obliges you to make reasonable adjustments to allow as much access and opportunity as you can to people with disabilities.
  • Does not demand the impossible or the unaffordable.
  •  Has few hard and fast rules, but calls for common sense

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. And quite right too.

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 facilities,’ then there would be a high chance of a successful complaint. However if the station has already made real efforts to find a more accessible but alternative home within their limited budget, the volunteer had been offered the opportunity to pre-record shows at the nearby partner college and 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..

 The range of disabilities


“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.

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 (superficially) 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 or trembling hands – a symptom of several chronic illnesses and a side-effect of some common prescription medicines.
  • Learning difficulties. (see VOXBOX**) 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.
  • Mental illness. As we discuss elsewhere, 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.  Any successful community station will have within its ranks of volunteers someone/some people with mental health issues and their time at the station will be a great opportunity to help.  If not volunteered spotting these issues is a skill in itself.  The charity MIND has resources on Mental Health First Aid and this guide can be downloaded.


    The disabilities you may encounter:

    • Are as wide-ranging as the disabilities in your community
    • Will each raise their own unique problems.
    • 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.

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 or 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.

Once inside. 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 decor. Try to:

  • 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.

Resources. The equipment, support materials, internal communications and other resources which your staff and service users need should be:

  • Easily read. Printed materials should be large type and have good contrast. Braille or audiotape translations may be needed (many libraries and colleges offer a Braille translation service).
  • Easily seen and reached. Don’t keep important files on high shelves, never place notices seven feet up a wall or store stationery in the cellar.


    Your station must be:

    • Easy to enter for disabled users.
    • Easy for disabled users to navigate inside.
    • Helpfully designed and decorated for disabled people.
    • Safe to use and safe to evacuate for disabled people.
    • Flexible and adaptable when needs arise.
    • Easily used. Obviously it may not be possible to have all your studio equipment redesigned and rebuilt to allow perfect access, but be prepared to make whatever efforts you can or whatever changes become necessary due to the needs of a disabled volunteer.  Some changes – such as adjustable computer desks for wheelchair users – are relatively straightforward but make a huge difference to your usability.

Adapting to individual needs. Without wishing to sound heartless, the money and effort which can be spent on improving access and usability is literally endless. However much you might want to, you will not be able to do everything. There are some issues, such as wheelchair access, which are almost certain to arise sooner or later and should be considered absolutely fundamental to your function as a community radio station. Others – for example translating learning materials into Braille or onto audiotape – may arise but you would probably wish to wait until they do before investing in them, otherwise you may find they are out of date and need changing before you have used them. Often the changes needed might be less predictable. We know of a community group who once needed to black out windows to allow access to a user with the light-sensitive skin condition porphyria, which is not something you can reasonably plan for. What is crucial is that you are prepared to make whatever changes are necessary to make your station accessible to anyone.

Communication and personal support

chapter-image-8There is no point in having the most accessible facilities if the human touch is not there. Treating people with respect, understanding and compassion is an essential component of your access policies. The way station staff and volunteers talk and relate to each other, regardless of their health or impairment, will go a long way to establishing how welcoming and attractive your station will be for people with disabilities. There are no hard and fast rules as to the language you use, tone of voice is often a bigger factor than the words used, but here are some guiding principles.

  • People are described by their disabilities, not defined by them. So it is more respectful to talk about ‘people with disabilities’ or ‘disabled people’ than it is to talk about ‘the disabled.’  And you don’t provide access to wheelchairs and guide dogs, you provide access to wheelchair users and blind people.
  • Avoid disempowering terms. Words such as ‘cripple’, ’handicapped,’ and ‘spastic’ have hopefully been consigned to history, but at a more subtle level, phrases like ‘confined to a wheelchair’ should be avoided.
  • Avoid pity or excessive admiration. The phrase ‘aren’t you brave?’ may lead to physical violence.
  • Clarify the preferred means of communication. If someone has problems with hearing or speech, find out if they’d prefer to use a notepad or a sign interpreter, for example.
  • Don’t avoid talking altogether. It is better to risk saying the wrong thing than to say nothing at all.
  • Don’t go to extremes. Many disabled people find nothing more annoying than being told they’re ‘just differently abled’ or talking to someone who delicately skips around the issue or refuses to acknowledge that they have disabilities at all. Impairments are a fact of life and should be treated as such.

If people have mobility impairments:

  • Sit down before talking to a wheelchair user so you are at eye level.
  • Never touch a wheelchair without asking the user first.
  • Never tidy or move crutches, frames or sticks.

If people have visual impairments:

  • Introduce yourself when you speak.
  • Say when you are ending a conversation or leaving a room.
  • Be prepared to offer a guiding arm (not hand) when walking.
  • Never interact with a guide dog without asking the owner first.

If people have hearing or speech impairments:

  • Find quiet places to talk.
  • Look the person straight in the face and talk clearly.
  • If a sign interpreter is involved, talk to the person not the signer.

Human intervention. 


The way you talk to and work with disabled people should be:

  • With respect, understanding and compassion.
  • Not patronising or insulting.
  • As un-intrusive as possible. Let them get on with it if you can.

In most cases a disabled volunteer will want to do as much as possible himself, rather than be waited on hand and foot. There will be times when this is simply not practical and a helping or guiding hand is required. It is the role of the support worker or voluntary assistant to provide as much or as little input as is needed or wanted to allow the volunteer to achieve as much as he wants to. Let’s take the example of a blind volunteer hosting a show.  He may want to plan the programme, invite guests, and speak on air – a worthwhile challenge in itself. A support worker or team would be needed to prepare the show, change records, drive the desk etc. Or he may want to learn how to operate the desk by touch, use a voice activated computer to create his own jingles and pre-records, and have total autonomy over the creation and delivery of the show. Be prepared to go as far as you need to if you are going to help your volunteers meet their ambitions and fulfil their potential.

Fair employment practices 

As we noted earlier if you employ people you are bound by the DDA and must not discriminate against employees or potential employees on the grounds of disability. And as we said above, this should be considered the absolute bare minimum requirement of a community radio station. Your station should:

  • Consider disability in every aspect of employment. Your equal opportunities policy should commit you to fair practice in recruitment, retention, training, appraisals, grievance procedures and career development.
  • Offer disability awareness training to staff (see below).


    As an employer:

    • You are bound by the Disability Discrimination Act
    • You should treat everyone equally, regardless of their abilities.
  • Involve staff with disabilities in all staff activities, professional or social.
  • Be aware of schemes and programmes providing funding and assistance for workers with disabilities such as the government’s Access To Work Scheme.
  • Bear in mind that employees may develop disabilities after they begin working for you. Stations may have to adapt to their practices or facilities when needed.
  • Have Health and Safety procedures that take account of staff with disabilities.
  • Remember that all the access and usability issues mentioned above are even more important if they ease the day-to-day workload of a staff member.

External support and advice

Disability awareness training

There are many agencies, voluntary groups and other organisations who will offer disability awareness training, either on general issues or on specific disabilities. These are often free or offered at discount rates to not-for-profit organisations. Your local voluntary services umbrella group should be able to put you in touch. Ideally all members of staff and senior volunteers should be offered (and in some cases instructed to take) such courses, but as a bare minimum there should be at least one person at each level of management who is fully trained and aware of all the issues.

Access audit

Since the ‘reasonable adjustments’ section of the DDA came into effect there has been a rapid expansion of commercial firms offering access audits to businesses. These identify shortfalls and problems with your access policies and offer advice for improvements. These can be extremely useful, but also rather costly. As with awareness training, if you look around you may find agencies and organisations who would be willing to do something similar at minimal or no cost. Either way it can be useful to get an external assessment of your facilities and policies which should spot any potential problems and solutions you may have missed.

Other local groups and partner organisations


Beyond your station:

  • There is a lot of training and support.
  • There are external assessors and auditors.
  • There is funding to be found.

Within your community there will be disability charities, rights and awareness campaigns, support groups and other organisations that should already be involved to some extent at your station. These groups can offer you valuable feedback on the services you offer, ways in which you could help local people with disabilities and other help and advice. Make sure groups with involvement in disability issues are at the heart of your station and then use them as a resource once they are.


There are some grants available for statutory adjustments and improvements to your levels of access, from the local government, national government and charitable sectors. There is also a lot of funding available for projects involving people with disabilities, some of which may include money for equipment and resources. If your access is less good than it might be, make extra efforts to seek out such funding.

Disabilities and programming


“I think of my show as being about real people, giving a voice to people who haven’t got one – sometimes quite literally. I’ve done shows with people using Liberator machines – the kind of thing Stephen Hawking uses. Giving them the chance to make their opinions heard on the radio, which they would never get otherwise. I’ve done shows with sign translators. You have to explain what’s going on because it’s a bit like ventriloquism on the radio, you get these long pauses, but that’s OK. It was really inspiring stuff.”

Vicky Richardson, presenter Access All Areas, ALL FM

A community radio station has two responsibilities towards people with disabilities in your community:

  • To involve them in making programmes
  • To make programmes which serve their interests.

The two should not be considered interchangeable. Don’t assume that because someone uses a wheelchair or has a visual impairment they will only be interested in making programmes about disability. She may well want to play hip hop or he may want to act in a drama. Equally someone who has no impairments may wish to be involved in making a disabilities action show  – although it is always advisable to have at least partial input from people with disabilities into such shows.

The extent of your programming targeted at members of your community with disabilities is obviously up to you. We would suggest that one show per week is the bare minimum. At the opposite extreme is Glasgow’s VIP On Air, an online station which  has won a five year licence. This is made by and for people who are blind or partially-sighted, and all programming is aimed specifically at them (see Box **). Most community radio stations find a balance between those poles. The content of your disability community shows might include:

  • Welfare and services advice and news.
  • Listings and previews of special events and social occasions.
  • Feature programming about particular disabilities, campaigns, current affairs etc.
  • Real stories from real people (see Box**)
  • Issues surrounding caring and disabilities in the family.
  • Humour and comedy created by people with disabilities.
  • Involvement of special guests and celebrities with relevant experiences.
  • Talking newspapers and books for the visually impaired.

Above all, your programming should be led by disabled people themselves. They know better than you what their needs and wishes are and where you can best help.


“Our station has had a huge impact, in ways that we maybe didn’t think about in the beginning. Just simple things like blind people being able to access the daily newspapers at more or less the same time as everyone else means a huge amount to our listeners. Blind and visually impaired people have real problems finding employment – across the UK it is about 80% of adults of working age are unemployed. In a relatively short period of time we have helped 15 different people move on from the station into full time employment or training which for us is a phenomenal achievement. We have broadcast from the Vision 2005 conference, which is the world’s leading conference on blind issues. We brought that conference directly to our listeners who could never have accessed that any other way. We even had a reporter accredited at the Gleneagles G8 Conference this year. Gill was the only blind reporter in the whole of the world’s press pack.”

Kerryn Krige,  Station Manager, VIP On Air



Programming for listeners with disabilities:

  • Can be as extensive as your resources and ambition allow.
  • Should be led by people with disabilities