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My Child, The Fire Risk
The Guardian, April 4th, 2003

Regulations that were introduced to care and protect are being used to discriminate against the disabled

My daughter is a fire hazard. When I called the National Film Theatre to book tickets for both of us, I was told there was no seat for her because of the fire risk she posed. It wasn't because she's only 10 - it was a children's film, after all. And it wasn't because, like Krook in Bleak House, she may at any moment spontaneously combust. It was simply because she uses a wheelchair.

As the Disability Discrimination Act has been extended, making it more and more difficult not to include people with disabilities, health and safety has become the last resort of the exclusion scoundrel.

My daughter isn't the only person with a disability who faces a continual battle to prove that her very existence isn't a danger to us all. A man was refused gym membership because his diabetes posed "a risk to safety"; another person with a visual impairment was denied admission on the same grounds. Nor was the National Film Theatre incident the first occasion on which health and safety legislation has been quoted to exclude my daughter; it has happened many times.

When a local leisure centre was taken over by a new management team, she was told she could no longer take part in school swimming classes, even though she had been doing so for the previous two years. The grounds given were that she was "a danger to other children" in the pool. The irony is, although she cannot walk, she can swim, and swimming is one of the few sports in which she can fully take part.

It's not only in leisure that health and safety is used as an excuse to exclude. A TUC briefing last December warned that "wheelchair users are often refused jobs because they would not be able to escape buildings during a fire or 'may get in the way' of colleagues trying to escape".

Earlier this year, it took a high court ruling, backed by the disability rights commission, to overturn local authorities imposing blanket bans on home care workers manually lifting any disabled person and deeming all lifting as too "hazardous".

Local authorities had relied on Royal College of Nursing guidance, intended for nurses who handle many patients all day, not the occasional lifting by care workers in a disabled person's own home.

The government has even considered making third-party insurance compulsory for powered-wheelchair users, regarding their mobility aids as a hazard to others. (Disability rights groups point out that shopping trolleys can do just as much damage - will we need insurance to go to the supermarket?)

Health and safety is an easy excuse for those who want to make no effort to include people with a wide range of disabilities. There couldn't be a more effective get-out clause; we'd love to have you here, but it's dangerous if we do. Not only, we're told, because disabled people put other people in jeopardy, but because they're perilous to themselves. This twisted logic makes it in the disabled person's "own best interest" to be excluded.

During the firefighters' strike, many disabled students at universities and colleges across the country found they were barred from attending lectures other than those held on ground floors for fear they would not be able to be evacuated in the event of an emergency, as if they were an incendiary device. This is despite the fact that several wheelchair users escaped safely from the World Trade Centre on September 11, including one woman who was carried down 68 floors. And is my own daughter, a slim 10-year-old, incapable of being safely carried out of a building like the National Film Theatre, if threatened by fire? What happened to the fireman's lift?

We all face risks, and judge how great a risk has to be before it comes unacceptable. But implicit in the thinking of those who hide behind the excuse of health and safety to exclude is that those with disabilities are somehow more hazardous and more vulnerable than the able bodied. Disabled people mustn't just meet the standard of acceptable risk, but be entirely risk free.

The TUC had a case when a cinema was repainted entirely in dark colours and the stairs used for storage. Sighted staff were falling over and bumping into things all the time. But when a blind employee complained, he was told he was a hazard and should lose his job. In this, as in many other cases, health and safety rules were not being applied to protect but to discriminate.

Since our visit, the National Film Theatre says it has revised its policy for allocating tickets to wheelchair users. Miraculously, after my vigorous complaint she is no longer a fire hazard! Similarly, the swimming pool has agreed to allow her to continue having lessons with her classmates.

Still, being portrayed as a threat to health and safety is a battle every person with a disability has to contend with. But disability is not a danger. The real danger is sanctioning exclusion by the misguided application of health and safety regulations. That's a hazard we should all be warned against.

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