By Oliver Bennett
Clerkenwell resident and junior doctor Grace Spence Green tells EC1 Echo how our area could be better equipped to improve disabled people’s lives
Since she became a wheelchair user after a spinal injury following an incident in 2018, Grace Spence Green has been thrust into the forefront of disablement activism. For many years a Clerkenwell resident, her experience has obviously changed – but at the same time, Grace has continued to pursue her life as before, working as a junior doctor in a central London hospital.
In doing so, Grace has a clear vantage point on how areas such as Clerkenwell could be improved – sometimes in small ways – and how businesses should go beyond box ticking for the disabled, and how we could all adjust our mindsets.
“With buildings and venues that are supposedly accessible, it often appears as if they didn’t actually ask a disabled person,” says Grace. “It can be as basic as foot pedals in the wheelchair-accessible toilet – or stopping that toilet from becoming a storeroom.” Entrances – even of just one step – can be confounding, and a mere wooden ramp can make all the difference. “It’s usually the little fixes that are the best, and it shows that someone has obviously understood.”
As social distancing has changed the way we socialise, with outdoor chairs and tables, we might expect there to be more room for wheelchair access to cafes and restaurants. “For me there are pros and cons,” says Grace. “It’s true that being outside is a kind of bonus. But there are difficulties – for example, disability advocate Katie Pennick posted a video on Twitter showing there was no room for her to move in Soho because of pavement tables. You either get forced onto the road or you’re constantly waiting for people to move.”
Does Grace find people talk over her head? “All the time,” she says, adding that when she’s with her boyfriend some people ask him questions about her. “But I think that comes from a real discomfort, as well as lack of knowledge and a fear about saying the wrong thing.”
In an area with historic architecture like Clerkenwell, it’s inevitable that some buildings are not disabled friendly. “For example, my parents’ old house is completely inaccessible to me,” says Grace. “But when I came out of hospital I looked for a flat here and found that few were accessible, even modern places.” Even when she did find one, the sole lift stopped working. “For months, I had either be carried up three flights of stairs, or drag myself up with the wheelchair.” She now lives in a place with two lifts but finds it frustrating that the onus was on her to move.
As to the wider area, it’s a mixedbag. “Sadler’s Wells theatre is brilliant for accessibility, and I love Exmouth Market,” she says. But the area’s streets, cobbles, bollards, uneven pavements and high kerbs can be, she says, “really challenging, as are those places where trees have broken up the pavement. It forces you onto the road.”
For Grace a key problem is that “the difficulties seem to be all on me. Disablement is seen as an individual rather than a community matter and there’s a lack of awareness of how disabled people move, how they live, how they interact with others.” Disabled design is often considered special and separate, which Grace thinks is about seeing disabled people as a minority – although their numbers are much higher than we normally think at about 20 per cent of the UK population.
“Everyone, at some point in their lives, is going to be disabled in some form or another – and we could all become disabled,” she says. “We should look after people, not because we’re scared, or because we think disabled people need help, but because we’re looking after the whole community.” Think of ageing, she says, and how the agenda is turning against age segregation. “It’s a huge problem because if you segregate disabled people you don’t learn about their lived experiences – they’re kind of seen as the ‘other’.” This isn’t driven by “malicious intent”, she says, more “a lack of awareness of how disabled people live”.
Sometimes people can be undermining without meaning to be. “In hospital I’ve been called the ‘patient’ when I’m in full scrubs,” says Grace. “I also find it difficult to say ‘no, thanks’ to offers of help. It’s meant well, but sometimes people say it over and over, as if they’ve decided they know my needs better than I do. Then, if you show irritation, you’re seen as bitter, angry and ungrateful.” It’s better, she says, when people just say “I’m here if you need anything.” What would you say to a local authority like Islington? “They just need to have more disabled representation, people who can talk to those in power.” And the large design and architectural community in Clerkenwell can put their thinking caps on, too. “It’s about finding creative solutions and collaboration – while acknowledging that disabled people live fulfilling, rich lives too, and want to do the same things as everyone else. There’s been lots of great work –but a lot more to do.”