Michael McEwan speaks to Ian Buchanan about Disability Equality Scotland, focusing more specifically on Disability Access Panels.
As the umbrella body for Access Panels in Scotland, Disability Equality Scotland offers support and training opportunities to help Access Panels operate efficiently, link together as a network and learn from each other.
Disability Equality Scotland
MM - Michael McEwan
IB - Ian Buchanan
Michael McEwan speaks to Ian Buchanan about Disability Equality Scotland, focusing more specifically on Disability Access Panels. As the umbrella body for Access Panels in Scotland, Disability Equality Scotland offers support and training opportunities to help Access Panels operate efficiently, link together as a network and learn from each other.
MM We are now joined by Ian Buchanan, who is the Access Engagement Officer at Disability Equality Scotland. Ok Ian, so we will talk about the Access Panel in a minute but tell us a bit about the Disability Equality Scotland, gives us a kind of overview of what it is.
IB Yeh, absolutely. So, Disability Equality Scotland is a national charity for disabled people. We are member led and we have, at the moment, about seven hundred members across Scotland and those members are comprised of individuals, businesses and organisations that might have an interest in disability. So, you don't necessarily have to have a disability to join Disability Equality Scotland, but it might be that you are a carer of an individual or relative who has a disability. So, we are a very broad organisation. We cover many different areas to do with disability and disability policy, so at the moment we are focused very much on accessible transport and an increase of communication and we have a wide range of hubs that cover these topics. So, we've got the accessible travel hub, which is in partnership with Transport Scotland and on there is an array of information in terms of how to access transport if you are a disabled person, but also how to make more successful door to door journeys. We have also recently launched our Disability Safety hub, which is very much focused on hate crime and specifically disability hate crime, and that was launched in partnership with the Scottish Government just a couple of months ago. We've also got our Inclusive Communication hub and our Inclusive Design hub as well and these are very much focused on making sure that information is widely accessible to people and to also make sure that, for the Inclusive Design hub, to make sure that the environment around us, the streetscapes, buildings, what have you, are accessible and are able to be used by everybody. So, that's pretty much an overview of Disability Equality Scotland in a nutshell. We have been established for about 16 years now and we are also the umbrella body for the Access Panel Network across Scotland as well.
MM And that leads me onto my next question, about the Access Panels. So, what is an Access Panel?
IB An Access Panel is a group of volunteers who give up their time to try and improve accessibility in their local community. So, accessibility is a very broad term and Access Panels are pan disability organisations. So, they don't just focus on 1 aspect of disability, they might look at visual impairment, they will look at physical accessibility, they will look at the accessibility of information, and these people who are giving up their time to make sure that their local community is accessible don't necessarily have to have a disability either, you could have an interest in disability, again, with membership with DES, you could have a relative who is a disabled person. So, Access Panels have been in place for about 30 years or so, the oldest Access Panels have been in place for about 30 years. So, they are well established within local communities and within local authorities as well and their primary purpose is to make sure that disabled people, A, have a voice in their local community, and B, that voice and those concerns are then acted upon. So, it could be that you've got curbs on a local street that aren't dropped and, of course, this might impede somebody in terms of getting out and about, but it also might have an impact on being able to go for the bus, so if you are in a wheelchair and you are going for the bus, this dropped curb might be an obstacle to you reaching that, so at the very base of Access Panel is a group of individuals who look to improve accessibility where they can in local community and, realistically speaking. So, it might be that an Access panel goes into a business and says, Look, your premises isn't perfect, but here's how we can make it better. Obviously there is going to be limitations around what the business can afford and how far the business can go if it's in a listed building, for example, there might be things that, structurally, the business just can't do, but it's bringing it back to the Equality Act and looking at those reasonable adjustments. What can the business reasonably do to support disabled people? We have found, I have I found, in my experience, that if an Access Panel goes in quite heavy hand idly and says, look this is illegal, blah, blah, blah, it can have a negative effect on the business and it can make them shut down and withdraw, whereas, if an Access Panel goes in and says, look we are from your local Access Panel, we are a group of disabled people and we are looking to make things better, it's great but it's not perfect, here's how we can do that, and we have found that positive communication with businesses can really help.
MM So, how many Access Panels have you got all over Scotland?
IB At the moment we've got about thirty five Access Panels across Scotland and our newest one is in East Renfrewshire, and obviously, Michael, you are involved with that as well, so, and we have a number of Access Panels in the pipeline as well. We've got an Access Panels in Aberdeen that we are trying to set up at the moment, and we've got an Access Panels in East Ayrshire and South Ayrshire that we are looking at trying to re-establish. And obviously, when we are setting up Access Panels around the country, we can be faced with a different number of challenges depending on where we go. The Access Panel that we have just set up in East Renfrewshire will face different challenges that one, maybe sort of, in the Highlands, and that's purely because of location and the distance between, you know, how far people live and things like that, so to answer your question, we've got about thirty five Access Panels across Scotland at the moment, and they are mixed in terms of their capacity. So, you might have Access Panels who have lots of members, they can go out and do lots of things, they can audit lots of buildings and they have got members who are trained and can carry out that work, whereas, you might have smaller rural Panels who might just focus on their local high street, making sure that's accessible. They might do one or two bits and pieces around their local authority area. These Access Panels are usually confined to their corresponding local authority area, so, for example, Perth and Kinross Access Panel, Stirling Access Panel, Glasgow Access Panel, the only place where that isn't necessarily true is in the Highlands where you have about 9 panels, and again, that's just purely because of the size of the Highland Council area.
MM So, why do you think there is a need to set up a Panel?
IB In terms of the need of Panels, I think, firstly, the length of time that Access Panels have been established for shows that there is obviously a need for Access Panels, you know, they have survived for almost thirty years, or so, they are obviously doing something right to have continued for that long and purely on a community voluntary basis as well. Secondly, I suppose, you could look at it from an Equality point of view, you know, why shouldn't there be an Access Panel? We need to make sure that businesses and organisations are being held accountable for their access and accessibility. Access panels are a great way to make sure that parts of the Equality Act, and those protected characteristics that sit within the legislative framework within the Equality Act are being met, so without the Access Panels to hold businesses to account and to make sure that accessibility isn't slipping down the agenda. We've got to make sure that we've got a strong network of Access Panels that can continue for the next twenty to thirty years or so. There are a few ideas on how we do that and how we modernise the network and how we continue to make sure that it's growing and expanding, but the need for an Access Panel, there is that core belief that we need to improve accessibility and inclusion for disabled people in Scotland and the only way we are going to be able to do that, as far as we're concerned as a charity, is by opening up that discussion with organisations and stakeholders and influencers and making sure that we can use the Access Panel network to affect real change.
MM We've spoken about access to buildings and all that for the Access Panel, but, as you know, the Access Panels looks at other things as well. Tell us now what kind of roles the Access Panels look at. I mean, there might not be 2 areas the same, you know, from East Renfrewshire to Fife to Glasgow, but tell us what they look at.
IB So, I mean, exactly like you said, there is no one Access Panel that is the same as the other, but if I can give you an example, and I won't name any Access Panels just in case, but you might have an Access Panel that can go out and conduct a full Access Audit, which is quite a complex document, and that would come about from the Access Panel being contacted by a business to say, look we want to make sure that our accessibility is up to scratch, could you come out and conduct an Access Audit? So, the Access Panel would send out trained volunteers, they would go round the premises and after that would produce quite a detailed report detailing, you know, areas that are good and areas that might need some sort of improvement, and that Access Audit, that document, is a legal document in that it would provide some sort of defence if the business was challenged under the Equality Act for any sort of accessibility matters. So, once that Access Audit had been completed, if somebody was to then come along and say to the business, look, I can't get in or I can't move about freely or you're not providing me with enough, with a reasonable adjustment, and it was to subsequently go to court, the business could then use that Access Audit to say, well look, we have had an audit completed by an Access Panel and we were given recommendations underneath this Audit to which we have carried out, and because these Access Panels volunteers are qualified to conduct this Audit then that document would provide that legal defence in court. I'm not saying what the outcome would be, or whether that, and an Audit certainly isn't a magic bullet in terms of protecting yourself against any sort of accessibility challenges if they were brought under the Equality Act, but I am just trying to illustrate the depth of the technical knowledge that some Access Panels have, versus some Access Panels that maybe don't have trained volunteers or maybe don't want to have trained volunteers, maybe they only have six or seven people on board and they just don't have the time to get involved in quite detailed pieces of work. so, some Access Panels might then take it upon themselves to look at providing a, sort of, document that describes what the state of their high street is, they would produce a wee, sort of, tourist information guide to make sure that tourists coming to the areas, or even local residents as well, and employers and businesses, know what the accessibility is like in the town centre. So, in between, you know, you've got a street guide and a full-blown Accessibility Audit, you've got Access Panels that sit within those 2 bookends that can provide a different array of services. It might be that the Access Panels can go into an organisation and conduct some sort of Disability Awareness training or you've got Access Panels that might be able to take businesses on an accessibility walkthrough. So, there is very little that the Access Panels don't do across the board, but each of them is very individual and has it's own needs and capabilities as well.
MM You were saying that the Access Panels do a lot of things, that you offer training opportunities. I take it it's only open to the Access Panels, it's not open to members of the public, as it were, to come in...?
IB At the moment it's only open to the Access Panels themselves and the volunteers.
MM So, what's involved in the training?
IB Well, as the umbrella body for the Access Panel network, it's our role to provide that sort of support and guidance to all thirty five Access Panels across Scotland and at the moment the Access panels currently receive a grant from the Scottish government, which is called the Access Panels grant, and really that money is there for the Access Panels to use as they see fit. So, we offer some training opportunities in house, that might be Disability Awareness training and how to look at the general accessibility of a building, but if the Access Panels were wanting to go further with the training, you know, they maybe wanted to get some training on how to use websites, how to use social media, they might want to look at training in how to set up a website or, you know, anything like that, any sort of training that might be identified by Access Panels, they could then use their Access Panel grant to buy in the services from an external provider. So, in terms of training opportunities that we offer in house, we can provide Access Panels with a baseline level of knowledge in terms of how to look at the general accessibility of a building, you know, is the contrast good? are the accessible toilets to a decent standard? Is the lighting good? what are wee looking at in terms of the streetscape outside the building? Because that's often a problem with some private companies who offer Accessibility Audits, and there are private companies out there who offer to Access Audit your building, but what we have found is that Access Panels have that lived experience and they know exactly what they are looking for, whereas, if you give it to a private company to audit they might not know all the different sort of characteristics and all the different disabilities that are out there and peoples needs and wants, and often those access audits stop at the front door, they don't take into account the public transport to the building, the accessible information, the signage and that sort of thing. So, that's the sort of thing we can offer in house to Access Panels, but if Access Panels were wanting something more detailed they might then have to look externally, but you've got the Access Panel grant there, which is about £1000 per panel, and they can use that money to buy in an external trainer.
MM So, if anybody is listening to this Podcast that wants to set up an Access Panel, how can they go about it?
IB Ok, so it's actually relatively straight forward, but it can take varying lengths of time depending on where we are, so, for example, East Renfrewshire was very quick, I think we got that one done in about six or seven weeks or so, in the end, I mean I know I initially contacted you about a year and a half ago or so, but I know we didn't move forward particularly and that was just purely due to workloads, but once we actually got our heads down and got focused on setting up a panel and got some great people on board then we got it done in six or seven weeks and we went from inception to launch event, whereas, you look at Aberdeen at the moment, we are trying to set up and have been trying to set up for the past two years or so, on the surface it might just look as though, to members who are wanting to take part, that people are dragging their feet and that it's just going too slowly, but underneath that there is a whole host of problems and challenges that we have to overcome. Personalities, location, timing, oversight, but anybody who is listening to this Podcast and might have a local authority that might not have an Access Panel or might not be represented by one, if they were wanting to set up an Access Panel, then the best to do would probably be to contact myself in the first instance and then what we would do after that is we would usually hold a local meeting and we would get together everybody who is interested in taking part in the Access Panel and at that meeting I would give a short presentation on who I am and who DES is, Disability Equality Scotland, what we do, the role of an Access Panel in a bit more depth that we have spoken about here and the things that might be expected of members and expected of an Access Panel, and after that we would ask people to come back to a secondary meeting and that captures the people who are genuinely interested in being part of an Access Panel and that's the opportunity where we would look at things like the constitution and the governance arrangements and set up of the Access Panel, what's the structure going to look like? Are you going to have a Chair, a Vice Chair, a Secretary, that sort of thing? Once we have done that we need to open a bank account for the Access Panel, we need to have recognition by the local authority and the Access Panel finally needs to become members with Disability Equality Scotland, because as the umbrella body, part of these four tick boxes that we have for the Access panels is that they have a constitution, they have a bank account, they are members with us and they are registered with their local authority, recognised by their local authority. So, that's the process in a nutshell, but the easiest way is to make contact with myself and we can take it from there, that sort of discussion.
MM Has anybody come to you in the past and said, well what is an Access Panel?
IB Yes, yes. Everyday, that's a question that I get everyday when I'm out and about meeting people, meeting stakeholders and organisations. People will say, what is an Access Panel, what does it do? And Access Panels are uniquely Scottish as well. There are only two or so in England, there is one in Gateshead and there is one in Manchester, and these are completely independent, there is no umbrella body or governing body that looks after those Access Panels in England. So, Access Panels are uniquely Scottish, and they were, initially, back in the eighties, the Secretary for State in Scotland asked local authorities in Scotland to, a), appoint an Access Officer, and, b) to ask that Access Officer to set up Access Panels with each of their local authorities and, yeh, the rest is history. We have grown exponentially since then. I suppose you could say the rest of the United Kingdom, England, Wales and Northern Ireland, don't have this really special network of disabled people who are connected throughout Scotland with the primary aim of improving accessibility for disabled people.
MM Ok, thank you. if you would like more information about Disability Equality Scotland, all you have to do is go onto the website at disabilityequality.scot. You can also call them on, 01259 272 046 or you can check them out on Twitter, @DEScotTweets, or you can find them on Facebook, just go to Facebook.com/disabilityequalityscotland.