No-go areas faced by disabled people on shopping trips to Penzance
VISITING the town centre becomes an almost military operation for some disabled people.
Routes are planned and shops that need visiting are plotted before even leaving the house.
Theo Blackmore never brings his wheelchair into the town centre. The strategic partnership manager for Disability Cornwall said there were a number of obstacles posed to disabled people when trying to negotiate Penzance high street.
"There is the steepness of hills to contend with, access problems because of temporary works and inaccessible shops and businesses," said the 46-year-old from Paul.
"Many shops have steps."
Meeting Mr Blackmore, who has multiple sclerosis, at the bottom of Causewayhead, we decided to travel around the town to see how he would get on negotiating the high kerbs, narrow pavements and steep, cobbled walkways.
Much of Chapel Street would be a no-go area for someone in a wheelchair unless, like Theo, they are lucky enough to have a mobility scooter. There is then the choice of using the road but this still leaves the driver having to find where the kerb drops down so they can get back onto the pavement and into shops.
Heading down Market Jew Street, we stop to chat to another local man using a scooter to get around.
"I never bring my wheelchair into Penzance town centre, I have tried but I am not strong enough in the arms to get up and down Market Jew Street," said Andy Cowie.
"I can't get in lots of shops and even the ones I can get in, some of them have narrow aisles that I can't get around."
Leaving him to get on with his shopping, we travel towards the railway station where a line of scaffolding has been put up as works are carried out to refurbish the site.
"I can't get through the walkway in the scaffolding," said Mr Blackmore.
"This happens all the time, you plan your route then you come into town and find obstacles."
Some of the hazards posing difficulties for wheelchair users and also those using crutches and walking sticks, are just part and parcel of the fabric of a traditional Cornish market town. Cobbles and narrow kerbs can be found in many areas and Mr Blackmore said he wasn't sure what the answer to the access question was.
But he did show me an example of where a business had adapted for its disabled customers. The Post Office used to have a step outside the entrance but the company has managed to incorporate a permanent stone ramp giving far easier access.
It is important not just for disabled people but also for businesses to get access right.
"The spending power of disabled people in the UK is £80 billion," said Mr Blackmore.
"One in four families have someone who is disabled. There is a lot of money out there that these people cannot spend in these shops. They will instead go to out-of-town shopping areas and that money is all going out of the county instead of staying locally."
It isn't just problems accessing the high street that can give disabled people cause for concern.
Mr Blackmore believes it is difficult to find accommodation providers in Penzance which are completely wheelchair accessible.
"Twenty-five thousand disabled visitors come to Cornwall every year and they will come with families and friends," he said.
"If you can find a hotel in Penzance they could use if they are in a wheelchair, I would be surprised."
From his own experiences, Mr Blackmore added that he advised disabled visitors to carefully research their accommodation in Penzance. If they failed to find suitable accommodation in the town, fully accessible rooms may be available at Hayle Travelodge, he added.
Arnaud Ruetsch, chairman of the Penzance District Tourism Association, said wheelchair access was an issue but so far no solution had been found.
"Many guest houses are old and have lots of large granite stairs and unfortunately there is nothing we can do," he said.
"If we can master wheelchair access as a town, it is a huge market. It is not that we do not want it, just that we haven't found a solution yet."
A spokesman for Disability Rights UK, an organisation which fights for equality for disabled people, said it was up to individual businesses to ensure they adhered to the Equality Act, legislation that includes the former Disability Discrimination Act.
"Every business has to consider how to make sure it is not discriminating against disabled customers," the spokesman said, adding that the duty is on each individual business rather than the local authority.
"It does vary. For example, if you had a small tourist shop with a second floor you wouldn't necessarily have to have a lift put in but it might be reasonable to have a member of staff bring items from upstairs.
"They have to adapt to the need, within the restraint of the business."
Disability Cornwall can assist with an access audit and help to find solutions for disability access issues.
It has also launched a directory of accessible venues and services and encourages comments. Visit www.disabilitycornwall.org.uk