Rod Liddle

Crippling burden

Rod Liddle says small businesses fear they won't be able to afford to install facilities for the disabled

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There is something a little reckless about having a go at the disabled lobby. I can happily question the zealousness and rectitude of the Commission for Racial Equality, Stonewall and any of a multitude of women's groups, safe in the knowledge that I am not about to be rendered black, gay or female in the foreseeable future. But disabled? Hell, who knows? This is one lobby group not to be messed with. Disablement could happen at any moment; there but for the grace of God, etc.

In fact, when you study the qualifications required in order to call oneself disabled, it seems almost impossible that it won't happen in the next 48 hours or so – or, indeed, has already happened. I may well be disabled right now. Because – like television comedy programmes, parliamentary democracy and the England football team – disablement ain't what it used to be. In the good old days, disablement meant paralysis, blindness, chronic limblessness and so on. These days you can probably grab one of those orange car stickers if you're a bit on the porky side, or are simply as thick as a plate of mince.

Like any profitable business, disability is an expanding concern. The disability lobby groups, who rather pleasingly seem to hate each other more, even, than they hate the rest of us, at least unite upon a figure of 8.6 million disabled people in Britain. It is in their interests to be as inclusive as possible, of course, because it means that their organisations are assumed to be more powerful than, in fact, they should be. Look at how many people they represent! But come on, do you believe there are almost nine million 'disabled' people in Britain? What do your own eyes tell you? Nope, me neither. Still less do I believe the government's own assertion that 'one in four' people are either disabled or – get-out clause alert! – 'close' to somebody who is disabled.

But then, as I say, when you check out what it takes to be disabled, you begin to visualise the rather capacious top hat from which these puzzling figures have been conjured. You can be 'disabled' with an imperforate anus, for example. In which case, if you are so minded, you can log on to your computer and join the anorectal malformations discussion group. No, I'm not kidding. In fact, I've thought of signing up myself.

You can be disabled with Iliotibial Band Friction Syndrome or simply through being a greedy, fat bastard. Don't worry, is the message, there's room for everyone. There's no need to feel left out. Disablement can be yours, if only you want it enough.

The problem really lies with the rest of us; those of us who either do not know that we are disabled or have yet to embrace disability as a positive lifestyle choice. Next October, the final part of the 1995 Disabled Persons Act will come into force, requiring pretty much every public and commercial establishment – no matter how small – to 'consider making permanent physical adjustments to their premises' in order to cater properly for those people suffering from an imperforate anus or Iliotibial Band Friction Syndrome. And quite a lot of small businesses are worried that they will not be able to afford tens of thousands of pounds for new access ramps or those spacious lavatories equipped with things to grip hold of on the wall and which are used, primarily, by gleeful able-bodied couples for purposes other than micturition or defecation.

The Act has a certain vagueness about it. There is a 'reasonable resource defence' which means, in effect, that if your business has a turnover of £30,000, you might hope that it would be considered unreasonable to be compelled to install handrails and a ramp costing £20,000. But you can't be sure. As the Federation of Small Businesses put it, 'Some of our members worry that they might be forced to pay out a large capital sum in order to cater for perhaps one disabled customer per year.' Ah, but that's one customer you've noticed is disabled. You missed all the others with their rebarbative anuses and friction-bedevilled knee joints, didn't you?

What it will come down to is private litigation. Disabled people will sue and it will be left to a judge to decide if the business in question was cavalier in its treatment of them. Which must be a worry, if you're a small business. And nor will the government help them: a plea for a tax break, a 100 per cent capital allowance for small firms forced to install all manner of stuff to comply with the new laws, has not made it past the lugubrious jowls of the Chancellor.

Some firms worry that the installation of hideous handrails and ramps will be an eyesore and dissuade people from visiting their concerns. Antique shops and restaurants in the Cotswolds, for example, have let their feelings be known. Elsewhere, those who own small hotels are worrying about whether or not they should spend £80,000 on a lift for disabled patrons, despite the fact they may have only six or seven rooms.

Outside the commercial sector, things are rather worse. There is a fear that local councils will use the advent of the legislation to close down facilities which are in any case unprofitable – but also that they will be forced to close down amenities, such as swimming pools, which are not, at the moment, 'adequately' equipped because they can't afford the outlay. Village halls are particularly threatened and so are rural pre-school play groups – regardless, of course, of whether or not there are any disabled people wishing to use these amenities.

And then there are the churches. There is a very tiny church in a village called Tytherington, not far from where I live in Wiltshire. It is remarkably beautiful but the people who look after it fear for its future. Some £20,000 is required to provide an access ramp to the door of the church. Of course, it is £20,000 that they don't have. It is deeply, terribly, politically incorrect to suggest that those disabled people who wish to worship there might be dependent upon ad hoc acts of kindness from the able-bodied members of the congregation. Because that's the other thing; we will be legislating to absolve us all from such acts of humanity and concern for others.

It is, if you like, a case of a government telling us that we don't care enough, and are unable to accept that, no matter what legislation is passed, some people will continue to depend on their fellow citizens for help; and that no stigma should attach to those who are so inconvenienced.