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Why the legal sector needs to invest in accessibility

AnalysisWhy the legal sector needs to invest in accessibility

By Harry Charlton, Chief Executive at 7BR chambers

The simple phrase ‘popping to the shops’ rolls off the tongue for so many of us. Yet for some, such a seemingly straight forward undertaking requires a lot more planning and consideration. Language is a huge part of inclusivity, and for a disabled person, ‘popping to the shops’ can be a dramatically different experience.

Here at 7BR we recently spoke to a number of AccessAble Ambassadors about the realities behind such everyday phrases. For example, Charlie Randell, a Youtuber, Instagrammer, and wheelchair user with cerebral palsy, explained what ‘it only takes two secs’ actually means for him:

Plan extra time to allow for getting the wheelchair in and out of the car, wheeling myself to wherever I need to go – plus more time on top of that for contingencies. Hopefully the pavement / road surface is ok – rough or hilly terrain always takes me so much longer. Whenever I’m told ‘It’ll only take two secs’ I usually plan about half an hour! I’ve learned that many people without disabilities seriously misjudge how long everything takes me. Often people ask why I always arrive so early. It’s because I have to allow all that extra time just to be sure of being on time!”

Interviewing a number of AccessAble ambassadors really helped shine a spotlight for us on accessible language and all the different ways disabled people encounter challenges with the simple tasks many of us take for granted. We therefore instigated this awareness campaign (which you can read more about here) in parallel with the installation of our own innovative solution to help transform our building’s accessibility.

At 7BR we have a challenge which will be familiar to many other Chambers – whilst we’re privileged to call an eighteenth century Grade II listed building our home, its physical layout and ensuing planning restrictions mean modernising and modifying it is fraught with danger. Our buildings, 6 & 7 Bedford Row, have been home to Chambers since 2004, and retaining the building’s architectural integrity whilst also ensuring facilities are in-keeping with our core values of equality, diversity, and inclusivity, presents a constant challenge.

We undertook a long overdue and comprehensive refurbishment three years ago, planned over two phases, both with accessibility at their core. Phase One was internally focused and retained accessibility at its core – for example, by lowering the reception desk for wheelchair users, ensuring control panels for alarms and lights are at an appropriate height, installing internal stairlifts, and undertaking significant investment in A-V and technology to allow Members and clients to interact as seamlessly as possible.

Phase Two was completed late last year with the issue of external access from our Bedford Row street frontage at its heart. Mindful of the inherent stresses and strains of visiting a set of Chambers for clients, visitors, and peers alike, we aspired to create an immediately welcoming and comfortable environment for everyone wishing to visit 7BR.

Having assessed our options, we alighted upon a unique solution: ‘Sesame Steps’ – installed by Sesame Access Systems, an innovative specialist lift company. The Steps work by hydraulically concealing the lift when not in use, which ensures the architectural integrity of our front entrance is preserved. The Steps can be independently operated by all users to allow a seamless entrance into the building – quietly, elegantly and efficiently.

The central ethos of the project is to ensure all visitors and occupants can enter and leave Chambers independently, with dignity, and in comfort. In this context the Sesame Steps have been transformational.

Moving beyond the confines of our own specific logistical challenges, 7BR Member Dr Gregory Burke has relayed some of his personal experiences of using the Courts as a disabled person:

“By way of example, Nottingham Crown Court has incredibly heavy internal doors off the lift, which means navigating them as a wheelchair user solo is almost impossible. As a baby-junior I was almost sent to Lincoln Crown Court before someone mentioned the accessibility was particularly dreadful, thankfully saving me a wasted trip. Ashford Employment Tribunal’s lift is too small for wheelchair footplates to be attached. There is no reliable way to check what the access is like before you go somewhere new.

“Despite Courts obviously needing to be accessible for all, the fact remains Courts can be very inaccessible, particularly to disabled people. Disabled-access is often a late afterthought or even non-existent.”

For 7BR, the Sesame Steps are a significant but very necessary investment, reinforcing our commitment to inclusivity and making ourselves as accessible as possible.

We believe the issue of accessibility should be top of the profession’s agenda, especially since the publication of the Legal Services Board’s report in 2020 into reshaping legal services to meet people’s needs – which called for a step-change to improve accessibility.

And it should be an ongoing conversation too.

For 7BR, the installation of Sesame Steps and the remodelling of our building’s interior is by no means the end of our journey. We want to deepen our understanding of diversity and to initiate active solutions to inequality wherever we can. The transformation of our front of house access is just the first step on the journey to becoming truly inclusive.

 

Harry Charlton, Chief Executive at 7BR

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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