London was a little more accessible these past few days… and it was not good enough

It is Sunday morning the 18th September 2022 and I am lying on my sofa ready for a day of rest – I know I won’t be doing much today besides writing this blog post because my body needs me to hit the pause button. Even if this was not in my awareness, my body would make me as I can barely walk. This comes as no surprise, I expected it to be this way when I set off at 10.30 am yesterday morning to join the tens of thousands who walked past the coffin of the late Queen Elizabeth II at Westminster Hall – it was a price worth paying for me. I realise this is associated with a lot of privilege I hold alongside my identity as a woman with cerebral palsy – I was able to spend the day in London yesterday, as well as this entire Sunday on my sofa.

So what is the point of this blog post other than sharing my lazy Sunday routine after a day out with you? I wish to address my experience of and thoughts on being in the accessible queue for the opportunity to see Her Majesty The Queen lying in state – a historic period for the country I call my home. In doing so, I will try to do my best to stay away from emotional commentary as I personally don’t think it would be helpful for what I am trying to achieve here and, besides, I don’t wish to share my reasons for attending the lying in state with the internet. Everyone had (and still has) their own private reasons for paying/wanting to pay their respects to The Queen and many people have faced barriers in doing so – the simple fact that train prices in this country have reached the heights they have, to name just one example, means that this was never going to be an equitable opportunity for all, but this is not the point of this blog post.

What I am interested in here is to look at what we consider accessible and the blindspots that come with that. I personally do not think these discussions are productive if they are not balanced and I invite readers to consider this when reading these lines.

So what is accessibility and how is it lived in London?

According to this blog post by the Civil Service, accessibility is about preventing the exclusion of disabled individuals and ensuring that the amount of time and effort they need to invest in activities is comparable to those who do not have a disability. For the purpose of this blog post, this definition is too narrow as the accessible queue should also cater to non-disabled people who are, for example, elderly or pregnant – in other words, it should (and arguably did) cater to anyone who is less able to stand due to the circumstances they currently find themselves in (though note that those who are currently pregnant had to seek further clarification as guidance did not consider them) . Less able to stand than who? This is where things get a little bit tricky (and I will return to this point later on in this blog post) because you cannot answer this question without stereotyping but let’s say for the sake of simplicity that the counterpart who you would not expect to make use of accessibility provisions is under 65, with no known or suspected medical conditions or disabilities, and is not currently pregnant.

Let’s move onto the part about comparable time and effort which is where things get even more messy. Fact is, according to this definition London is objectively inaccessible to a large amount of people by default. It takes careful planning and often extra time to travel when step-free access is required, the design of many buildings (including modern ones!) prioritises aesthetics and space over accessibility, and if you work in central London and have accessibility needs you have the choice between changing your working hours to work around rush hour or, to put it bluntly, sucking it up. These are only a handful of examples demonstrating that London is not accessible and no amount of white and blue buttons will make it so – it would take a fundamental shift in the priorities of this city and its people. The fact that there was any thought-through accessibility provision for the lying in state, sadly, surprised me – I’m not used to London putting any thought over and above the bare minimum into accessibility.

For the purpose of witnessing the lying in state, it gets arguably very challenging to solve the issue of comparability because, fact is, everyone who chose to participate knew that the longer they wait to do so, the more time and effort would be required, accessibility needs or not. Whilst I’m trying to stay on the topic of the accessible queue here, it is important to emphasise that, because of the day of The Queen’s death being a Thursday and the associated schedule of events being what it was, those working full-time, Monday to Friday, 9-5, and especially those working outside of London, were always going to be disadvantaged in this. The point that I am trying to make is that from Wednesday to Sunday the level of discomfort and time investment was always going to increase exponentially because of the realities of people’s working lives. Therefore, whilst this might be an unpopular opinion, I am not arguing that the 5.5 hours I spent waiting in the accessible queue yesterday were disproportionate to the times those spent in the queue originating from Southwark Park (it is difficult to know how long these actually were but some Googling tells me around 13 hours). What I am arguing is that the accessible queue was, as many things in London, a plaster for a gushing wound – nice try, but we need to do much much better.

The good about the accessible queue

But before I point out the flaws of the accessible queue, I want to first point out what went well because some things went very well. My understanding is that this was a huge voluntary effort and, whilst I could write an entire blog post detailing my complicated feelings surrounding this country’s over-reliance on voluntary work, I want to make sure I show nothing but respect for the individuals supporting the accessible queue in the past few days. Also, note this is purely about the organisational aspects of the queue – the fact that none of this would have been possible without the posititve spirit of those in the queue should definitely be considered. Finally, please note I was in the queue from 11.40 am on Saturday the 17th September – whilst I try to bring in other voices based on research, my experience is biased to that day and my point in the queue.

So without further ado here is what stood out to me the most:

  • Volunteers were checking on queuers regularly, kindly, and sensitively.
  • Wheelchairs and chairs were available and handed out swiftly. On the staff carpark behind the Tate Britain, it was assured that those who needed a rest could sit by the side of the queue and rejoin the queue after the hour-long wait associated with the zigzag line in the carpark.
  • Free water bottles and blankets were handed out and there was plenty for everyone, though note the discussion of whether those should go to queuers in a city where people are rough sleeping is a very important one, I was glad to read about some efforts being made to collect and redistribute unwanted blankets and confiscated food.

Unfortunately, this is all I can say in terms of the good – that it was there in the first place should be a given in 2022 and that it is orderly is also to be expected for an “event” that has been in the planning for years if not decades.

The not so good about the accessible queue

As mentioned previously, I am trying to be balanced here – fact is, there were more people who wanted to witness the lying in state than capacity for them to do so (more on that later, too), so I will not be criticising wait times here but I will criticise the lack of trying to alleviate them and, more generally, the lack of a plan B.

  • The communication was lacklustre at best from the start – the existence of the queue was barely advertised and got lost in coverage of the main queue.
  • Related to this, no attempt was made to estimate queue length and associated wait times – accessibility needs are very common, so it was bound to get busy, and the uncertainty was very difficult to bare for some people. Volunteers were also not informed of estimated wait times. Twitter was really the best place to find information and I would not call Twitter very accessible.
  • Whilst checking on queuers happened, it did not feel targeted in terms of identifying those in need for further support. Some flexibility should have been allowed to ensure people who for whatever reason absolutely could not queue for more than an hour or two could either return to their spot in the queue at a later time or get a wristband right away for the time slot they were estimated to have gotten (within reason, see my point related to this further below). I have no idea of how to best set up a system like this in a way that is fair but it needs to be considered, ideally as a co-created effort with disabled people and others with accessibility needs. Disability and other accessibility needs can be hugely diverse and 5-6 hours of queuing is possible for some but impossible for others, especially given the very limited availability of food and toilets in the area.
  • On that note, toilets were basically nonexistent along the route (bar the area on John Islip Street where I believe the Bao Yum team allowed people to use theirs), including accessible ones. This is unacceptable/unsafe for an accessible queue, or any queue of this magnitude for that matter.
  • The fact that chairs (and even wheelchairs) were available was not at all advertised – in fact, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS hereafter) specifically advised that wheelchairs would not be available. Making this more transparent would have helped some people make the decision to join/stay in the queue, especially as the queue did have very long stretches without seating provision.
  • I am not sure whether this is actually the case or was just my impression but there appeared to be no choice to opt for a later time slot – you got what you go. 2-3 am is not a reasonable time slot for people with certain conditions.
  • Probably one of the most frustrating things on Saturday was that it appears that the queue was so slow moving because not all wristbands appeared to have been prepared and only four people were putting them on wrists at the end of the queue. Given that the queue was closed for 24 hours by the time I got there, wristbands should have been prepared well in advance and more people should have done the applying bands to wrists – the slow moving of the queue was definitely mitigable.
  • I will talk more about closing the queue later on but for now above and beyond the biggest issue was the abrupt temporary closing of the queue on Friday the 16th September which according to some reports led to people walking away with no time slots after considerable periods of waiting. I was not there so I can only rely on the research I did for this blog post but if this was the case this is unacceptable and inexcusable handling of an accessible queue for which the DCMS must formally apologise.
  • Again, more on the principle of this later but the permanent closing of the queue was only implied when it reopened on Saturday the 17th September – implied messaging can be very difficult for people with certain conditions (e.g., autism) – the queue was open for merely 4.5 hours before being permanently closed – the DCMS must have know this would happen and should have clearly communicated that the queue is expected to permanently close within hours.
  • This is a minor point but zigzag queuing should be avoided at all cost in accessible queues – the queue in the staff car park came totally unexpected and put a lot of strain on people’s mental wellbeing as they did not expect the queue to be this much longer – some people even left at that point, which I think is really unfortunate given they got this far despite all the barriers.
  • Another minor point but I agree with those who say that wristbands for both queues should have an had equal decorative elements – it does emphasise that the accessible queue was an afterthought.

The ugly (in general)

I want to re-emphasised my aim for a balanced insight into this process – the key here is not to “complain” about simple facts of life but to point out mismanagement and where we must do better in the future – below are things that concern toxic messaging and simple principles of equality, let alone equity, that I believe are important to acknowledge. I realise this is probably the most biased part of this blog post but it would not be complete without it.

  • I cannot even begin to articulate how I feel about Members of Parliament and other individuals being offered to skip the queue, or these individuals being allowed four (!) guests. Either you say the lying in state is open to members of the public via a queuing system with accessible provision for those who require it or you don’t, it’s as simple as that. The moment you have such a system in place there should be no skipping within that system, meaning that if you want extra provisions for people who served The Queen more directly (assuming this is the idea behind this), they need to happen in isolation, i.e., either through a separate entry time when the lying in state is not accessible to the public, through the stands on the side not accessible to the public anyway, or through inviting them to stand vigil. Such opportunities should be offered to all who served The Queen directly, including soldiers, veterans, and palace staff. I also believe this should exclude guests, unless they are carers.
  • I’ve seen a lot of debate online and in the queue about the fact that proof of disability was not required in the accessible queue and I have seen speculation about substantial misuse of it by those who could queue through the regular route. I would invite anyone who called for this to check their biases – many disabilities are hidden, and NHS waiting lists for certain diagnoses are extremely long, especially following the past 30 months of dealing with the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic. For individuals who have hidden disabilities, seeing these accusatory posts may be hurtful. I personally cannot relate my experience to this debate – I’ve never seen this many disabled people in one place in London! Also, I believe that the logistics of checking that someone meets the requirements of the accessible queue would have increased waiting times disproportionately to not having the few people game the system that probably did so. I do think, however, it would be worth trying to anonymously poll those who used the queue as to whether they were eligible and how (including carers), just to see how it was used. I also do not understand the debate on families queuing together – for example, a disabled parent will bring their partner and young children to the queue, this is understandable, it is being a disabled parent, and has little to do with milking it – milking it, in my opinion, is allowing what is described above. I realise people are disappointed but other people’s presence did not hinder their chances of seeing The Queen lying in state, the overall (lack of) organisation did.
  • Queuing more than once in either queue or attempting to sell wristbands when so many won’t be able to get in because of how busy it is – reports about people doing the former are rare for London but both are a big no no in my opinion – be grateful for the opportunity you are being given and leave it at that.
  • Permanently closing the accessible queue more than 24 hours before the regular queue – sorry but I cannot show any understanding for this. It should have been temporarily closed and more tickets should have been made available to the team at the Tate. This, or the DCMS needs to be transparent that the right amount of wristbands was allocated to the accessible queue, that is a percentage that reflects current estimates of those living in the UK who are disabled, 65 years or older, and/or pregnant.
  • Minor point but I feel very uncomfortable for anyone, whether it be David Beckham or anyone else, to be celebrated for standing up for 13+ hours – it is celebrating privilege, it can actually be dangerous, and I find that the fact that it is so normalised a little scary. I am not sure that queuing in 2022 would have been necessary at all and why no other options were chosen (e.g., time slot lottery, etc.) but suggesting that queuing is a matter of anything but the combination of personal determination and privilege is ableist.

To sum up

Her Majesty The Queen’s lying instate will have been a once in a life time occasion for many. It is also unlikely that any of us will celebrate another such long reigning monarch (or a female monarch for that matter) in our lifetimes. It is an important moment in history for many for all sorts of reasons, whilst yet others felt no desire to participate for their own reasons or no reasons at all. No matter where you stand on any of this, the last few days have shown that we need to do much more to ensure equitable access for all, especially when it comes to events of profound public interest. I’d be interested in hear other’s thoughts on this and am curious whether lessons will be learned from this, from the DCMS and/or others.

Published by juliaouzia

I am an educator, researcher, and trainee Gestalt therapist.

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