Key London 2012 adviser describes ‘frustration’ with LOCOG access failures

A disabled consultant who played a key role in ensuring the accessibility of London 2012’s purpose-built venues has spoken of her frustration that the events themselves did not match some of those high access standards.

Margaret Hickish began working as an access consultant with the consortiums that produced the London 2012 “masterplan” in early 2007, before later joining the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) as its accessibility manager.

She spent years consulting with disabled people, including local organisations in east London, to ensure that the London 2012 stadia, including the Olympic Park, were as accessible as they could be.

The ODA’s efforts were widely-praised by disabled people and their organisations for ensuring an accessible environment for both Paralympians and disabled spectators.

Hickish, a powerchair-user herself, said she was “very proud” of the part she had played, and was thrilled when she sampled the accessibility for herself in the Olympic Park during the Paralympics.

She said: “I grinned from ear to ear almost every day. It was just wonderful to see so many disabled people be free to just enjoy it. I also enjoyed having really good access myself.”

One of ODA’s major aims had been to design the Olympic Park with as few steps as possible, and to ensure any slopes were as shallow as possible. Another was to try to bring disabled spectators into the various sporting arenas on the same level as their seats, so they wouldn’t have to move up or down in lifts.

She said: “One of the comments from a lot of disabled people was that the park felt accessible.”

But what she said she most enjoyed was the change in attitudes towards disabled people. “For me, the biggest thing was getting into a lift at Waterloo and finding everyone was talking to me. What is really nice is that that continues to happen.”

But while the infrastructure of London 2012 won praise, many disabled people who attended the Games were less complimentary about the accessibility of some of the events themselves.

Some were disappointed with the lack of audio description at many events, the confusion among games-makers about the equipment and services that were available to disabled people, the failure to provide subtitles and British Sign Language interpreters on the video screens, and LOCOG’s refusal to ensure disabled parents who use wheelchairs could sit with their children in unreserved seating.

Although Hickish is convinced that London 2012 was “the most accessible games ever”, she accepted that there had been problems, and said she felt “a degree of frustration” at LOCOG’s access failures.

She pointed to the failure to allow wheelchair-users to buy tickets online from November 2011, the shortage of detailed access information on the London 2012 website, and some confusing signage around the Olympic Park venues.

She also said that some businesses that ran food concession stands had not been briefed about their own access responsibilities. This led to some of them using the lower-height counters that had been designed for wheelchair-users to store food on instead.

Hickish said she regretted that LOCOG failed to continue consulting with the same group of disabled people that ODA had used for several years on its built environment access panel.

She believes LOCOG’s own consultative group did not enjoy the same relationship that the access panel enjoyed with ODA. “They felt as though they were told what was happening, rather than being asked what should happen.

“We (ODA) went to people who weren’t normally involved in these consultations, including going out and talking to local disability groups, whereas LOCOG, because they were putting on a show, were running at a much faster pace and didn’t perhaps remember to talk to people about their plans.”

As the years ticked down towards 2012, Hickish began working as a consultant for both ODA and LOCOG, and was then appointed as Paralympics adviser to London’s mayor, Boris Johnson, and was spending two days a week with LOCOG.

She worked on projects outside the Olympic Park, taking responsibility for the access improvements to the South Bank, and access arrangements at Heathrow and the capital’s London 2012 Live Sites.

Hickish quit her post with the mayor and LOCOG last December, in part because of “misgivings” about pressures on LOCOG’s access budget, concerns that were borne out by the access problems experienced by some visitors during the Games.

Two weeks ago, she was in Brazil for the official handover from London to Rio as the Olympic and Paralympic host city for 2016 and she ensured that ROCOG, the Rio 2016 organising committee, was aware of both the access successes and the “glitches” at London 2012.

Rio, she said, was 10-15 years behind the UK on access. “Rio has big challenges on transport, much, much bigger challenges than we had, because accessible transport is pretty hit and miss.

“There are only 48 accessible taxis in the whole of Rio, all run by one particular company. Accessible hotel rooms are just a non-occurrence, and there are really big challenges with the accessibility of public buildings.”

Stadium design, too, will test Brazil’s organising body, she said. Traditionally, if a disabled person wants to sit with their family, they will be carried to their seat by staff. At London 2012, family-members were able to join wheelchair-users in the accessible spaces.

But she said Rio had already made one improvement on London 2012’s package: its Paralympic symbol was “truly accessible”, with a pulsating heartbeat so that blind and partially-sighted people and Deaf people can engage with it.

6 December 2012

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SNP ducks question over Atos sponsorship of Glasgow 2014

The Scottish National Party (SNP) has refused to say if “fitness for work” contractor Atos should be allowed to sponsor the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games, even though more than half of its MSPs have publicly criticised the company.

Glasgow 2014 looks set to face even fiercer protests than London 2012 over the decision to accept sponsorship money from Atos, which carries out the much-criticised work capability assessments (WCAs) that decide eligibility for out-of-work disability benefits.

The London 2012 organising committee LOCOG was heavily criticised for signing up Atos as a sponsor, but continued to defy critics by publicly praising the company and the crucial role it played in providing IT systems during this summer’s Olympic and Paralympic Games.

LOCOG faced repeated calls to justify the involvement of Atos – particularly its close links with the Paralympics – with campaigners holding a week-long series of protests they called the “Atos Games” to coincide with the first week of the Paralympic Games.

Now the organisers of Glasgow 2014 look set to take a similar route to LOCOG, and are facing the same battle to justify sponsorship by Atos, which will provide similar IT services in Glasgow to those it delivered this summer in London.

Sasha Callaghan, programme director for Disability History Scotland, said: “Whether they like it or not, there are going to be more protests and probably much more bad-tempered than we ever saw in London.

“Disabled people are not just going to sit back and take this. Push people over the edge and you see what happens. I don’t think this will stop at just peaceful direct action.”

She warned of a “perfect storm” in the run-up to Glasgow 2014, as tens of thousands of disabled people in Scotland will be facing new assessments – carried out by Atos – for personal independence payment (PIP), the replacement for disability living allowance (DLA), as well as the continued fallout from the WCA process.

Callaghan said Glasgow 2014 had to accept that it had taken a “political decision” to accept sponsorship from Atos and would “have to live with the consequences of that”.

She said: “DLA/PIP will ratchet up the protests. The time-line for the Commonwealth Games runs like a thread alongside it.

“The Commonwealth Games will be going with the Atos logo at the same time that people will be failing the WCA and their assessment for PIP as well.”

Protesters – and many MPs and MSPs – have criticised the way Atos has carried out WCAs, and its failure to find accessible offices in which to carry out the tests and to train its assessors properly.

Campaigning disabled people’s organisations such as Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) and Black Triangle believe the assessments, as carried out by Atos, are putting thousands of sick and disabled people under serious and unnecessary strain, forcing them further into poverty, and are even responsible for many deaths, including some people driven to suicide.

John McArdle, a founding member of Black Triangle, which is based in Scotland and has been at the centre of the Atos protests, said: “There will definitely be protests. We are not going to wait until 2014 to do it. There will be direct action happening.”

Even though 36 of its 67 MSPs have signed parliamentary motions critical of Atos over the last five weeks, the SNP has so far refused to say if it believes Atos is a suitable sponsor for Glasgow 2014.

Jamie Hepburn, one of the MSPs who signed a motion criticising Atos, and deputy convener of the Scottish parliament’s welfare reform committee, said: “There is no doubt that Atos could and should be doing better but it is the UK government’s cuts campaign that is truly devastating people’s lives.”

But an SNP spokeswoman refused to say whether the party thought Atos was a suitable sponsor for Glasgow 2014.

A spokeswoman for the Scottish (SNP) government also refused to answer that question, but said that “securing the right sponsors is vital to the success of the event and to reduce the need for additional public funds to stage the games”.

A Glasgow 2014 spokeswoman said Atos had “demonstrated unwavering commitment to driving forward the Paralympic movement by providing dedicated practical support to athletes for the last ten years”, and that organisers were “very proud to have global IT experts Atos as part of our family”.

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London 2012: Deaf star’s anger over latest LOCOG access failure

A leading Deaf dance and film performer has launched an angry attack on the organisers of the Paralympic Games over their failure to provide any facilities for Deaf spectators at a key London 2012 venue.

David Bower, previously best-known for his role in the hit film Four Weddings and a Funeral but now just as well-known as artistic director of the “signdance” music theatre company Signdance Collective, was attending the equestrian dressage event at Greenwich Park yesterday with the company’s disabled dance director Isolte Avila.

But Bower, who is Deaf, described how he was chased and shouted at aggressively by a London 2012 “games-maker” (volunteer) “because they spoke to me and I didn’t hear them and they took great offence”.

He said: “So then they chased me and that of course made a scene. It looked like I had done something wrong and people around me were wondering what was happening.

“It happened throughout the entire day. In the end I felt it was safer just to remain in one seat, as it was embarrassing.”

He said he was even “worried that they would attack me and I would get hurt”.

Bower said he would not attend any more London 2012 Paralympic events because there were “so many dos and don’ts I just cannot understand what they are saying”.

He said the London 2012 organising committee LOCOG had apparently failed to provide any volunteers who had basic British Sign Language (BSL) knowledge.

Bower was also unhappy that there were no subtitles or BSL interpreting on the films that were shown to spectators during the afternoon on the screens in Greenwich Park.

The lack of captions meant Deaf people were excluded from the information being given about the riders and events, but also instructions about the need to keep quiet while the riders were competing, to avoid startling the horses.

It is the latest in a series of access failures by LOCOG across its London venues, including a failure to plan for wheelchair-using parents at its ExCeL multi-event venue, forcing wheelchair-users to use an expensive telephone helpline to book London 2012 tickets, failing to provide Braille and easy-read information on its Olympic Park information points, and failing to provide basic facilities or vital information for powerchair-users.

Bower said it was clear that games-makers had not been trained in Deaf awareness.

He said: “They were constantly telling people what they cannot do as you are trying to get to your seat to watch the event, and there is someone running up behind you saying, ‘excuse me, excuse me, you can’t go that way,’ and they got upset.”

He added: “I was interested in the background of the athletes, and it was impossible to have any information unless Isolte was interpreting, but we were both [trying to relax] at the Paralympics. We were both exhausted and looking forward to a fun day.”

Avila, who was with Bower, told Disability News Service that the lack of communication support for Deaf people had been “amazing”, while one games-maker had been “really aggressive” with Bower when he failed to hear her instructions.

She said: “I feel that Deaf people have been excluded from the Paralympics. It is a shame to work so hard for the London 2012 festival and come to the only Paralympic event we could come to and there is no access for our artists.

“None of the films they showed had subtitles. There was nothing at all for Deaf people.”

Even more embarrassingly for LOCOG, Signdance Collective has been performing this summer as part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad.

Bower and Avila were at the dressage event as guests of Ju Gosling, director of the Together! 2012 festival, which is taking place in the Olympic Stadium borough of Newham, and Julie Newman, acting chair of the UK Disabled People’s Council, which is organising Together! 2012.

Newman said she was “embarrassed and angered” by LOCOG’s accessibility failures.

She said: “Signdance Collective have generously given of their time and energy to contribute their work to our festival.

“It has been a very long and full season for them and this would have been the one opportunity to be part of the games experience. Instead, the ignorance and ineptitude of other people intruded on our day in a way which was inexcusable.

“We have been talking to the organisers about full and proper access for years, building on the tremendous consultations that were originally done with the Olympic Delivery Authority [which was responsible for building and developing London 2012 venues] by a full range of individuals and organisations within our sector.

“I am very disappointed that consistently LOCOG fail to implement basic accessibility standards, and refuse to be challenged on this.

“They continue to betray any understanding that disabled people are part of the rich mix of our society, and this is at a time when international attention is focused on us. There is no justification.”

A LOCOG spokeswoman said: “We continue to exceed standard practice, providing for a wide variety of accessibility requirements.

“We have worked with the Royal Association for the Deaf [the Royal Association for Deaf People] and also held an access summit last year for the deaf community – they advised us on what they wanted us to focus on.

“For example, our Ticketcare scheme ensures that spectators who are deaf or have a hearing impairment can bring in their signer for no additional cost.

“Deaf spectators could also request a seat with a direct view of the screens in venues. We have also ensured that we have a lot of visual content on our screens in venues so that all spectators can enjoy the events, and the content for our sports presentation films is predominantly imagery.”

As part of Together! 2012, Signdance Collective is performing at 3.30pm today (Wednesday) at St John’s Churchyard, Stratford Broadway.

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London 2012: LOCOG has ‘let disabled people down’ on accessible info

London 2012 organisers have repeatedly refused to provide information for disabled visitors to the Olympic Park in accessible formats, Disability News Service (DNS) can reveal.

Ron Newman, co-ordinator of the London 2012 disability advocate group (DAG) – set up to support and engage disabled people in the games – spoke out in a final bid to force the organising committee LOCOG into action.

He and other disabled members of the group have been warning LOCOG for years that they must provide information in “easy read” and Braille versions to visitors on the Olympic Park, but their pleas have been ignored.

His call came only a day after the prominent disabled activist Ruth Bashall criticised London 2012 after helpline staff were unable to tell her if there was a charging point for her powerchair on the Olympic Park, or even if she could bring her charger with her through the security checkpoint.

Newman told DNS he was appalled by LOCOG’s failure on accessible information, and added: “They have let us down. LOCOG have let disabled people down.”

Newman worked for two years as a volunteer “trailblazer” for LOCOG and is now working as a “games-maker” on the Olympic Park, although he made it clear that he was speaking in his capacity as DAG coordinator.

He is working as a games-maker on a visitor information kiosk just outside the main Olympic Stadium but has no easy-read or Braille versions of information such as the daily athletics schedule, how the classification system works, and an explanation of each of the Paralympic athletics classifications.

During a typical evening athletics session, Newman says he has to turn down about 10 requests for easy read or Braille versions of information.

He said he and DAG repeatedly raised the need for information to be available on the Olympic Park in accessible formats and for games-makers to be trained on the accessibility needs of disabled visitors.

He said: “We were told by the diversity and inclusion team, ‘yes, guys, don’t worry, come the opening day of the Olympic Games everything will be sorted.’ So we believed them. They are the professionals.”

But Newman came onto to the Olympic Park on the second day of the Olympics as a spectator and was shocked to find that games-makers did not know what an induction loop was, or where the nearest accessible “Changing Places” toilet was.

Although the training for games-makers was improved in time for the start of the Paralympics, LOCOG is still refusing to supply information to visitors in accessible formats at its information points.

The only accessible format games-makers can offer on the information points is a large print version they can print out if requested by a visitor.

Newman said: “The Braille and easy read is still not here and we are in the Paralympic Games. I don’t know the reason behind it. I have given up asking. I just do my job as a games-maker.

“I offered to help them in the two-week break between the Olympics and the Paralympics but never got the call.”

Newman, a powerchair-user himself, also spoke out about the failure of the London 2012 ticketing team to send out information with tickets about the positioning of power-points on the Olympic Park available to recharge powerchairs.

He said DAG members had repeatedly raised this issue with the ticketing team but were told “we know what we are doing”.

Newman also criticised LOCOG’s failure to include information about charging points on the London 2012 website.

And he said power-points should have been available beside the wheelchair-accessible spaces inside all of the venues – rather than outside at information kiosks – so powerchair-users could recharge their chairs while they watched their events.

DNS understands that Chris Holmes, the multi-gold medal-winning Paralympian who is now director of Paralympic integration for LOCOG, has been informed about the problems with accessible information.

A LOCOG spokesman said the only “official publications” available at the information points were maps of the Olympic Park.

He said: “We endeavour to create all of our publications with accessible formats in mind.

“We have only ever produced publications in other formats on a request basis and the spectator guides which come with tickets are available in other formats on request. Information is also available online in a range of accessible formats.

“Sport schedules can and do change, therefore are not available in publication form. However, staff at the information points will print them off on the day.”

He added: “They do print off schedules but that is not an official publication. The fact that the information is available is because those people in the help points have made that information available.”

He has so far been unable to explain why Braille and easy-read versions of athlete classifications cannot be made available at the information points.

And he said he could not yet explain why information on charging points was not sent out with tickets to powerchair-users.

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London 2012: Deaf star calls LOCOG ‘cowardly and immature’ over access complaints

A leading Deaf performer has called London 2012 “cowardly” and “immature” for ignoring his complaints about the lack of accessibility for Deaf visitors to the Paralympic Games.

David Bower had spoken out after visiting the equestrian dressage events in Greenwich Park, and was highly critical of the treatment he received from London 2012 volunteers – known as “games makers”.

He also pointed to the failure to provide any subtitles or British Sign Language interpreters on the video screens, which meant Deaf visitors were unaware of instructions to the crowd – particularly about the importance of keeping quiet while horses were performing – and information about riders and their horses.

The London 2012 organising committee LOCOG has since admitted that the accessibility failings in Greenwich Park apply to all other London 2012 venues.

It has also failed to apologise to Bower, formerly best-known for his role in the hit British film Four Weddings and a Funeral and now just as well-known as artistic director of the “signdance” music theatre company Signdance Collective.

LOCOG claims that it “exceeds standard practice”, that its games makers all receive training on “diversity and inclusion”, that Deaf spectators can bring their own interpreter to events at no cost for the extra seat, and that they can also request a seat with a direct view of one of the video screens, which it says show “predominantly imagery”.

But it has so far failed to explain why there are no subtitles or BSL-interpretation on the London 2012 screens, and how Deaf spectators who cannot afford to bring their own interpreters are expected to understand important instructions for the crowd, such as keeping quiet during crucial parts of some events, including goalball, dressage, blind football and the starts of swimming and athletics races.

After being told of LOCOG’s response, Bower said: “When I attended the equestrian event there was absolutely no indication of any deaf awareness.

“Running after a deaf person in public and being shouted at in front of hundreds of spectators by agitated stewards is outrageous and demonstrates beyond a shadow of doubt the lack of deaf awareness.

“May I suggest that the corporate sector stop interfering with access initiatives and leave it to the experts as there is more to civilisation than the profit margin.

“Issuing statements claiming success at achieving effective inclusive practice is extremely immature and cowardly to say the least.”

Isolte Avila, Signdance Collective’s disabled dance director, who was with Bower at Greenwich, said: “So a deaf person just out on a leisure day, ie not work, has to have an interpreter?

“How about deaf international guests, how about deaf courtesy and basic deaf awareness training? There was none at the venue yesterday and the so-called games makers told us they had had no deaf equality training or awareness about basic communication and access for deaf people coming into the parks.

“The games makers were obviously upset about what happened and were confused as to why they had not had any training.”

Bower and Avila had been at the event as guests of the Together! 2012 festival, organised by the UK Disabled People’s Council (UKDPC) and being held in the Olympic Stadium borough of Newham, at which they were performing.

Julie Newman, UKDPC’s acting chair, criticised LOCOG’s failure to apologise to Bower or to welcome feedback on its performance on accessibility.

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London 2012: LOCOG boss praises Atos, as protesters pledge to ‘hound and harass’

The chief executive of London 2012 has praised the Paralympic sponsor Atos, less than a day after nearly 100 activists – including a retired Paralympian – launched a week of protests over its involvement in the games.

Paul Deighton, chief executive of the London 2012 organising committee LOCOG, had been asked by a foreign journalist whether it was wise “in hindsight” to accept Atos as a sponsor, because of the controversy surrounding its work for the government assessing disabled people for out-of-work disability benefits.

But Deighton launched into an impassioned defence of Atos, saying it was an “incredibly valuable technology partner”, providing the IT systems for both managing the accreditation process and providing competition results for London 2012.

He said Atos was an “absolutely critical and valuable” part of delivering the Paralympics, and that without Atos and the other London 2012 sponsors “neither games would be what they are”.

The previous day, the grassroots campaign groups Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) and UK Uncut were joined by the accessible transport organisation Transport for All for their own spoof “opening ceremony” of the “Atos Games”, five days of protests aimed at highlighting the damage the company has done to disabled people across the country.

The ceremony beside City Hall, the London mayor’s headquarters, featured three disabled activists being awarded medals for the Atos Games, before they were “reassessed” by Atos and told they were “undeserving of state support”, and could no longer be an “active, contributing member of society”, and had their medals cut off, and their benefits removed.

Tara Flood, who competed in three Paralympic Games, and won gold, silver and bronze medals in the pool in Barcelona in 1992, was awarded the Atos “gold medal”.

She said afterwards that it had been important for her to take part in the protest, as a retired Paralympian, so that the public was able to “link disabled people’s disgust” with Atos to the London Paralympics.

Flood said it was important for the government to realise that it “can’t only be proud of elite, medal-winning athletes. Someone like me, as a retired Paralympian, can make sure everyone makes that connection.”

DPAC stressed that it recognised “the commitment, the effort and the sacrifice” of Britain’s Paralympians, but that Atos had “hounded and harassed disabled people the length of this country” and was now seeking “to bask in the reflected glory” of Paralympians by sponsoring the games.

DPAC described at the ceremony how people in comas and with terminal illnesses had been found fit for work by Atos assessors, and how the company tries to “convince us that they respect the commitment of disabled athletes” while “trampling all over disabled people’s commitment to overcoming barriers and having aspirations beyond eating and sleeping”.

DPAC also warned that Paralympians would soon find themselves being reassessed by Atos for their disability living allowance (DLA), as DLA is gradually replaced from next year with the new personal independence payment, with an estimated one in five losing their support.

And it warned that DPAC would “hound and harass Atos the length of this country… in parliament, in the courts, online, and on the streets”.

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London 2012: Only one in 50 opening ceremony volunteers was disabled

London 2012 organisers have admitted that only one in 50 of the volunteers who took part in the opening ceremony of the Paralympic Games was a disabled person.

The ceremony has been widely-praised, particularly for the performance of its 73 professional Deaf and disabled performers and the work of its two disabled co-directors, Jenny Sealey and Bradley Hemmings.

But it was clear that nearly all of the volunteer cast of 3,250 who took part – ranging from 10 to 80 years of age – were not disabled people.

Two months ago, the London 2012 organising committee LOCOG said that about 100 disabled people had auditioned for the Paralympic opening ceremony and “almost all” had been successful, as part of a cast of 3,000 adults and 100 children.

But LOCOG now says that only 68 of 3,250 volunteers were disabled people, including just 27 wheelchair-users, only three people with learning difficulties, and just one with autism.

Volunteers rehearsed for an average of 85 hours each.

LOCOG refused to comment on the number of disabled volunteers, other than to refer Disability News Service to the comments it made in June.

There was heavy criticism of LOCOG at the time over the “inappropriate” demands it was placing on potential disabled volunteers, including a call for people with “huge amounts of energy”, and its initial failure to say whether it would fund the travel and support costs of disabled volunteers.

But it claimed then that “almost everyone who auditioned who has a disability has been successful” in becoming a volunteer performer.

Ju Gosling, director of Together! 2012, the free disability arts and human rights festival taking place less than a mile from the Olympic Stadium during the Paralympics, said she was “really shocked” that the number of disabled volunteer performers was “even lower than originally thought”.

She said: “I’m particularly appalled that only three out of 3,000 performers had learning difficulties, given the world-class companies such as Anjali Dance Company and Magpie Dance who could have been featured prominently.”

She added: “How can London 2012 square this with the promise of Boris Johnson (London’s Conservative mayor) to host the most diverse and inclusive games ever?

“It would have been perfectly possible to choreograph and rehearse the ceremony in such a way as to have 100 per cent of the performers being either disabled, carers or personal assistants.”

She added: “Given all of the public money that has been invested in the games, we also had a right to expect that ‘legacy’ considerations would be paramount, but there is nothing in these figures to suggest legacy issues have been considered at all.”

The Together! festival is led by the UK Disabled People’s Council, and includes a preview of Ian Farrant’s exhibition of photographs of disabled athletes, and performances by Sign Dance Collective and the internationally-renowned Indian guitarist Benny Prasad and US comedian David Roche.

Together! is taking place between 29 August and 9 September, with some events being held during Disability History Month later this year.

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