Centre for Accessible Environments Associate Consultant Ron Koorm  image
Centre for Accessible Environments Associate Consultant Ron Koorm

In this guest article, Centre for Accessible Environments Associate Consultant Ron Koorm discusses the erosion of the high street, lack of human contact, and how this impacts access and inclusion as the pandemic continues.

The article touches on important considerations for mobility retailers, like some of the barriers disabled people face in accessing online services, and the importance of face-to-face contact.

While much is being written about how socially distanced, external seating and tables are making pavements and even the entrance to bars and restaurants inaccessible – such as a recent story about a disabled woman encouraging pubgoers to be more considerate of wheelchair users while drinking on pavements – no one is talking about how access to many high street services and businesses are quietly disappearing.

COVID-19, GP apps, business closures, grocery deliveries, the accessibility of digital services, public toilet reductions and remote working are all contributing to the erosion of the high street and consequently a lack of human contact. This has an impact on retail accessibility and inclusion as the pandemic continues.

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Accessibility & our high streets: why is this relevant to inclusion?

Our grandparents would probably be surprised and even shocked by how little human contact we have with others – in banks, post offices, shops, council offices, and elsewhere, compared to their lifetimes. This fundamental change has been due to different factors, including a more recent and key factor – the COVID-19 pandemic.

But this isn’t all down to COVID-19. The reduction in contact began years before the pandemic.

Why is this relevant to access and inclusion? The simple fact is that, as a species, humans need face-to-face contact in order to function. It’s relevant to our roles in society, our wellbeing and mental health, and to access the services available as consumers.

Changes in staffing & service delivery

Commercial organisations, as well as public authorities, have been gradually reducing staffing of their shops, offices, and transport facilities to save money. With the pandemic, this accelerated due to reduced footfall.

Prior to the pandemic, one major high street bank closed five established branches within a relatively limited geographical area, offering customers to access their services online. And these bank closures continue now.

Apart from redundancies and job losses, it means many customers have to travel much further to see a real person, face-to-face in a branch.

Of course, many transactions and services can be managed online. But while this has its benefits, services can fail due to their technical nature and IT hiccups.

Trying to pay a bill online recently required the use of my laptop, telephone, bank card, a security device, … and a lot of patience. If you are disabled or older, it may be that accessing online services is just not ideal.

Retail closures

The mass closure of department stores, shops and other retail premises limits our choice and the high street, post-COVID, is likely to look very different in years to come.

As centrally-based retail and offices close or move out to out-of-town retail parks where rents and rates are cheaper, additional travel is now more likely. This means more use of cars or public transport. Older and disabled people living in areas with only one or two buses per day will find this a challenge.

And while many retailers now deliver, it’s not the same as choosing those juicy tomatoes yourself.

Healthcare services

Accessing your health professional is now also a different experience. There is far more telephone consultation and apps to enable your GP to study that large mole on your back via a smartphone.

Whilst that change has been positive, nothing really replaces a face-to-face consultation. There may be matters of a more personal nature, which you would prefer to discuss face to face in a consulting room.

Changing spaces need Changing Places

The rise of Changing Places facilities at this time is not just a coincidence. Public toilets on stations and in transport hubs are either being closed or opening hours severely reduced ‘due to anti-social behaviour’.

This is a real problem if you need the toilet quickly. It disproportionally affects older people, people with Crohn’s disease, pregnant ladies, those with young children, and many disabled people.

In many areas, local authorities have removed all public toilets, relying on shopping centre developers to make provision as a condition of the planning application. But that logic fails when the developer goes into liquidation, as some have.

I bore witness to how one shopping mall in Watford saw a 50 per cent reduction in public toilets, resulting in lengthy travel distances to the nearest remaining facilities.

Online meetings and working from home

Many of us have become used to online meeting platforms. Good as they are, many workers will become relatively isolated constantly working from home.

Yes, there will be less traffic congestion and a reduction in fares for commuting, but there is a price to pay in loss of human contact.

When you participate in an online meeting, what you are seeing is a lot of pixels on a plastic transparent screen – not a real person. You can’t move to a better angle to lip-read. For that, you need face-to-face contact.

And with less opportunity of conversing with the person next to you, we are slowly but surely losing the art of face-to-face conversation. When personal meetings are again possible, these should be encouraged.

Where to next?

The question is, who will be monitoring the mental health of those working from home and online? Who will monitor the mental health of retired and older people who can’t get out? Who will monitor the accessibility of the provision of goods and services to disabled people, and the impact on their lives?

Digitalisation may have saved us all during the pandemic but it also brings a considerable loss of human personal contact. And I can’t help but wonder: What will save us from that loss?

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