Embarrassment in the goods lift

I once, many years ago, had a job working at Boots Opticians. For a few months I was based at the store in Brent Cross shopping centre in North London. This was a huge shopping centre – the first stand-alone shopping centre in the UK, no less – built in 1976.

The shopping centre had two floors, but no customer lifts, only escalators to get from one floor to another. They had signs up saying that lifts were available in the back of the Boots store. The opticians was in the back bit of Boots.

The thing is, you can’t take a wheelchair or a pram on an escalator. This meant that every so often during the day, us staff at Boots Opticians would be approached by a wheelchair user or someone pushing a pram, asking to be taken to the lift. I say ‘someone pushing a pram’, but to be honest, I never saw a man come in with one.

We’d take them to the back of the store, the Mums and the wheelchair users. Through a ‘staff only’ door. Through the stockroom. To the goods lift. Take them up in the lift. Then out through another stockroom into the upper floor of the store.

I don’t know if you’ve ever been in the stockroom of a large shop, but it’s the bit that never gets decorated or cleaned. It’s all peeling grey paint and dented metal shelving units. Stockrooms look like shit. I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a goods lift, but they look like shit as well.

I used to find it embarrassing taking the wheelchair users. I felt embarrassed on behalf of the shopping centre, and being its representative. It felt like through the medium of its physical structure, the shopping centre was saying to wheelchair users, ‘The front bit of the store, that we keep clean and nice, is for other people. But we don’t bother for you. You deserve to be transported in the goods lift, you freak.’

I thought people deserved better.

For some reason I didn’t feel so embarrassed with the Mums. Maybe because pushing a pram is more often a temporary state. Maybe because it seemed likely I’d push a pram at some point in my own future, so I could feel sisterly solidarity, instead of feeling like a representative of the able-bodied world that was treating them this way. Maybe because I’ve internalised the idea that this is the kind of thing women have to put up with. I don’t know…

Anyway, you’d obviously make smalltalk while escorting the customer. It usually went a bit like this:-

A: It’s ridiculous that there isn’t a proper lift, isn’t it?

B: Yes, who designs a shopping centre with two floors but doesn’t put any customer lifts in?

A: Someone who’s never been in a wheelchair or had to push a pram around a shopping centre, that’s who.

B: A man, then.

A: If only they’d at least ASKED some other people.

B: I know!

I could play either A or B, it would depend on who started it off, me or the customer. They nearly always got their lines right.

Now I don’t think that the architects who designed Brent Cross were evil misogynists hellbent on making woman and people with disabilities suffer. The Brent Cross architects were probably perfectly nice guys who’d have happily put in a lift if they’d thought of it. But it’s easy to not think of putting in a lift if you’ve never needed one.

Maybe this seems trite and obvious. It does seem very obvious to me that this is how stuff works, and I’m sure it’s been pointed out a thousand times before. And yet I still keep having the same arguments with people who say things like, ‘What do we need feminism for any more, women have got equality?’ As if having the vote magically made everything about your daily experience OK.

There are a million things like this. The petty annoyances like not enough women’s toilets in the pub. The big stuff like economic policy and sentencing patterns for domestic violence. When middle class able-bodied white men are overwhelmingly the people who design public spaces (and schools systems, and work appraisal structures, and…) but everybody has to live with the results, we get things that don’t take account of many of our needs.

It doesn’t take active, deliberate misogyny (or disablism, racism or snobbery) to end up with structures that don’t work for many of us. No-one thinks men secretly have big get-togethers where they plot how to keep women down. It just takes a lack of diversity in the designers and decision-makers.

Of course you can have guidelines about putting in lifts and so on (and I guess there are now, post-DDA), but that means that the excluded groups have to fight every single battle anew. They have to summon the energy and the evidence to painstakingly explain to architects why they should put in ramps, and lifts, and more female toilets. To policy-makers why we need women’s refuges. To employers why their hiring policies may be discriminatory.

We need to explain every sodding little thing, in the face of the disbelief of people who’ve never experienced what we’re talking about, so their ‘common sense’ just doesn’t make sense of it. And only when we’ve explained it, exhaustingly, minutely, repeatedly, to their satisfaction, do we see change.

I’m sick of this, frankly. The best way of making a world that fits everyone – instead of one that fits straight, white, able-bodied males perfectly, and is a bit of an awkward fit for everyone else – is diversity. And given that, for example, at present rates of progress it will take 80 years to get as many women as men on FTSE boards, I think the only way to get there is massive, concerted affirmative action.

I know it’s a pipe-dream, especially while the Tories are asset-stripping the nation in front of our eyes. But imagine it. Mass deliberate positive discrimination to give us a judiciary, a parliament, an academia, a business community, a media, that reflects the diversity of the country – within our lifetimes. Can’t we just have one great big argument to get to that, instead of death by a thousand cuts?

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  • SF  On October 11, 2012 at 12:23 pm

    You know what’s worse? When they decide due to “health and safety” (by which they mean a cheaper insurance policy) that they can no longer carry people in the goods lift. So the solution is to move all the women’s and children’s stuff onto the ground floor. Because of course there are no families with prams, or men in wheelchairs, or women with children who want to buy a shirt for their husband / brother / teenage son. Or, alternatively, these customers are unimportant. It happens. It happens even after DDA. And unfortunately many of the staff are not nearly as polite or understanding as you were.

  • Jess  On October 14, 2012 at 12:52 am

    This is an excellent article. Thank you for writing it. I have been on about this for years, but I don’t think I’ve ever managed to put it quite so eloquently.

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