From 'The Office' to the high street: Brenda's wheelchair odyssey

Actress Julie Fernandez was used to being patronised by David Brent in the name of comedy. But have new laws made a difference to her real life? By Katy Guest
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Outside her local Threshers, Julie Fernandez has come up against a small problem. It's small in that it's only about 3ins high. But it's completely insurmountable by her wheelchair which, despite its bright purple metallic finish and full racing extras, cannot get over the step.

Outside her local Threshers, Julie Fernandez has come up against a small problem. It's small in that it's only about 3ins high. But it's completely insurmountable by her wheelchair which, despite its bright purple metallic finish and full racing extras, cannot get over the step.

The manager is more than sympathetic. He has contacted head office and made his regional manager aware of the problem. Yet despite having nearly 10 years' notice of legislation which came into force on Friday forcing businesses to cater for the disabled, Threshers in Hainault High Street in Essex has done nothing to remove the obstacles between Julie's wallet and their stock.

If this image is familiar, that's because Julie found herself in a very similar situation when she appeared in series two of The Office. As Brenda, a wheelchair user, she was routinely patronised, humiliated and eventually stranded on a stairwell by the ridiculous David Brent. He seemed to think Brenda's wheelchair made her a liability, an embarrassment or a pest.

Julie's high street, unfortunately, is full of David Brents. Take the man in the electrical goods shop, who is so keen to avoid Julie's custom - and that of about 10 million other disabled people in Britain - that he has arranged an obstacle course of washing machines to block her access to his front door.

Four out of five high streets still provide "major problems" to disabled customers, according to the Disability Rights Commission - despite the new legislation that means they could face legal action if they do not provide access. Part 3 of the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act forces all businesses and services used by the public to make every reasonable effort to provide access for disabled customers. But a report by the DRC reveals the majority of high streets are not ready.

Following Julie along the parade as she negotiates the cracked pavements and idiotically placed signposts, the story is depressingly similar. Some large companies like Woolworths, Lloyds/TSB and the Post Office have anticipated the law and created flat-level access and electric doors. But even the Post Office has a free-standing advertising billboard standing outside it, waiting to trip up any partially sighted people attempting to post letters.

It's little things like this that annoy Julie. "You only have to pay £30 for a grab rail or replace hinges on a heavy door to be a lot more accessible," she says.. This is something the local clothes shop is going to have to do now. "The clothes in there are great," says Julie. Unfortunately, she can't get in to buy them because of the step at the front door. "But we'll come and help you," the nice lady owners say. "That's not the point," pleads Julie. "So are you going to pay for me to put a ramp in, then?" they laugh. The sad part is, for the cost of a ramp they could have Julie's custom for life.

A couple of minutes later, Julie stops at the pet shop and sticks her head around the door. The manager rushes out with a triangle of wood that he drops in front of the step, and Julie wheels herself in. "I'd rather not have to stand outside and shout," she says, "but it's better than not being able to get in at all, isn't it?"

It turns out that an enterprising, wheelchair-using local has been doing a roaring trade in temporary ramps for businesses. The pet shop and the carpet shop have commissioned his steps. So has the manager of Threshers. And how much does this cost small businessmen on a tight budget? "Oh, about £2, I think," says Steve at the pet shop. So much for the new rules bankrupting small firms.

Further down is another small businesswoman who has taken steps to court Julie's custom. Pat at 2TanU widened the door to atanning room a year ago to accommodate wheelchairs. She has also taken the unusual step of building a counter that Julie can see over. Pat doesn't see anything pioneering about her attitude. "If you're in business you've got to cater for all your customers, haven't you?"

It is the same at the pub, which has fitted a ramp and a disabled toilet on the ground floor. But at the church, which has thoughtfully fitted ramps to the front doors, the tarmac path leading to it is so pitted that Julie's state-of-the-art wheelchair barely navigates it.

"One of those Jesus blokes accosted me on the street the other day and said, 'if you pray very hard, God will cure you'," she recalls.

"I don't need curing. But it's hard when even the house of God won't let you in."

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