Karine Elharrar is a minister. She is a delegate at the UN’s climate change summit – Cop 26 – which the UK is hosting in Glasgow. She is responsible for energy, infrastructure and water resources in Israel. So she’s just the sort of person we need to have at this sort of event. She is also a wheelchair user. So of course, when she turned up to work, she found she couldn’t get in. Of course.
Sadly, this was about as surprising to those of us living with disability in this country as a fact checker finding a dubious claim in a Boris Johnson speech. What Ms Elharrar was confronted with when she arrived at the site was shameful. Awful. Horrible. But it was also exactly the sort of thing disabled Britons are confronted with every damn day.
Ditto the similarly scandalous response of George Eustice, who serves as Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs when he isn’t deputising for the government’s Excuses Department. The latter will probably soon have a bigger budget than the Department of Defence.
The way you are supposed to respond when someone who is attempting to attend your event gets royally screwed over like this is simple. You say sorry. This shouldn’t have happened. We’re embarrassed. We’ll get it fixed.
Mr Eustice did indeed say that little word, the hardest word for a minister of the crown to say, but then he proceeded to negate it in such a way as to make his apology utterly meaningless, deploying insult to compound the injury done to Ms Elharrar, not to mention what passes for this country’s international reputation.
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Mr Eustice shamefully tried to blame the victim. The problem, we were told, was that Ms Elharrar arrived at an entrance without provision for disability. Had she gone around to the tradesperson’s entrance, where they deliver the sparkling wine the grown ups were planning to drink later on while they were patting themselves on the back for doing nothing, she’d have spent the day happily discussing renewable energy policy.
But it got better. Mr Eustice then came up with a real doozy: “What would normally happen in this situation is that Israel would have communicated that they had that particular need for their minister – obviously something went wrong in this incident and they weren’t aware of that and so they hadn’t made the right provisions for the particular entrance she was coming to.”
So this wasn’t the poor minister’s fault, after all. It was the fault of her government. For failing to understand how utterly crap we in the UK are at this sort of thing. Britain, you see, is a world leader in gesture politics; of using all the right words and all the right symbols before basically doing sod all when it comes to making the accessibility its government claims to be committed to a worked out reality.
Perhaps the Israeli ambassador should have just, I don’t know, strapped themselves into a chair before trying to get on a bus in the capital. Or the tube. Or a train. Or they could have just read the bad joke masquerading as the UK’s national disability strategy. Then perhaps they should have called Tel Aviv and said something like: “Peeps, we might have a problem when Karine gets here because accessibility doesn’t exist. Seriously. They’re worse than… than… than…”
But perhaps the ambassador simply thought, surely, surely, not even these clowns can screw it up this badly? Oh yes they can!
I do rather wonder if this was caused by the British government being unable to conceive of a country actually having a wheelchair using minister or senior official. Perhaps we shouldn’t be terribly surprised by that, though. The representation of disabled people in the House of Commons is miserable. We’ve had a long line of ministers for disabled people, a post of junior rank, without notable disabilities.
When Ms Elharrar tweeted about this truly dismal episode, the diplomatic minister expressed her sadness that the UN “does not provide accessibility to its events”. And yes, I suppose the UN should have known what was coming. When it sent a panel to this country to assess its compliance with the UN convention on disabled people’s rights, it produced a scathing report on the UK’s performance when it came to education, work, housing, health, transport, social security, although it did highlight some initiatives taken by the devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales.
But perhaps the UN, like the Israelis, simply couldn’t believe that the UK government could foul up so spectacularly. Well, welcome to our world.
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