CURRENT legislation covering disability discrimination is ‘toothless’ and fails to hold anyone responsible for breaching regulations, the chief executive of a disability charity has said.
Sean Pontin, of Enable Jersey, says there is a lack of checks on whether buildings and public spaces are accessible to Islanders with disabilities, describing this as indirect discrimination.
The Discrimination (Disability) (Jersey) Regulations were introduced in 2018 with the aim of protecting those with disabilities from discrimination.
The regulations state that if premises, a company or an individual ‘fails to take reasonable steps’ to provide accessibility arrangements, they would be in breach of the regulations.
But Mr Pontin said there was one problem: ‘No one checks.’
He added: ‘There’s nothing in the Jersey law that takes anyone to task. The 2018 legislation made everyone think about it. But it doesn’t have any teeth. If you feel that it’s not reasonable to make that adjustment, you don’t have to do it. And no one checks.’
He compared an alleged lack of checks with the checks made by the Environmental Health Department.
‘If you go to Burger Palace or Samphire, Environmental Health will have been round and they have to display the one to five stars they got from them in their kitchen. And it’s checked. Why is no one checking for accessibility?’ said Mr Pontin.
Mr Pontin said that the Jersey law instead placed the impetus on the individual affected, to personally pursue a case if they felt premises had failed to provide them with sufficient access.
However, he said, so far no cases had been brought against anyone for a failure to provide sufficient accessibility arrangements.
‘It’s too complicated. People are far too busy struggling with other things in their life,’ he said.
‘Jersey took a chunk of UK law, and did what we do best and sort of Jerseyfied it. Took some teeth out of it, and put it out there … it doesn’t cut the mustard and it puts the onus on you to do something about it which people don’t want to do, and no one has done so far.’
Problems of accessibility have blighted government and States buildings, with the historic nature of many of these meaning they are difficult to access for Islanders.
Deputy Inna Gardiner has previously led calls for better access to historic buildings, such as the States Assembly. Back in 2021, she said: ‘We have electricity, running water and modern toilets that were not listed in buildings before. We need to get to that stage with disability access.’
Following her own difficulties getting around the States Building with a leg in plaster, Deputy Gardiner successfully lodged a successful amendment to the Bridging Island Plan, saying greater consideration was needed for ‘the balance of heritage values versus the level of public benefit to any changes or improvement to such buildings’.
Planning provided a particular headache in ensuring sufficient access arrangements, according to Mr Pontin, who added: ‘A lot of these buildings are very old, and so saying to Planning, I want to change the front step, which interferes with the pavement, they will quite often get a no, and they will still have spent thousands of pounds.’
The government has undertaken a number of audits aimed at improving its access arrangements, including one in 2020, and an ongoing series of audits by the charity Liberate’s Accès project.
Liberate chief executive officer Vic Tanner-Davy said: ‘We’ve undertaken audits of anything from offices to more unusual things like the Royal Court or the Opera House … for a building like the Royal Court, for example, the access will be equivalent to its age or its listed status.’
Mr Tanner-Davy said he was confident that the right steps were being taken, with Liberate making recommendations for government buildings set to undergo major redevelopments and renovations, like Cyril Le Marquand House and the Jersey Opera House.
He said: ‘Jersey Property Holdings are working through the reports we’ve provided and have been acting on recommendations. Work is being done, and progress is being made.’
Assistant Social Security Minister Malcolm Ferey said the government was taking a ‘two-strand approach’.
He said: ‘We are conducting those audits, and we providing training for staff. It’s not just about physical access, but about education and training, and getting people to realise that not all disabilities are visible.’
Deputy Ferey added: ‘Where practical we are making adjustments. We are looking at ramps, doors that open automatically, handrails and accessible toilets etc.
‘Some buildings are more challenging than others.’