disabled people and model railway exhibitions

Over some period of time I have made comments in modelling forums concerning access for the disabled at model railway exhibitions. Initially I made a few mild comments and have gradually become more vocal. Why?  Because often, this issue has been met with a wall of abuse from some railway modellers. The article is, of course, one view and some people may have alternative resolutions but I hope that at least it may present some of the difficulties experienced at this time.

ready for a model rail exhibition

I have heard on several occasions that disabled access is a 'contentious issue' in the model railway world. Indeed, when I have criticised an exhibition because of its bad access, I have been met with a wall of anger from the able bodied who enjoyed it. Well, I am very sorry but there really are disabled people out there and a number of them are keen on model railways.

One of the realities in life is that you could become disabled tomorrow.

I'm not kidding

With an aging population, the number of disabled people is quite rapidly increasing. Go to any model railway exhibition and you will see an awful lot of older blokes, statistically the prime candidates for some form of disablement. I should declare at this point that I am an older bloke and have severe mobility difficulties and rely on wheels to get anywhere.

Railway modelling is one of the popular pastimes for disabled people and it is a hobby where we can be on equal terms. It is also a pastime which can offer social contact, something that can be easily lost through disablement. It must not be forgotten that many disabled people spend a lot of money on the hobby. Not all the disabled are on benefits!

There are, of course some excellent model railway exhibitions which offer near to perfect access.  Sadly, some others still effectively bar disabled persons from visiting, often not mentioning this in their publicity or internet sites.

At some exhibitions I am told that as the event is being organised by 'the club', there are not the resources to factor in disabled access. Actually, if an exhibition is opened to the public and money is collected at the door, the law requires requires that certain disabled access issues are addressed.

There are those who feel awkward when discussing these matters; what is the right term etc.etc.? 'Disabled Person' is as good as any and I must say that PC language is largely a domain of able bodied people!

I would firstly like to suggest some guidelines that exhibition organisers may wish consider.

  • Publicity and websites should clearly state whether there is full disabled access, partial or none. The organisers should ensure that they have at least complied with the minimum legal requirements for disabled access.

  • At the entry, there should be clearly marked signs stating the entry cost for those who are deaf. A simple flyer describing the exhibits could also be useful. Exhibitors should be encouraged to have signs describing their models

  • Ensure that the aisles are sufficiently wide to allow passage of those in wheelchairs and scooters when there are crowds looking at exhibits. This is still a major problem at many exhibitions.

  • Some model railways are shown at near eye level. They are effectively invisible to those in wheelchairs or for folks of short stature.

  • At a few exhibitions where there are different levels, a very small wheelchair lift may be provided but which cannot accommodate a mobility scooter.

  • Many disabled persons need to have a carer to come with them. You can bet any money that the carer has no interest in model railways whatsoever and is present solely to help the disabled person meet their needs. Many exhibitions still charge the carer the full entrance fee as well as the disabled person. This is a mean minded way to conduct business by any standards.

  • Most exhibitions seem to have just the one disabled access toilet. If this also includes 'mother and baby' facilities, how long can one wait? Recently I was in a queue for 45 minutes with others in wheelchairs while we waited for a mother to change a baby and then breast feed it! (don't ask me how I know!)

  • Ban backpacks being worn as these are nothing but tactical weapons!

  • Most exhibitions do ask exhibitors if they have special needs. Understand the difference between 'full disabled access' hotel rooms and partial access.

  • Most important of all, ask folks using a scooter or wheelchair how they found the exhibition. They are, after all, the 'horse's mouth'! I must say that when on several occasions when I have tried to discuss with a few organisers how access could be improved, I have been met with complete indifference.

  • At the door consider giving users of electric chairs/scooters a safety handout.


the visitors

Most are helpful and empathetic to disabled people; that is, until they get to a model railway exhibition; then for some reason, we simply do not exist!  A few die-hards still resent the fact that any facilities have to be made available for disabled access at all and some have come out with some amazing remarks. A few 'classics' are listed below that I have heard in the past two years in the model railway exhibition world.

  • At one exhibition, famous for poor access: "This year we only counted 5 disabled so it's not an issue."

  • "We didn't think a special toilet was needed as wheelchair people all have bags, don't they?"

  • "Some of us really resent having to go to all this trouble for the disabled who only want everything for free and have lots of concessions."

  • "With all the concessions they get, I wish I was disabled."

  • "Oh Gawd, the Panzer Division has arrived."

  • "The disabled are impossible because they always get angry if you try to help them.

  • Oh dear another person who feels he needs special treatment because he's disabled.

The other annoying thing about us disabled is that our problems can take many forms and often are not immediately recognisable.

I have seen a profoundly deaf person trying to find out how much he should pay to enter with absolutely no success at all. The guy at the door just shouted louder and louder then tried schoolboy French!

For those who have mobility difficulties, the model railway exhibition is full of pitfalls. Those who use crutches or walkers may suffer a bad fall because insufficient room is given by others and their crutches kicked away from under them.

'their crutches kicked away from under them'

For those on wheels, a visit to an exhibition can be a dangerous experience too. There seems to be a belief that people in wheelchairs are 'more disabled' than those using mobility scooters. This is just not the case. Many people who use powered scooters actually do not have the strength to work a manual wheelchair. The only electric jobs that can be easily broken down and put into the boot of a car are small portable scooters. Electric wheelchairs generally need a special vehicle,  just like Ironside! Most disabled people cannot afford one. Some people think that large 'ocean going' mobility scooters should not be allowed in shows at all as they can injure others.

It is hard not to draw a parallel with many mothers who drive 'Chelsea Tractors' "because they have their kids inside". I normally use a small lightweight portable scooter but have to say their stability is poor if run over by a big bloke or one is unseated by a backpack. Stability is worse if one is unable to use one's legs to recover from the situation. Then, once past tipping point, there is no recovery. Some people may also suffer from osteoporosis so such a crash can be really disastrous.

The other problem is that of scooter range. The small ones don't go very far. One is then faced with the anxiety of running out of juice. There are hardly ever any plug-in points available for use. Spare batteries are actually very expensive, by the way. If one is to visit a large show like Warley, the 'Ocean going' scooters are essential and they can be hired on site. Sadly, it is quite hard to hire an electric wheelchair, which would be a lot safer for all. Personally, I think that only electric wheelchairs should be hired out at the NEC.

There is a real distinction between the large road going scooters and portable ones. (The road going efforts have indicators and hazard warning, apart from being huge) They are also capable of going a lot faster. I think that if they are to be allowed in a show, then the user should be given a safety handout at the door and asked to turn the speed right down.

'as they can injure others'

Warley exhibition at the NEC has excellent disabled facilities. However, my personal score on a portable mobility scooter in 2008 was;

1. Knocked out of scooter onto the floor three times. I was then trampled on once and sworn at for 'being drunk'.
2. Hit hard six times in the face.

How did that happen? Once I was knocked over by a guy who was just not looking and the other occasions were by those wearing knapsacks, which all appear to be full of rocks! These guys just spin round and 'THWACK'! Knapsacks are very different from carried bags, as being rigidly attached to the body they spin round with a lot of inertia.

'These guys just spin round and 'THWACK'! '
Isn't it about time backpacks were banned in exhibitions?

For those on wheels who risk all and actually try to get to see a trade stand or model railway......forget it!

One well known British well known manufacturer of white metal castings and a few kits comes to shows with a stand with a very narrow alley. They deal with the disabled by asking them not to enter the stand (as it blocks it for real people?) . And then there are those model railways which are displayed at 'eye level'. Whose eye level? .....kids? little people? disabled people? Not at bit of it! They don't count! This all happened because some American modeller campaigned for 'eye level' viewing. Why copy the Americans? They voted for George Bush for Christ's sake!

For those stands set at a sensible level, the problems are still not over. It is almost impossible for someone on wheels to make their way to the front because the able bodied continue to shoulder in and then lean across you! I can honestly say that I see mostly backsides at close range at exhibitions rather than railways! I'm trying to find a polite way of saying this but I am fed up with people farting in my face!

'I see mostly backsides at close range at exhibitions'

As a general rule, I am only able to see about 10 % of any show if I stay no longer than able bodied people. Some stands are still missed completely if one stays for two whole days! As for getting to sales stands where there are bargains....no way! By the time one gets to see the stand there is nothing left but wrapping paper and a bit of track!

Now I know that exhibitions focus the attention on layouts or goods but please retain some situational awareness for those who are unable to push or shoulder in. I have to make the comment that I do attend exhibitions in other fields, from pedigree cats, aviation and music. Elsewhere, I have always been treated with courtesy and have never been run over, whacked in the face by a knapsack and above all, space has always been made to help me see. What is it about the model rail fraternity?

Now we get on to the vexatious question of entrance fees.  As I have stated earlier, some disabled people need to bring a carer (I am one of them) and often they are charged entry to the show even though they have come to help meet the needs of the disabled person and have no interest in railways whatsoever. I think this is grossly unfair.

'Some disabled people need to bring a carer'

I do not expect to pay less money than the next person if I am able to see the exhibition. If however I have barely seen the exhibits, I feel very resentful that I have had to pay the full rate, even if it was 'just a few quid'. The reality is that if I really want to see a show, I would have to go for two days to see what an able bodied person sees in three or four hours. This means a big expenditure in money and time.

These are my own personal experiences but having talked to other wheelchair users at shows, I can assure you all that they also share the same problems. I know of many who no longer bother to go. So next time you able bodied visit a show, just spare a thought for those of us who are trying to see the trains from lower down, please don't whack us in the face with your knapsack, please help us to get a look in and for God's sake, don't fart in our faces!

post script

Since this article was first published, I have to say that there have been some marked improvements. Sadly, this is not across the board. There is an increasing fashion to display layouts at 'eye level'. The problem is obviously, whose 'eye level'?

At one major exhibition recently, 50% of the layouts were so high as to be invisible to anyone in a wheelchair or scooter. This, as is usually the case, was not stated in the publicity material and no entry price reduction was made for the disabled viewer. As we also know, the ticket cost is a very small percentage of the cost of going to one of these exhibitions.

Attempts to convince model railway exhibitors that disabled access laws also apply to them have only resulted in anger and abuse.

In the end, it is going to have to go to law. The law has been in place since 2004 and in nearly all other fields, adjustments have been successfully made. A group of disabled model railway fans has now been formed (CIST....'Can't I see too?), and a number of major exhibitions will continue to be scrutinised.

The law is clearly stated in the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and 2004.

Putting it simply, any event open to the public, whether is is commercial, club or private has to comply. Should model layouts be too high to be viewed from a person in a wheelchair, the owner of the layout and the exhibition organisers can be taken to County Court. It is sad that such measures may have to be taken but there appears no other way to get the law enforced.

In the UK, should you be excluded from and exhibition due to your disability, contact the Equality and Human Rights Commission who will advise you on what steps to take.