Tomorrow marks the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II. As dawn rises in the United Kingdom, the sole focus of the nation will turn to bidding a fond farewell to the monarch who reigned for seven decades and oversaw the transformation of the British state and its people during that time.
Nevertheless, when the dust settles, lessons may have to be learned from the experiences of thousands of elderly and disabled people who were prepared to queue for many hours on end to view their beloved Queen lying in state in her coffin in London’s Westminster Hall but found the experience to be lacking in basic accessibility provisions.
Initially, the main queuing system to view the Queen lying in state in the Palace of Westminster, which opened on September 14, was supplemented by an accessible queue designed to offer a faster queuing experience to those that might struggle to stay on their feet for many hours on end.
The accessible queuing system sought to reduce the distance and time spent queuing by offering visitors a timed entry slot for the lying in state and a more convenient arrival point for joining the final queue located in Victoria Tower Gardens.
The accessible queue was subsequently permanently closed by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday due to no more timed entry slots being available.
The main queue is also set to close significantly earlier than the original deadline of 6 a.m. on Monday and, throughout Sunday, those intending to set off and join the queue have been told not to travel to avoid disappointment.
Though the provision of an alternative “accessible” queue appears to be well-intentioned, disability charities on the ground have received feedback from many of their patrons stating that their experience was not a particularly inclusive or accommodating one.
Some of the key criticisms regarding accessibility would appear to revolve around a lack of information about what mourners with disabilities could expect and the absence of reasonable adjustments.
Many complained that official government information sources were “spotty and misleading” at best — with visitors with disabilities instead having to rely on unofficial social media channels for accurate up-to-date information.
Specific information gaps were cited around wheelchair access and accessible toilets which made it harder for mourners to plan their trip in advance.
In terms of reasonable adjustments that were rightly expected by elderly and disabled patrons – representative charities such as Disability Rights UK expressed alarm that food, drink and protective equipment was being confiscated from disabled visitors as they arrived at Westminster Hall.
Of course, the former can be particularly important for those with underlying health conditions as they may be necessary for taking medication, particularly in the context of a novel and unpredictable experience and the unseasonably cold nighttime temperatures in London over the weekend.
Frustratingly, the authorities did not require any proof of disability to utilize the accessible queue and there has been some speculation that, in order to stop non-disabled fakers attempting to speed up their visit by joining the accessible queue, the organizers simply watered down its accessibility to reduce this temptation.
This is wholly unacceptable according to Disability Rights UK CEO Kamran Mallick who said:
““We understand that the government fears people faking disability to jump the queue, but to focus on this rather than equity of access for disabled people is to create an inexcusable barrier to paying respects to the Queen for the fifth of the population which is disabled.”
Commenting on the overall accessibility of the experience, Mallick further added:
“How ironic that our monarch should sign the Equality Act into law over a decade ago, and end her life herself disabled, and yet still the government cannot enact the laws around equity of accessibility which she brought into being.”
A further irony, of course, is that many of those that possibly felt closest to the monarch i.e., the elderly, in so far as they have aged alongside her and may also recollect Queen Elizabeth as a young woman, were amongst the hardest hit by the access issues.
It is a point summarized well by a spokesperson from Age UK, who stated, ““It has been a difficult week for many of those who we support here at Age UK Plymouth, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s dedication to her role and our country has made her someone who many older people feel a connection to and hold with great respect and admiration.”
Those defending the Government on this matter will say that, just like during the pandemic, at a time of tremendous national tumult, it can be difficult to get everything right related to those with complex needs, but that the underlying intentions were noble.
One might also add that the death of a monarch is, thankfully, usually a once-in a-generation experience with few dress rehearsals.
Nonetheless, it is hard to believe, particularly given the Queen’s age, that the details governing the national mourning period would not have been known many years in advance.
For both a global event seven decades in the making and the most routine of day-to-day inclusivity practices alike, the principles of accessibility remain exactly the same.
Prioritize accessibility from the very start and bake it into the process early on. That way, the endeavor avoids becoming a rushed and reactive afterthought, and, instead, more like something fit for a queen.