Better disabled access in Hampstead and Highgate was sick daughter's dying wish
PUBLISHED: 09:00 04 January 2014
Maya Golt was just 23 when she was told she had cancer – a devastating diagnosis that would tragically put an end to her life before her 25th birthday.
For the first time, Maya had to use a wheelchair to get around while she was being treated at the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead and, later, at the Marie Curie Hospice, opening her eyes to the difficulties that wheelchair users face.
Accessibility for all was a subject Maya felt passionately about, says her mother Debbie.
“It was very distressing for her to find that there were so many obstacles. It was her first experience of lengthy wheelchair use and she was used to having free range,” says Ms Golt, a community radio broadcaster.
“It was all the more acute because of how important it was to have that sense of normalcy.
“She was dismayed and really wanted something to be done about it. It rankled with her.”
Hampstead’s characteristic steep hills, cobbled paths and old buildings are challenging to navigate if you are wheelchair-bound.
But Ms Golt and her daughter found that it was the attitudes of some employees at a few restaurants and shops in the South End Green area that were the biggest problem.
Before she needed a wheelchair, Maya and her mother often ate at their favourite Indian restaurant Paradise in South End Road, around the corner from the Royal Free in Pond Street.
When they returned there after Maya was in a wheelchair, Ms Golt says staff were unwilling to open their French windows to allow her daughter to get into the restaurant, which has steps leading up to its entrance.
“I got very aerated,” explained Ms Golt, who lives in West Kensington. “One man said he had a heart condition, fine, but there were plenty of able-bodied men that could have helped to lift her,”
The Ham&High was unable to contact anyone at Paradise restaurant for a response.
Disability charity Scope revealed last year that 76 per cent of disabled people have met people who refuse to make adjustments to allow those in wheelchairs to use public facilities.
Research from the Office for National Statistics has also found that 18 per cent of disabled people faced difficulties at a restaurant in the last year.
Despite her negative experience at Paradise, Ms Golt found that there were several shops and restaurants in Hampstead that are fully accessible, including Café Rouge, Gail’s bakery and Italian delicatessen Giacobazzi’s.
She and her daughter also came across employees at inaccessible eateries who were more than willing to put a temporary ramp in place or lift up Maya’s wheelchair so she could enter.
“Every single shop in the area has some kind of obstacle to get in,” she says. “I think that is extremely bad in an area where lots of people are using wheelchairs near the hospital.
“It was nice to have a coffee away from the healthcare situation, which is so important for someone’s wellbeing.
“It is very short-sighted at a time when customers have to be encouraged.”
Maya’s mum has now joined sculptor and disability rights campaigner Tony Heaton in calling on businesses to do more to attract wheelchair-bound consumers.
There are more than 12million disabled people living in the UK and their spending is worth as much as £80billion annually.
Mr Heaton, who was made an OBE in the summer after one of his sculptures featured in the Paralympics, thinks Hampstead businesses need to harness that spending power to boost the local economy.
“None of these places in Hampstead are stuck for customers but I understand that disabled people spend billions of pounds ever year,” says the wheelchair user, who is chief executive of Kentish Town disability arts charity Shape Arts.
“I can imagine that, for a small café, if you make it accessible then you have to worry about getting people in, getting toilet facilities. It opens up a whole set of problems.”
In October, Mr Heaton, of Belsize Avenue, Belsize Park, spoke out against claims by Transport for London (TfL) that Hampstead Heath Overground Station cannot be made fully accessible.
Lifts at the station in South End Road got the go-ahead two years ago at a cost of £1million, much to the delight of disability rights campaigners, including TV presenter Sue Perkins and jazz guitarist John Etheridge.
But joy turned to outrage when they discovered that there would not be a ramp at platform level, requiring wheelchair users to ring up a day in advance to use the Overground from the station.
Mr Heaton says: “I do think that all transport can and should be accessible. There’s no two ways about it.
“If the only way to get to a railway was to climb down a rope ladder, people could say that is accessible, just climb down the ladder, but I don’t think anyone would be up for that.
“I know that’s ridiculous but sometimes you have to say something ridiculous so people can see that it is not acceptable.”
Wheelchair user Pamela Moffatt, of Shepherd’s Hill, Highgate, takes buses regularly. The only problem she encounters is when some drivers say they are too behind schedule to wait to put the ramp down so she can board.
But the 76-year-old says that theatres and art galleries are the least accessible places.
Scope found that 21 per cent of disabled people had not been able to go to the cinema, theatre or a concert in the last year.
But Ms Moffatt, who has muscular dystrophy and is chairman of Haringey Older Peoples’ Forum, concedes: “I’m afraid to say that if you want to preserve our high streets so they look like high streets and so that places don’t look like clones of McDonald’s, then we have to be prepared to understand that, with some places, it’s just impossible to access.”
Ms Golt is still grieving for the young daughter she lost on September 21 last year.
But starting with a letter published in the Ham&High on December 12, she is committed to raising awareness of the lack of disabled access and facilities in the Hampstead area.
“About three weeks before Maya died, she asked me if I’d written that letter yet,” says her mother.
“I hadn’t initially thought of taking it any further but doing something does give you some strength.
“I’m not quite ready to be the saviour of the world but I think it is important. It was something very, very important to her.”