Full length mirror

The incident

An Equality Audit was being carried out by myself, as the Equality and Diversity Lead from the Health Trust and a wheelchair user.  The building in question was a brand new rehabilitation hospital in Warwickshire, UK.  The audit was being carried out to assess the accessibility, with the help of a wheelchair user who was acting as a critical friend.

We both went around the hospital, the wheelchair user pointed out three things that needed to be made more accessible.  These were;

  • The level at which the hand gels had been secured to the wall was too high for a wheelchair user to reach.
  • The bins that had been installed were not accessible as they needed to be operated by foot. This would not be possible for the wheelchair user as she could not operate the bin by foot.
  • The wheelchair user also pointed out that the disabled toilets did not have a full length mirror installed.

The last comment suddenly surprised me – why do people with disability need full length mirror? Are people with disability vain?  I did not expect this observation, and later on I was a disappointed of myself.

1. Identities of the actors in the situation

Narrator: Female, 60 years old, White English / Irish heritage. She has lived in England all of her life.  She was brought up a catholic.  She is married with grown up children and 5 grandchildren.  She has worked for National Health Service (NHS) all of her working life. She works as a Director with a lead on Equality and Diversity for the Health Trust.

Within her role she is responsible for wider engagement and developing an Equality and Diversity Strategy.  Her focus is also around inclusion and to ensure that the organisation is compliant with the Equalities Duty.

The operational element of her role includes obtaining feedback from people through meetings, looking at the workforce data and ensuring that the organisation is an Equal Opportunities employer.

Person at the source of the shock: Female, in her 60’s, White British, critical friend to the Health Authority, wheelchair user, ex police officer who suffered an accident induced disability, she is now confined to a wheelchair.  She has retired from work, although remains very active.   She is a critical friend to the Health Trust and this involves advising the Trust around issues relating to disability access.  As a critical friend she provides an insight into the barriers faced by someone with a physical disability.  She provides the Health Trust with feedback and advice on services.  This role is voluntary.

2. Context of the situation

The incident occurred in a brand new rehabilitation hospital in South Warwickshire.  It was during an Equality Audit and in this particular instance the accessibility for wheelchair use was being assessed.

Both the narrator and the person at the source of the shock know each other through the Equality and Diversity Group meeting that they both attend. This group meets approximately 4/5 times a year.  The group is responsible for developing the Equality Objectives and monitoring progress against the action plan.

The purpose of this audit was to navigate through the hospital and then to identify any accessibility issues.  This included feedback on physical, communication and cultural barriers.

The situation occurred when the critical friend was assessing the Disabled Toilets.  She pointed out that the mirror is not full length and it should be full length.  The Equality Lead asked why a full length mirror is required.  The critical friend stated that when you are in a wheelchair, you need a full length mirror to adjust your clothing to maintain dignity.  The Equality Lead felt shocked and embarrassed that she hadn’t though of that.

3. Emotional reaction

The narrator was shocked.  Mainly at her naivety in relation to her consideration to access needs.  What particularly shocked her was the issue around the full length mirror in the disabled toilets.  She could not understand the need for a full length mirror.  The wheelchair user stated that the full length mirror would enable a disabled person, particularly if they were in a wheelchair, to adjust their clothing and maintain dignity.  The narrator was disappointed at why she had not thought of this.

4. Representations, values, norms, ideas, prejudice: The frame of references of the person who experienced the shock.

“Mirror”: it is tool for aesthetic concerns, a tool serving our vanity. “Full length mirror” implies even more vanity. Implicitly there is an inherent tension between the idea of vanity and the disabled body.

Threat to identity of “equality champion”, self-perception: As an able bodied person the narrator had not managed to put herself into the wheelchair user’s situation.  As an equality champion, she should have thought of this. The narrator felt anger.  She should have seen this.  She also felt embarrassed from the perspective of the organisation she works for.

Awareness of a projection and the difficulty of real change of perspective: The narrator saw herself as an “able bodied” person thinking from the perspective of an able bodied person, not a disabled person.

The narrator feels that as she has no physical disabilities and could not see what or know how every day decisions made by able bodied people create  obstacles and barriers for those with physical disability. It is difficult to identify or recognise barriers that don’t affect you if haven’t got a physical disability.

5. What image emerges from the analysis of point 4 for the other group (neutral slightly negative, very negative, "stigmatized", positive, very positive, real, unreal) etc?

Positive – and negative of oneself.

6. Representations, values, norms, prejudice: The frame of references of the person or group that is causing the shock / that caused the shock in the narrator.
7. Does the situation highlight any problem concerning the professional practice, or in general about the respect of cultural differences in intercultural situations?

The incident offers a very nice illustration to the limits of anticipation of the need of others – in this case with special physical needs.

The incident also shows how the interpretation of a simple object as a “mirror” changes from one reference frame to another.  It has very different meanings for an able bodied person and a person with disability.

The incidents also puts a mirror to the discovery of our own implicit attitudes concerning physical disability – attitudes that we are not aware of until a critical incident brings it to light. Vanity, a concern for the aesthetic of our appearance is connected to able-bodied people, but disconnected from the body with disability.  As if the body with disability was to hide rather than organise and present nicely.

Finally, the incident highlights the great importance during an “Equality audit” to involve members of the target groups as critical friends or experts.