Steep learning curves and gradients for access…
- Anna Dyson
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This post is written with melancholy; and spoiler alert -there is no happy ending (yet). We are a community cafe. We want to serve the community in its entirety and we have been committed to creating a safe welcoming space for all in the heart of Harehills.
When we moved out of our previous premises in October 2017, we began the search for a suitable venue for our next home. The truth is, there weren’t many options, and as the months ticked by we became increasingly frustrated with our predicament.
One of our core team spotted the empty unit on Harehills Road, at the busy intersection where it meets Roundhay Road, and we were really impressed when we had a look around. Of course it’s not perfect – nothing ever is – but we felt it was good enough and ticked more boxes than any others we had seen, and more importantly, it would enable us to have an actual plan to reopen.
After negotiations, we signed the lease in July (this year) and began working on our new space and plans for the future.
We were aware that there were a couple of steps to gain access at the entrance, and that the toilet was also up a few steps, but we felt naively confident that these obstacles would be overcome and we would be able to welcome customers who use wheelchairs, or bring prams.
The builders started work, and over the course of conversations, it became increasingly clear that there was going to be nothing simple about being totally accessible for wheelchair users.
The two main issues are; the entrance, and an accessible toilet.
I can’t honestly say that I get excited thinking about toilets, but it is an important issue.
The property is on a slight gradient going up Harehills Road; so there are a couple of steps up to the back, where there is currently a toilet. Originally we thought that we could build a small ramp to enable access, however, the regulatory gradient, along with handrail, lead us to conclude that there just isn’t enough room.
So then we started exploring ideas to build an accessible toilet on the same level as the entrance. The regulatory internal space (ie you have to take into account the width of the walls on top) is such that it would carve out a huge chunk of the existing seating area; essentially removing three tables, chairs and space around them. It would leave us with more of a “take away with a few seats” establishment, rather than a cosy cafe.
There are other reasons why a new accessible toilet is not viable; the door would be opening out into the main cafe space, making it unhygienic (food safety recommendations are that there are two doors between a public food area and a toilet) and potentially undignified for users.
There is also no existing drainage on that side of the building. This could be overcome by using a ‘saniflow’ system, but our builder Pete told me that these systems are notorious for blockages and problems and highly recommended we steer clear of them.
We talked with our project manager Chris, and Pete, about potential solutions and, frustratingly we just weren’t able to come up with any that were reasonable for a five year lease. (We got very excited at one point about installing a lift to gain access to the basement and set up toilets there, until Chris explained about the amount of work and associated costs that would incur- he estimated about £50k; more than our budget for the whole of the refurbishment.)
However, it’s not just the toilet that is a potential barrier for people with accessibility needs; the actual entrance to the cafe is currently a barrier too. On this, we have more positive news; we are working on a plan to create a ramp entrance that would be safe and lawful (again there are strict regulations regarding gradient, width and space). We will need to apply for planning permission to Leeds City Council as the pavement outside the cafe belongs to them. It will take time, and extra funding (approximately £5k) but we are totally committed to making this happen as soon as we are able.
Should we have waited until we found the perfect property in the perfect location at an affordable rent? Perhaps, but there is no point looking backwards. We are where we are, and, regretfully we know that we won’t be the MOST welcoming to some people, but we commit to doing our best within our constraints. Who knows, perhaps when the lease is up, that dream property will exist, or we’ll be doing so well that we will have the capital to be able to improve the existing facilities, but until then we’ll just have to know that we tried our best, and sometimes, it just doesn’t work out as we would have wished.
We want to apologise to all those to whom this news will affect the greatest. We, obviously, would love to still welcome you into our space when we reopen. We understand that the lack of an accessible toilet may be a barrier to you coming, and for this please do accept our most sincere apology. For now, it feels as if that is all we can, regretfully, offer.