Wednesday 22 May 2019

Stylecraft Yarns Open Day Closed To Physically Disabled People

I've mentioned in this blog before that I was born with a physical disability. Nowadays I use a wheelchair pretty much all the time I'm out of the house which, contrary to misery stereotypes of the 'wheelchair-bound', greatly improves my quality of life as opposed to not being able to walk far and being in pain when I do so. In a wheelchair I can get out and about a lot further and longer than I could do otherwise.

Spend an afternoon with me though and you'll find out the numerous barriers there are to my freedom and how they exclude me, and others in a similar position (think other wheelchair users, mums with prams, those who use mobility devices such as sticks or walking frames, and elderly people who find it difficult to walk) from places non-disabled people think nothing of going to.

The knitting community is renowned for being friendly and inclusive, which is why recently I was aghast to find that physically disabled people are excluded from a day Stylecraft Yarns is holding to celebrate their 30th anniversary.

Image courtesy of Stylecraft

On Facebook the company ran a competition to win one of fifteen pairs of tickets for a 30th anniversary celebration day at their mill in Huddersfield, stating that "the day will kick off with some fun and games before a mega yarn-tasting session featuring new yarns from the Autumn/Winter collections. After a prosecco lunch, the winners will spend time in workshops with some of our Blogstars ... every winner will also receive an amazing goodie bag to take home."

Sounds great, right? Except there was no need to try your luck in the draw if you're physically disabled. The small print said that the mill is not accessible for disabled people. Stylecraft didn't specifically say not to apply if you're a wheelchair user but putting two and two together I deduced that it was pointless if I couldn't get in the building to use the tickets. No prosecco or goodie bag for me!

Stylecraft yarn image courtesy of Black Sheep Wools
Stylecraft is a huge player in the UK knitting industry. I haven't featured it on A Woolly Yarn because this blog focuses on wool and most of Stylecraft's yarns are either synthetic or have a low wool content. That aside it's a popular, much-loved company and was a winner in the British Knitting and Crochet Awards 2018. Surely for the purpose of the celebration day they could make what the Disability Discrimination Act calls a reasonable adjustment and hold it in their business areas that are accessible or even rent a room somewhere else for the day? Stylecraft is a fair-size company which, unlike a sole trader, will have the funds to do so.

The pointlessness in applying for tickets left me feeling excluded from their business and the knitting community. I can't help comparing the experience with that I had with Sirdar last year. As one of the winners of Knit Now magazine's Knitter of the Year 2017 awards I had the opportunity to go behind the scenes at Sirdar. Both the magazine's Editor, Kate Heppell, and the Sirdar team were extremely welcoming. They said it was fine for me to bring a friend to push my wheelchair and there was a stairlift to access the upstairs areas. Another of the winners was also a wheelchair user and our physical ability just wasn't an issue, as it should be. What mattered was our love of knitting.

The purpose of this blog post isn't to name and shame Stylecraft, but to raise awareness of exclusion in the knitting community. In the last few months the issues of lack of representation of people with colour, the bias towards smaller pattern garment sizes, and access to patterns for people on low incomes have been hotly debated within the knitting community on social media.

Yarn image courtesy of Sirdar
To me the marginalisation of disabled people is important too. If you're not part of the demographic affected you might not be aware it exists.

I also experience exclusion with some yarn stores, although to be fair they tend to be small businesses without the cash or the means to move or alter their premises. A broken lift, more than one step up or a huge step and no portable ramp means that I can't go in. I've come across very friendly staff who have told me to knock on the window and they'll come to the door and bring to me what I want to look at. Sounds good in theory but in practice when it's raining, the staff are busy serving customers and have to wait a while to come and see me, I'm not sure what I'm after and then feel obliged to buy something after a member of staff has helped me, it's not.

I miss out on the joy and freedom of browsing, squishing and smelling yarn, comparing colours and chatting with other customers, never mind not being able to attend any workshops or social knit and natter nights. Plus the yarn stores lose out on my cash and repeat custom. To people who tell me to buy online instead I say I do sometimes when I know what I want but any knitter will tell you the benefit of being able to browse, see and feel wool first before buying. Why should I be any different?

Pattern image courtesy of Stylecraft
Those who have experienced social exclusion will know that it has a drip effect on someone's confidence and ability to join in with the world.

Of course it's not just yarn companies I've faced it from but shops, pubs, restaurants and other businesses too. Yet the days have long gone when I've felt grateful to a shop for taking me to their upper floor in a goods lift or meekly accepted that businesses and services open to all are out of bounds for me. It saddens me greatly that anyone should miss out on their favourite hobby, knitting, just because of physical ability beyond their control. It's hard enough sometimes dealing with disability anyway, without added unnecessary exclusion from society.

I contacted Stylecraft for a quote to hear their side of the story and this is what they said:
"We are very sorry that it will not be possible for people with a physical disability to attend the Purl Anniversary party. The building is normally accessible for wheelchair users, however, at present our lift is undergoing renovation work and we are not able to guarantee that the lift will be in operation by the time of the party. To prevent disappointment nearer the time, we felt it better to state that it would not be accessible. In retrospect we could have expressed this more clearly in the hopes of avoiding disappointment."
Here's hoping Stylecraft's lift will be fixed soon and they'll host another party for those who missed out.

Now just don't get me started on the lack of representation of disability in pattern photography. Knitting companies and magazines are certainly improving the representation of their customer base by including models of colour, different ages and larger sizes in their images. But have you ever seen a wheelchair user advertising the latest jumper pattern? A model with a hearing aid, guide dog or even something as everyday as wearing spectacles? That's a blog post for another time ...

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