Raquel Siganporia: solicitor

Estimated reading time:7 minutes, 45 seconds

Everyone has a story. Could you help a dog-lover play ball with her disability dog? Or figure out a way for a paralysed rugby player to get his sports wheelchair back into the car? Or devise a clever device that could change the life of someone who uses a wheelchair? That’s the mission set in a new student design competition, Getting Back on Track, which Islington-based solicitor Raquel Siganporia has just launched. Interview by Nicola Baird.

 

Raquel Siganporia: “If I could get every member of the local council and business owners to sit in a wheelchair that’s what I’d like to do.” (c) Raquel Siganporia

Over a mug of tea in the client meeting area of Providence House, Raquel Siganporia talks about the new student design competition that’s just been launched by Bolt Burdon Kemp to encourage innovation. It’s a great idea – with a tempting £3,000 prize. And this is only one of the ideas she’s had that helps people better understand the day-to-day challenges faced by people with spinal cord injuries.

“I can get as much compensation as is needed if they have become paralysed through medical negligence or personal injury and have huge care and accommodation needs, but I can’t make their high street accessible or even compliant with the Equality Act!” says Raquel, who is Head of Spinal Injury and a partner at Bolt Burdon Kemp, which opened in the borough 30 years ago on Theberton Street.

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Raquel is such a live wire: extremely articulate, friendly and very successful in her career. She’s also been a wheelchair user after becoming paralysed, aged 11, in an operation that went wrong. “Then there was no Disability Discrimination Act (1995) and no Equality Act (2010). I didn’t see many people out and about, presumably because they found it difficult to access the community,” she says. “There’s been a huge change over the past 25 years.”

“I certainly feel a positive member of society and do everything you’d expect a 36-year-old woman to do – the fact that I have a spinal cord injury is incidental, rather than the determining factor,” she says chatting about places she loves to go in Islington, mishaps in her Holloway flat (such as the challenge of clearing up a broken bottle of olive oil) and her love of long-distance travel.

Everything seems positive until she comes out with a staggering fact.

“Islington High Street is one of the worst high streets in England and Wales for wheelchair access. I find it astonishing that it is still seen as acceptable to not have a ramp. I use a wheelchair 24:7 and the only thing that disables me is the social environment that I’m in. I could do a lot more if I wasn’t constantly battling steps and the lack of disabled access bathrooms. If you’re running a business it’s a smart move to cater for the widest variety of people that you can attract,” she says explaining that businesses duck their responsibilities (and an upfront cost) by citing planning permission and their legal rights.

Rules and regulations might make your eyes glaze over, but for Raquel it means she can’t go into many Upper Street businesses. “I do really like Ottolenghi, 287 Upper Street, but it still doesn’t have a disabled toilet. So, I if I eat there I have to leave and go to another restaurant (opposite the Almeida Theatre) to go to the bathroom,” she explains.

Raquel Siganporia: “There’s still an underlying idea that people who are disabled don’t go to the cinema, or on holiday or go out with friends. But they do!” That’s why the legal firm where she is a partner, Bolt Burdon Kemp, is running a new student design competition to promote devices and ideas that help overcome the day-to-day challenges faced by people with spinal cord injuries. See how to enter Getting Back on Track below. (c)Bolt Burdon Kemp

But Raquel’s a realist too, adding: “Why would you know what someone in a wheelchair needs? So, if you see a customer who uses a wheelchair ask them, or ask what could you do to make things better? You’ll get feedback! People will not be held back by their life-changing injuries.”

In April 2016, Raquel organised for a team of barristers to spend a couple of hours in a wheelchair on Upper Street to see what it feels like. She coined it a “Wheelchair Awareness Day”. Their mission was to go into an estate agent, shop, restaurant, find a toilet and try a bus journey. They soon found that navigating Islington wasn’t simple: doors were too narrow, steps looked like mountain ranges, it was hard to cross the road and the camber of the road steered wheelchairs off route. You can see how this experience changed their perspective in this short video. Definitely worth a watch.

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Places Raquel Siganporia likes in Islington

  • Frederick’s, 106 Camden Passage, is amazing for a special occasion with friends, but at the same time chilled out. They have a ramp to the exterior so the terrace area is good for people spotting.
  • Zia Luccia on 157 Holloway Road is really busy, and cosy. It’s not the sort of place you’d think would have a disabled bathroom but they do and they did this right from the start. It’s used by everybody and it works. They did a really good apple, truffle and cheese pizza on a charcoal base.
  • The Gate, 370 St John Street, has really good substantial vegetarian food that makes you feel like you’ve had a proper meal.
  • Every Wetherspoon pub has a toilet and a disabled lift if it’s needed. I also like the Narrowboat, 119 St Peter Street, and the Canonbury Tavern, 21 Canonbury Place. The Brewhouse at Highbury Corner has good games, like Jenga, and good gastro pub food.
  • Sadler’s Wells is geared up for access and has a variety of entertainment. You can go for a drink or to the restaurant, and they have an access scheme so there’s provision for carers.

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Raquel Siganporia: “I can fly to Australia, do a sky dive and drive a car but I can’t change a light bulb.” It’s this sort of challenge that helped inspire the legal firm, where Raquel is a partner, to run a design comp, Getting Back on Track. See how to enter below. (c) Bolt Burdon Kemp

Challenge
“It’s not just Islington that is a problem,” adds Raquel. “It’s endemic across the country, wherever my clients, who have spinal cord injuries, live in England and Wales. In a split second their life completely changes. They go from freedom with no limits on physical access to suddenly having to think:

  • Can they meet their friend for a coffee?
  • Can they park nearby?
  • Is there a step?
  • Are the pavements ramped up?
  • Or can they be dropped by a bus where they want to be?”

“If I could get every member of the local council and every business owner to sit in a wheelchair that’s what I’d like to do. People don’t intend to be blind to the issues but they haven’t had the opportunity to really think about it.”

“Every disability is different. We wanted to encourage young students to think about the needs of the disability market. Sometimes you just need a bit of kit or finance to make people’s lives better and easier. Often that then comes into everyday life, for example, Alexa for Amazon was probably developed initially for people who had very severe disabilities where they could only use their voice to command their environment. These were the early versions of voice control equipment. I can’t change a lightbulb or open windows that are high up. Is there something that could be developed so I could do this?” she asks.

And that’s what you can find out. Go and have a look at the rules for the Getting Back on Track comp and share widely with creative friends and family – especially design students. Everyone can help especially those who have a Heath Robinson knack of working out just what’s needed, or are great at sharing information with people who’d love this sort of challenge. Very good luck to all the entrants.

Over to you
If you’d like to nominate someone to be interviewed who grew up, lives or works in Islington, or suggest yourself, please let me know, via nicolabaird dot green at gmail dot com.

If you enjoyed this post you might like to look at the A-Z  index, or search by interviewee’s roles or Meet Islingtonians to find friends, neighbours and inspiration. Thanks for stopping by. Nicola