Disabled councillor's daily battle to navigate 'inaccessible' chambers

Kayleigh O'Neill said she was left alone during a fire alarm in one 'frightening' incident.

An Edinburgh councillor is calling for action to make the local authority’s headquarters more accessible for wheelchair users.

Kayleigh O’Neill said it is an “everyday battle” to get to work at the B-listed City Chambers building on the city’s High Street, which she said is unsuitable for people with mobility issues.

The Greens councillor, who was elected to represent the Forth ward last year, works on the ninth floor in a room that she requested as it means going through as few doorways as possible.

But she claims the accessible entrance is often closed off for deliveries and she is forced to “wait behind vans to get in”, adding that the two lifts are unreliable.

She told STV News: “It’s been exhausting. I definitely haven’t had the full experience of being a councillor.

“Every day is just such a battle of getting in and trying to get around before I even start the work of helping my constituents, trying to change policy and change the city.

“I can’t even get the building changed that I’m working in. It’s extremely frustrating.

“I work on the ninth floor, if the lifts are broken there’s no way to get to work that day and I have to make other arrangements.

“It’s irritating constantly having to think ahead, which other councillors don’t have to do.”

Edinburgh City Chambers

O’Neill said she was “left to panic” in the building without assistance after a fire alarm was triggered during a meeting last Wednesday, March 29.

While it was a false alarm, she fears for her safety in the event of an emergency as the personal evacuation plan wasn’t adhered to in response to the incident.

She said: “I was essentially left while caretakers and other people were helping other people get out of the building.

“There was only one evacuation chair in the whole building and there are at least four or five people who would need to use that.

“We were relieved that it wasn’t a fire, but it meant they had to drag someone out that they didn’t need to – and everyone was left to wait and see what was happening. It was a really frightening experience.

“I’m constantly thinking about whether, if there’s an accident or a fire alarm, I know I could get out safely – which is quite worrying.

“That is with the whole fear of I’m on the ninth floor the entire day with no help if there’s an emergency.”

O’Neill has been taking the majority of her meetings from home or going to the council’s administrative building at Waverley Court, which is more accessible.

“It’s such a shame that more of the council doesn’t run from that building,” she said. “It has lifts, evacuation chairs and there is so much more space and care taken because it’s newer.

“I think it would be brilliant if we all worked in one building that was super accessible. Those conversations need to start happening now.

“I’m not going to be the last wheelchair user who will work here as a councillor.

“I am really passionate about trying to get more disabled people into the council but I’m almost wary of encouraging that.

“If one person is having this many issues, I would hate to think how many more people would struggle.”

She added: “It’s all fine and well saying you care about equality and inclusion but to actually disregard all the issues I bring up time and time again – it’s really demoralising.”

Edinburgh Council leader Cammy Day

Edinburgh City Council leader Cammy Day said a number of changes have been made to make the historic building more accessible.

He said: “I absolutely accept an old building like this needs to be adapted to make it fit for the future.

“We’re not quite there yet but I’ve walked along the corridors and seen the changes we’ve made. We’re all trying to adapt to modern working practices.

“We’re working with Kayleigh and disability campaigners to make sure we can do the best we can to help the city adjust to different needs in accessing buildings, so that people can get about their daily jobs and lives.

“There’s an open access to Waverley Court should anyone need to use that if they find this building difficult to get around. if it means shifting some committee business, we’d look to do that.”

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