Great Britain

How the PASS scheme fails disabled people

This year’s Young Fabians Political Writing Competition was judged by the New Statesman’s editor-in-chief, Jason Cowley. The below article is one of three runners-up in the competition.

September 2019. Wetherspoons (classy, I know). I’ve had a heady total of two lemonades when I’m approached by a bouncer asking to see IDs. Everyone else whips out their driving licence (or provisional); I go for my PASS card – my medication says not to drive while taking it, so no provisional for me. Fortunately, this is the government-approved alternative. The bouncer pauses.

“I really shouldn’t let you stay here.” The bouncer insists these cards are too easy to forge – actually, there is no evidence of this taking place. As the government advises not to use a passport as identification on a night out, I have no other option. Eventually he grows tired of my debating (or sees sense) and moves on, but the incident struck me. Businesses have the freedom to refuse to serve individuals but – when this reason is tangled up with ableism – it’s hard to justify.

This is a widespread issue: according to BBC Watchdog’s 2009 report, more than half of the venues investigated refused to accept Citizencards (the most popular PASS card) as a matter of policy. 

ID cards – whether shown in a pub, club or supermarket – certainly aren’t the only issue for disabled patrons. From inaccessibility for those with mobility aids to being accused of “snorting, dealing and having sex” for spending too much time in the disabled toilet, there are many injustices facing disabled individuals. Ableism is systemic. Rejecting identification, though, removes your right to exist in a space. So, what can be done?

It’s tempting to suggest voting with your wallet. If a policy seems unfair, then boycott. However, this immediately impacts workers rather than bosses and places the onus on an already stigmatised group to convince others. Apathy is widespread – cheap drinks and a fun night out tend to outweigh the exclusion of a few. Anyway, customer sovereignty isn’t decisive; undermining Milton Friedman’s claim that the free market prevents against discrimination, businesses are instead cutting off potential customers, despite fulfilling their legal obligations to exercise due diligence.

[see also: Covid-19 crisis disproportionately affecting disabled people]

Alternatively, this could be a matter of misinformation. Unfamiliar ID cards tend to be refused – it’s common sense. This sympathetic approach doesn’t last long under duress. Following the BBC Watchdog investigation, the Guardian’s 2011 study and National Pubwatch’s commentary on the “misguided myths” surrounding PASS cards (as well as pub FAQs, such as those of Wetherspoon, stating that “any PASS-accredited proof-of-age card” is “acceptable”), ignorance cannot be an excuse.

Another approach could be suing a high-profile business and hoping others react. The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 caters for refusal of service to a disabled person “for a reason which relates to the disabled person’s disability” where a business “cannot show the treatment is justified”. When the government appeals against taking a passport on a night out, you’re not eligible for a driving licence and PASS cards are endorsed by official organisations, there could be a discrimination case to pursue. However, who’s going to prosecute over a pint? Particularly considering the disability pay gap, it’s a matter of limited resources – whether that’s money or time.

Legislation is the most suitable option. An amendment or statement clarifying the validity of PASS cards and their significance for disabled people would give precedent (or at least something for me to cite the next time I’m debating with a bouncer). Considering the rapid opening (and funding) of pubs after lockdown, any imminent action that may regulate their decisions seems unlikely. Under Scottish law, for example, cards accredited with the PASS hologram are explicitly confirmed as valid. Local guidance even notes that “no one has ever been prosecuted for accepting a card with a PASS hologram”. This isn’t a perfect system, but unquestionable endorsement sets a powerful precedent which the English government has failed to achieve. Additionally, explicit validation of PASS cards would ease businesses’ fears of supplying underage drinkers. Such fears lead to confused, varying rules, especially when franchises are involved.

Assuming businesses will naturally self-regulate when faced with dilemmas regarding marginalised groups is foolish. Instead, this tangled web of pseudo-regulation is not challenged within corporate structures. While refusing to accept a PASS card isn’t a crime, it’s one of many inconveniences sidelining disabled people. Real regulation is needed.

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