In the New Year it was reported that Paralympian Anne Wafula Strike had no option but to wet herself on a Cross Country train when the disabled toilet was out of order. In the ongoing dispute over driver-only trains, Southern Rail have admitted this week that disabled passengers are not guaranteed to receive assistance at all stations, so they may be forced to complete their journey on another train or in a taxi, potentially leading to inconvenient and exhausting delays. Today, the Supreme Court ruled that bus companies should do more to ensure wheelchair users have access to designated spaces, after a woman with a buggy refused to move from a wheelchair space for disabled man Doug Paulley. You may be shocked to hear these stories, but many first-hand accounts of disabled people show that access problems on public transport are a regular occurrence. Here are just a few of my ‘interesting’ experiences:
The one where there’s luggage in the wheelchair space
This is probably the most common one that I experience. Despite the clear sign asking passengers not to place luggage in the wheelchair space, there is often a suitcase or two residing there. On a train, this is relatively easy to rectify, as whoever is assisting me will just move it over to the luggage rack, or put it in the space between carriages. On a bus however, not so much! When I was in London in June, I had to squeeze into the end of the space and sit the wrong way round as there were two massive suitcases in the wheelchair space. The driver did go over the tannoy and asked for them to be moved, but he was ignored and there was nowhere to move the suitcases, so I had to stay put. When the owners eventually came down from the top deck to retrieve them, I was adamant I wasn’t going to move for them. With hindsight, this maybe wasn’t the best idea as they just squeezed themselves between me and the suitcase. I got a face full of a stranger’s arse and they didn’t even acknowledge I was there. I felt so invisible and humiliated. I did complain to TFL and they apologised but said that drivers don’t have the power to make someone move their luggage. Hopefully today’s ruling will change that.
The one where I can’t transfer into a seat
When I travel on a train, I need to transfer into a seat from my chair. When the train moves, it rocks my wheelchair back and forth, so sitting in my chair on a train for more than a few minutes makes me feel sick and leaves me in a lot of pain. When I transfer into a train seat, I can stretch out and travel comfortably. My power chair doesn’t fold so I need to book a wheelchair space and an extra seat. However, certain train companies won’t let me book an extra seat as apparently taking up the wheelchair space and a seat would discriminate against other wheelchair users by stopping them from travelling in the space. I fail to see the logic in this, as whether I sit in my chair or another seat, my chair is still going to be in the wheelchair space. This is really discriminatory against wheelchair users whose chairs don’t fold, as if I was able to fold and store my chair I would be allowed to transfer.
The train companies don’t seem to comprehend that being able to travel without pain and discomfort is just as important as being able to travel in the first place. It sends out the message that getting the money for that one extra seat is more important than meeting the needs of disabled passengers. I have complained to one train company so far, Cross Country, but this fell on deaf ears. The consumer body Transport Focus told me that they sympathise, but that it’s up to individual train companies to interpret the law about leaving the space free for wheelchair users. Virgin Trains East Coast usually let me book an extra seat, but refused the last time I tried to book one. I will be submitting a complaint to them too, but as this is obviously an industry-wide issue I’d like to set up a bigger campaign on this in the future.
The one where the bus ramp doesn’t work
Many cities in the UK including London now have buses with automated ramps to allow wheelchair users to board with ease. When they work it’s wonderful, when they don’t it can be a nightmare. Picture the scene: my mum and I have happily boarded a London bus. When we’re ready to get off, the driver pushes the button, the ramp comes down and my mum hops of the bus. Before I’ve had chance to reverse off, the driver sees my mum, assumes I must be off too and closes the doors, making the ramp retract back into the bus! We make a suitable amount of noise to alert them to the fact that I had not yet alighted, and the driver presses the button to make the ramp come down. However, it doesn’t matter how many times they press the button, the ramp simply refuses to come out.
We were getting exasperated by this point, so I decided that if the driver reversed close to a high kerb I would try and reverse off the bus without the ramp. I was really nervous about it, but it became increasingly apparent that it was the only way to get off the bus, so I knew I just had to do it. I did manage to reverse off the bus safely and it wasn’t too traumatic but I was mortified that I was even put in that position.
I don’t know what I was more shocked about; the fact that the driver didn’t actually check that I was off the bus safely before closing the doors, or the fact that there’s no back-up evacuation plan for when the ramp doesn’t work! Again, I complained to TFL, and they said that the driver in question was given further guidance, but that it is not possible for manual ramps to be carried on all buses. I don’t really understand why this is, and it’s worrying to think wheelchair users may get stuck on a bus if technology fails.
The one where I got locked on a train
Whenever I’m approaching my destination on a train journey, I always get butterflies in my tummy until I see that the assistance arrive. One one occasion, when my mum and I arrived at King’s Cross there was no-one to be seen. We waited and waited, but there seemed to be no staff left on the train and we couldn’t see anyone on the platform either. Suddenly the train doors closed. We waited a few more seconds before trying the doors but realised they were locked. We started to panic at this point and we looked frantically for someone to help us. Thankfully a cleaner wandered past so we knocked rapidly on the window and they were able to alert the platform staff. Although there was a certain excitement to getting locked on a train, it did feel like I’d been forgotten about. I’ve since learnt that Twitter is the quickest and most effective way of getting help when you’re stuck on a train, but wheelchair users shouldn’t have to take to social media to make sure they can get off!
These are just a handful of the bad experiences I’ve had on public transport in the UK and I know that I’m far from alone. The problems I’ve faced mean that I’m not confident enough to go on public transport by myself. I’m too afraid that I’m going to get stuck or that I’m not going to be able to sit comfortably and safely without help. I strive to be as independent as I can and it frustrates me that there are still so many barriers to me travelling alone.
Transport companies need to take urgent action to understand and meet the wide-ranging needs of disabled passengers. Reliability of technology needs to be improved, and proper contingency plans need to be in place for when that technology fails. There needs to be a wider understanding and respect for disabled people from the general public so that disabled passengers don’t feel like second class citizens when they travel. Progress is being made, but there is still a long way to go. In the meantime, disabled people need to keep sharing their stories so that more people are aware of how much of a battle travelling as a disabled person can be.
BBC News (2017) ‘Wheelchair v buggy’: Disabled man wins Supreme Court case http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-38663322
Taylor, D. (2017) Paralympian forced to wet herself on train without accessible toilet https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/jan/02/paralympian-anne-wafula-strike-wet-herself-train-no-accessible-toilet
Taylor, D. (2017) No guarantee of help for disabled passengers, says Southern https://www.theguardian.com/business/2017/jan/17/no-guarantee-of-help-for-disabled-passengers-says-southern