So anyone that has a disability whether it is physical, visual or hearing impairment might know how difficult it can be sometimes getting out and about, whether it is to the local shops or the daily grind to work. Some of us maybe able to drive our own car and some of us may rely on others to help us get to places; however we all have the right to use public transport. The question is, is this really the case? Sadly in my experience not always.
Being a wheelchair user with a speech impediment it can be sometimes tough to brave the big wide world in terms self confidence, even after all these years I get nervous going out on my own. The never ending questions of what ifs still circle my brain like a dizzy cartoon character, for example “what if I have to ask for help from someone and they don’t understand me” and “will my wheelchair last the trip” etc. So the last thing you want to think about is whether you are going to be allowed on the bus.
Since I was about 16 I have been using public transport as I am unable to drive a car and although I do own one there are many occasions when there is no one around to drive me or I just fancy being independent. With the arrival of accessible buses and trains came a new opportunity for people such like myself to be independent and not rely on others when they want to meet a friend or take a trip down to the local cinema (don’t get me started on cinemas). Gone are the days where I needed 4 people to carry me into the bus because of the steps, not to mention breathing in whilst squeezing past the bars at the door. However where once there were steps and bars, there are now other difficulties that I face.
I think the UK is one of the countries at the forefront when it comes to equal opportunities especially London; however in my experience it can only take a few bus drivers to ruin my entire day. You may know of my story already with the discrimination I have faced with Arriva so I won’t go into that in this blog. I think it is often overlooked how the small aspects, which may seem trivial to other people, can affect our ability to get around freely.
Getting on a bus when you are in a wheelchair should be as easy as waiting at a bus stop, signalling to the bus driver that you would like to get on and then getting on the bus using the ramp. Credit where credit is due, the fact that you can do this is amazing. It is unfortunate however that the simplicity of this process is very easily shattered by the ignorance of a few bus drivers. It is always somewhat disheartening and insulting when a bus driver with an empty bus says to you “there is no space for you to get on” or that by letting the ramp out the bus will stop working. You can not help but think “I may be in a wheelchair but I am not an idiot”. Sadly these are a few of a very long list of excuses I have been given over the past 12 years. There are occasions where bus drivers are genuinely sympathetic and try to help you on even when there have been given a bus with a faulty ramp which is always nice to experience. The unfortunate fact of the matter is that you have to plan your trip taking into consideration that you might have to wait for a few more buses before getting to your destination. This can be very difficult when you may only have a certain amount of time to get from A to B, for example, to a catch a train. Equally you might not want to leave 2 hours early for a trip that takes 15 minutes. I do appreciate delays are a fact of life but when you experience the same excuse and can only get on 5 out of 10 buses a week, it is difficult to ignore the connection.
Like everyone else buses can take you from one place to another (stating the obvious I know) but this can also include train stations, which conveniently brings me to the topic of Overground transport. Trains have come a long distance in terms of disability with the introduction of wheelchair areas and ramps; however I can not help but feel that their could be more to make the Overground trains more accessible to wheelchair users. Unlike the Underground there are quite a few stations that are still inaccessible for people who may be unable to walk and those that are accessible will usually require help getting on and off the train with a ramp. This is great because wheelchair users are able to use the underground, however when you are advised to book assistance 24 or 48 hours ahead it can take away a spontaneous day out. Compared to other forms of public transport I am still quite hesitant to travel by Overground on my own. The fear of not being able to get off the train when I need to or the train leaving before the person with the ramp arrives is something I find difficult to overcome. I can see myself ending up on the other side of the country but I think this down to too many comedy sketches. In saying this I have yet to experience any problems when travelling on the trains!
In terms of public transport and what I find most accessible I find the London Underground is even though I find that a lot of the stations I would like to use are inaccessible. I have been using the tube for almost the same time that I have been using the buses albeit less frequently and have rarely encountered many problems. I often have to use detours in order to get to my final destination but I find this is worth it for the ease and peace of mind. Leading up to the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics there were many upgrades carried out to a number of stations which opened up the tube network even more for people with disabilities. Where as I wouldn’t have dreamed of getting off at Green Park Station previously, this is now possible by simply getting on a certain carriage. Staff at the London Underground have always been very helpful with regards to making sure I can get assistance at the other end of my journey. Should you need help they will usually make a note of the train number that you are on and call ahead to the station that you are getting off at to make sure a staff member is waiting for you.
Many years ago (more than I care to admit) I took a couple of trips to Stockholm in Sweden and was always amazed at the level of accessibility with regards to their public transport, however it is something I feel that I do not have to be envious of anymore.