Sometimes, I experience things that simultaneously make me question and remind me exactly why I make a substantial effort to be visible as a disabled person. I experienced such an event recently, and sadly I know that my experience is far from unique.
It was mid-December, and while central Leeds was one of the few areas in the UK without snow, the cold was still making itself felt. My powered wheelchair battery does not do well in the cold (Santa brought me replacement batteries for Christmas), and so in order to go into the office I needed to use public transport. The nearest bus was almost as far away as the office, in the opposite direction, so my only option was to call a taxi.
The journey into the office was uneventful, and as the day drew to a close I called to request an accessible cab to make my way home. I had barely made it the foyer before my phone rang, confirming that my taxi had arrived. I ventured outside and couldn’t see an accessible vehicle, so queried where the taxi was as finding space to pull up outside my office can be problematic. The conversation went downhill from there.
The taxi driver was adamant that he was directly outside the building where I work, and in a rather rude tone questioned if I was in the right place, which given that I studied there for three years followed by a further four years of employment, I could confidently say I was. I then had the bright idea to mention that I was a wheelchair user, thinking this would make me easier to spot so that he could flag me down. The second the words “wheelchair user” escaped my mouth he hung up on me. Moments later, I received a text message saying I had missed my ride.
I was astounded. I wanted to believe that there had been a genuine mix-up, but the fact that the driver had been making a genuine effort to locate me up until that point suggested that even if there had been a mistake, he would have found me soon enough. It was not until I mentioned the wheelchair that he hung up, and there was no indication prior to that point that I would be ditched.
I went back inside and rang the company in question (who would later claim I never booked an accessible vehicle, but admitted that company policy was that if one was needed, the driver should have contacted them to let them know about it rather than ditching me upon hearing the word “wheelchair”) but they didn’t answer the phone, so then I rang around various taxi companies, but each and every one apparently had no accessible vehicles available in my area, and I began to panic. I was effectively stranded with no way home.
I did eventually make it home courtesy of my husband who left his seminar early, went home to fetch the manual wheelchair, collected me from my office almost a mile away, pushed me back home, and then went back to collect my powered wheelchair and coax it home. I was cold, tired, and anxious, but I was grateful to be home.
The truly horrifying thing about this situation is that it is not a rare occurrence; my story is one of thousands. A quick google search of the words “disabled person” and “taxi refusal” brings up a myriad of news articles and stories just like mine of people with mobility aids and service animals being denied access to taxis, and being left stranded as a result. This is of course explicitly illegal, but since very few individuals can actually afford the cost of a lawyer to hold taxi companies accountable, not to mention the stress and effort of suing someone, nothing ever gets done about it. All that disabled people can do is keep talking about it, reliving horrible experiences over and over again in the hope that someone takes notice. In the meantime, disabled people face yet another barrier to being equal members of society.