The Road to Nowhere.

One of the most important components of a strong business model is to know your target audience; you wouldn’t make much money trying to sell War & Peace to a bunch of 3-year-olds. Surely, then, public transport companies should be going out of their way to provide excellent services for disabled people, given that being a disabled pedestrian is rather difficult. Yet I will avoid public transport at all costs thanks to the difficulties I have experienced when using their services, & I strongly suspect that I’m not the only disabled person to do this.

Taxi companies often have fleets where some of their vehicles have been specifically adapted to accommodate wheelchairs. Despite having spent a substantial amount of money adapting these vehicles, they then go out of their way to make it incredibly difficult for us to use them. Some companies refuse to let wheelchair-users book in advance, stating that they cannot guarantee the availability of an adapted vehicle at any particular time, despite this being the very point of booking in advance. Surely then, this should apply to all of their taxis, but you can book a normal vehicle in advance & they won’t bat an eyelid. This is particularly irritating when you see adapted vehicles being used to transport people who don’t have extra luggage or mobility equipment.

Some taxi services do permit the luxury of booking in advance, but they will always tell you that they cannot guarantee the availability of an adapted taxi at that particular time, which again, is the very point of booking in advance. This is no meaningless disclaimer either; I have waited 90 minutes for a pre-booked taxi to arrive &, if I’m under any obligation to be somewhere at a particular time, I must now leave ridiculously early.

In the miraculous circumstance that a taxi does arrive, drivers will usually have a sulk about having to get the ramp out, & on the drive I am bombarded with invasive questions about why I use a wheelchair.

It’s also a frequent occurrence for people with assistance dogs to be denied access to a taxi, despite this being blatantly illegal. Let’s not even mention Uber or Lyft which, due to the self-employed status of their drivers, have no obligation to provide access whatsoever.

For travelling the local area, I prefer busses. The recent law ensuring that wheelchair users get priority over prams for the space ingeniously named the wheelchair priority spot, has improved things greatly. While some people with prams still take exception to being asked to lift out their tiny child & fold up their tiny pram, insisting that the chronically ill person who is running late should wait outside in the cold, most people are accommodating. The manual ramps, unlike the automatic ones London insists on having, never break down so access is guaranteed. Occasionally a driver might try to close the doors before you board, pretending not to have seen you because they don’t want to have to stand up for 5 seconds to lower the ramp. Other than that, the only problem occurs when more than one wheelchair user wants to use the bus, because how dare more than one disabled person be out & about at any one time.

For longer journeys, coaches are preferable to trains. When assistance is booked (which isn’t even obligatory) it is provided, & not only can the wheelchair be folded up & placed in the hold with the rest of the luggage, but through a series of ramps & lifts a wheelchair can be loaded onto the coach itself. While awkward & longwinded, this far outshines the dreaded trains.

Trains insist you book assistance at least 24 hours in advance; spontaneous travel is not allowed if you are disabled. To receive the booked assistance, you must turn up half an hour early, & even then it’s a lottery as to whether someone shows up. If you are late, even if that is because you’ve missed a connection thanks to the train you were on being delayed, you are denied help. Train guards then go on strike because robots are taking their jobs, but they refuse to do anything at all to help a stranded disabled person. I’ve been left stuck on trains before now, fortunately always having someone with me to get a porter, as purposefully obstructing the doors to make it impossible for the train to leave is apparently a fineable offence, even when it’s because a pre-booked porter decided to take a cigarette break.

Once on the train the disabled toilet is usually out of order, people often leave prams & luggage in the wheelchair spot (and refuse to move it), and the wheelchair spot isn’t big enough to accommodate a wheelchair anyway. In short, the longer, hotter, more awkward coach trip is the easier option.

And God forbid disabled people ever want to go abroad. I don’t have a passport & have never been abroad (!) so I can’t really comment on planes or ferries, but given the frequency with which airports manage to damage or lose wheelchairs, I think this speaks for itself.

Off the Rails.

Trains; the sworn enemy of wheelchair users. They’re one of the biggest obstacles disabled people face on a daily basis, and what is perhaps the most frustrating aspect of this is that there is no need for them to be this way.

I’m not one with the money or time to travel around the UK on a regular basis, and my commute to the office where I have my “proper” job is so short that it takes me longer to wash my hair than travel to work. Still I’ve had a few experiences of using the trains, and have used three significant, large train stations; York, Leeds, and King’s Cross in London (think Harry Potter).

The first train station I visited was York. I had been on a weekend away on the North York moors with a group of friends from University, and had traveled up to the destination on a mini-bus provided by another local university. On the Sunday we traveled to the centre of York because Christmas in York is what dreams are made of, but the bus had to return early meaning we had to use the trains instead.

The train station was one of the most accessible buildings I had ever seen with smooth floors, a complete lack of steps, and space to manoeuvre. I was escorted to the correct platform where a ramp was already waiting for me in the doorway of the train, and a wheelchair space had been reserved for me in the carriage. The doors of the train were a little tight to squeeze through but that was my only criticism. Having heard horror stories about the treatment of wheelchair users on trains I was surprised, but welcomed the unexpected consideration of disability.

After 40 minutes the train pulled in the station in Leeds city centre. The doors opened, and I was expected to levitate onto the platform, despite prior warning that someone disabled would dare to use their facilities. My friends ran off to get a porter and a ramp while I sulked in the doorway, and eventually a ramp was provided by a very grumpy porter. The station itself was also highly accessible despite being quite an old building. It seemed mad that the building would cater so well for accessibility, but the trains themselves didn’t.

A few months later I went to London for the very first time. Leeds failed to provide a ramp and porter as did King’s Cross, despite warnings in advance of needing the support. Again King’s Cross itself was so accessible I could have cried, but the return journey was the same despite even more prompting to provide the resources I needed. I ended up hopping on and off the train while Jarred lifted my wheelchair on behind me as, thankfully, we had chosen to use my manual, fold-able wheelchair.

Whilst actually in London we used the tube to get around. Only half of the stations themselves were accessible, and even less provided access all the way to getting on an off the tube, meaning that many tourist attractions required Jarred to push the wheelchair for a long time to get there. There was still a significant gap between the train and the platform, even on the “accessible” carriages. A couple of times my wheels even got stuck in the gap and total strangers would have to help us out.

A year later I booked some more train tickets to London. The website was virtually impossible to navigate and it took a significant search to find the form describing what sort of seat/space I would need, and what times I would need a porter and ramp at both ends of the journey. Eventually the tickets were booked and then something happened that hadn’t the year before. I received an email with my “care plan” listed out explicitly, with what times I would need support and what seat I would have in the accessible carriage. All I had to do was print this out and show the piece of paper to the porters to prove that I had booked support, and it would be provided. Amazingly the system was very effective and it worked perfectly.

You could argue that someone disabled shouldn’t have to book a train 24 hours in advance to gain access to a ramp and porter and that you should be able to turn up, ask for help, and receive said help. We can’t be spontaneous while others can, and it is frustrating. However being able to get on the trains at all without a fight was something special, and is a welcome improvement upon the old system.

They could, of course, negate the problem entirely by having a little common sense; trains that line up exactly with a standardised platform height with a minimal gap, like they modified train stations to do in Japan…