“Like everyone else in this world, I’ve got somewhere to be and a reason to be there. I’m not just meandering along. I have a job, I have a life, let me live it.”

It may only be January, but 2017 has already proved to be an important year for campaigners fighting to improve the accessibility of public transport in the United Kingdom.

Two days into the new year, British Paralympic athlete Anne Wafula Strike shared that she had been forced to wet herself on a three-hour train journey due to the lack of a working accessible toilet on board. 

Strike’s openness inspired other disabled celebrities, including actor Samantha Renke and wheelchair basketball player Ade Adepitan, to share their own experiences.

Just weeks later, Yorkshireman and wheelchair user Doug Paulley won a landmark case against British bus company FirstGroup. By winning his case, Paulley ensured that bus drivers would have to do more than simply ask able-bodied passengers to vacate wheelchair spaces, were they to be required by disabled passengers. Paulley said the verdict marked “a significant cultural change” in the treatment of wheelchair users on public transport.  

With such cases having attracted significant media coverage, the IPF spoke to three wheelchair users living and working in London. Andy, Tim and Merryn all work for Back Up, a charity based in the United Kingdom that helps those affected by spinal cord injury.

Andy: “People shouldn’t be sat at home”

Following a traumatic spinal injury almost nine years ago, Andy Adamson now uses a manual wheelchair to get around. Working at Back Up as the Courses Manager, he organises programmes that empower wheelchair users to live active, independent lives.

For Andy, the accessibility of public transport affects multiple aspects of his life, even determining where he can call home:

“One of the reasons why I actually moved into the area where I live was because of the Jubilee Line and the Docklands Light Railway, both of which are step-free. It’s one of the more accessible places for me to live.”

As a daily commuter into central London, Andy acknowledges that most of his experiences travelling via wheelchair have been positive, recognising that “everything [generally] works as it should”. Learning about the facilities at different stations has been crucial.

“If you don’t have that knowledge, getting around is a real struggle,” he explained. 

[Image Credit: Back Up]

For Andy, sticking to familiar train and bus routes guarantees reliable and accessible journeys.  However, he acknowledges that there are “no-go parts of town”, which remain “too much hassle” for wheelchair users to visit.

In general, Andy is complimentary about the attitudes of Transport for London (TfL) employees towards passengers with disabilities. He praises the helpfulness of staff at his local station, who know him well. However, he recognises that staff sometimes feel “overwhelmed” by the number of passengers needing assistance to board trains:

“Staff are great with putting out the ramp, but I’ve heard [them] say that they’ve done two hundred wheelchairs in a day. Sometimes, they can’t keep up with demand.”

Andy also highlights the difficulties that he encounters on the transport network when things go wrong. Delayed trains and equipment failures can make “travelling with a disability that much harder”. The frustration that these problems can cause often makes other commuters less likely to offer him their help.

He also highlights that when station lifts break down, TfL staff are not always able to suggest alternative wheelchair-accessible routes. This can result in disabled passengers being stranded at stations for hours.

While Andy recognises that inaccessible public transport can make his own life difficult, his real frustration stems from the impact this can have on other wheelchair users, particularly those who have recently been injured and may be lacking in confidence:

“For me, it’s about getting people out and about. There’s absolutely no reason why people should be sat at home if there is a good, working, accessible transport system out there. That should not be something that puts them off, and it frustrates me.”

Tim: “People get really anxious about travelling”

Tim Farr was skiing on a university trip in 2004 when he got into an accident and broke his back at the age of 18. Upon returning to university, Tim joined the British Disabled Ski Team, and went on to compete in the 2010 Vancouver Paralympics. He now lives in London, working at Back Up as a Corporate Fundraiser.

Describing himself as “an active user” of buses and trains, Tim stresses that his experiences on public transport have generally been positive. He understands that “London has the oldest underground system in the world, which takes time to modify and make accessible”.

Tim also praises the capital’s Taxicard scheme, which enables Londoners with mobility impairments to make a limited number of subsidised journeys via licensed taxis. The service can be vital for wheelchair users whose mobility requirements may prevent them from accessing some parts of the underground network.

[Image Credit: Back Up]

Nevertheless, Tim finds one request from UK train companies particularly frustrating: that passengers with mobility requirements book assistance 24 hours prior to travelling. Just like anyone else, Tim leads a busy, independent life, and cannot always predict when he will need to book a ticket. He feels that, for disabled passengers, this process can be unnecessarily stressful:

“I can’t just book online and expect disabled access; I then need to phone up. I know a lot [of wheelchair users] who get really anxious when travelling.”

Looking to the future, Tim hopes transport bosses in the UK will soon make transport infrastructure fully accessible to wheelchair users. He resents having to rely on train staff to assist him when boarding and disembarking from trains, and laments that travelling with limited mobility can be a humiliating, degrading affair. 

“When are we going to get our dignity back?”

Merryn: “Treat me as a person”

A 25-year-old graduate, Merryn Thomas suffered a spinal bleed seven years ago after auditioning for music college. Following her injury, Merryn experienced some paralysis in her hands, which meant that she was unable to play her instruments. She then chose to study French and Italian at university. Merryn currently works as the Courses Coordinator at Back Up, having moved to London a year and a half ago.

While Merryn would like the tube to be her main source of transport, its lack of accessibility means that she also uses buses and taxis. She shares Andy’s frustration at the lack of accessible underground stations in central London, highlighting the impact this can have for wheelchair users visiting the city:

“All of the really central Tube stations, like Oxford Circus, Trafalgar Square, anything useful for any kind of tourist attraction… inaccessible. You get to know which ones are good – you’ve basically got Waterloo, Green Park, London Bridge and King’s Cross – but there’s a whole big black hole in the middle.”

[Image Credit: Back Up]

Referring to Strike’s experiences, Merryn criticises the lack of importance  placed on ensuring accessible facilities on public transport are working. She highlights that, for people with spinal cord injury, being denied access to accessible toilets can have serious repercussions:

“There was one time coming back from a job interview… [I] got on the train banking on there being a disabled loo… and it was out of order. With spinal cord injury, when you’ve got heightened sensation or pain below your level of injury, it really makes your blood pressure rise. It’s an autonomic reaction to this pain basically, and that can come from having a full bladder.”

She continued: “Medically, that was quite a dangerous position to be in… It’s not good enough. It’s kind of like this tick-box mentality, like, ‘Yeah, we have the toilet,’ but that counts for nothing if it’s not working.”

Merryn acknowledges that there is a “flip-side”. She spoke about one occasion when she was travelling to London via train, when platform staff warned her that the incoming train did not have a working accessible toilet:

“That’s the difference – if I have the power and the decision to make, then fine… It [should be] up to you whether you think you’ll be OK or not.”

However, in Merryn’s experience, transport staff will often make decisions for her – something that she finds particularly disappointing. She regularly encounters bus drivers who refuse to let her board, as there are prams in the wheelchair space. Merryn wishes that staff would trust her judgement to assess situations:

“How about you see if I can fit, because I know I can, and we’ll go from there. Or they say there’re too many people on the bus and I won’t be comfortable…how about I be the judge of that?”

It is Merryn’s experiences of black cabs that have been the most negative. Drivers will often refuse to stop for her, or will charge extra money for getting the ramp out. They have also asked personal questions about Merryn’s disability, something which she finds particularly upsetting:

“So often, the first thing they ask me is what happened… it’s kind of inappropriate to get that personal. I’ve had taxi drivers ask how difficult it must be to get a boyfriend because I’m in a wheelchair. The sympathy once I’ve said my bit… is actually really horrible, because you’re assuming that my life must be horrible.”

If Merryn could offer advice to staff on the public transport network, she would ask them to have “more of a can-do-attitude” when dealing with disabled passengers, and not to assume what wheelchair users can and can’t do. She praises those who go “above and beyond” to ensure that her journeys run smoothly, treating her “first and foremost” as a person:

“Like everyone else in this world, I’ve got somewhere to be and a reason to be there. I’m not just meandering along. I have a job, I have a life, let me live it.”

If you wish to write about your own experiences of travelling with a disability, please contact our Health Editor, Lucy Mills, at lucy@the-ipf.com.

To find out more about Back Up, visit their website, follow them on Twitter and like them on Facebook.