Another week, another trip to London – today I’ll be attending the House of Commons to support a group of people with learning disabilities present their report 100 Voices on Transport to politicians and representatives from the travel industry. These trips seem a bit like buses, none for ages then they all come along at once. Although, for disabled people, buses don’t usually all come along at once And if they do, often disabled people are not allowed to board – “The ramp’s not working”, “Wait for the next one”, “The wheelchair space is full” are all familiar phrases.
Our journey to London began back in September at the 100 Voices conference supported by the charity Brandon Trust, for which I am an ambassador. The conference encouraged 100 people with learning disabilities to explain the problems and difficulties they faced when travelling on public transport.
I’m often asked why, as a physically disabled person, I accepted the role of ambassador for people with learning disabilities. It’s quite simple really: I believe that a disability is a disability and the barriers placed by society upon disabled people are much the same.
Society disables people by not providing access or understanding when the most important priority should be recognising the abilities of us all and removing those barriers to enable us to participate.
At the conference, Billy, who has a learning disability, assisted me with my mobility. At a previous conference, Ann, who also has a learning disability, helped me to lunch. I feel utterly secure in their support. Working together, as people with learning and physical disabilities, we become more of a team, with the skills we need between us to achieve our goals.
It’s a bit like that with public transport, where many of the barriers people with physical and learning disabilities face are the same. Some require money and resources to alter, such as installing more ramps and legislating to provide for more space for people with mobility issues on future transport stock. But others, such as providing information in a range of accessible formats, are simpler to achieve and require more of an attitudinal shift.
One of the most significant changes that could help actually costs nothing in financial terms. Just a simple increase in understanding and tolerance would make the biggest difference to transport for all – and not just for disabled people, but parents with young children or elderly people.
The Paralympics bubble showed us that access to transport and attitudes to disabled people can be different if resources and effort are applied. For a magical couple of weeks the country was unified in its support of disabled athletes. Like a sprinkle of accessible fairy dust, ramps appeared in all the places they were needed and staff were delighted to enable disabled people.
The government funded and encouraged this support which offered us a tantalising glimpse of the way things could be. Then, sadly and predictably, it melted away. Many disabled people had hoped the Paralympics legacy would be that fairy dust, a magic lamp left behind by the Paralympics access genie to provide access for all. Disappointingly, disabled people have been returned to the daily grind of attempting to travel in an inaccessible world while simultaneously being blamed by our government and having the services we rely upon removed.
Among the problems that people with learning disabilities encounter are: difficulties understanding timetables, worries that staff or the public might abuse them for being too slow, the absence of telephone assistance if they have problems.
For people with learning disabilities, there are schemes like Brandon Trust’s Travel Buddies which demonstrate that accessible travel is not only possible, but can be achieved through a mixture of support solutions, partnerships with transport firms and, most importantly, attitudinal changes. Schemes like that are the exception, rather than the rule. But what they demonstrate is that barriers can be overcome.
So, it’s back to the Commons for me, and with it all the things disabled people have to do to access public transport – book a wheelchair space, book ramps and assistance, wait with heart in mouth moment while asking politely for that assistance and desperately hoping that it won’t be refused. All this to present a list of the main barriers faced by disabled people when accessing public transport, some of the possible solutions, and to call on all those holding power and influence to work with us and with the charities that support us to make access for all a worthy Paralympics legacy.