Disabled passengers share their travel experiences in response to the launch of Channel 4 News’ investigation into transport for the disabled, No Go Britain.
Packed off in ambulances, ousted by prams and ignored by taxis – it is little wonder that disabled travellers dread tackling public transport on their own.
Hundreds of disabled people have contacted Channel 4 News following our first special report on No Go Britain, in which Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, a Paralympian who won 16 medals during her career, told us of the “fear” disabled travellers face.
“I think as a disabled person travelling, you always have an element of fear or just feeling uncomfortable, wondering whether you’re going to get off,” she said.
Disabled people across the country overwhelmingly identified with the Baroness.
Lydia Penton, 20, from Essex, told us: “I now know that I am not alone in feeling anxious when on public transport”.
In Ms Penton’s case, the stress of travelling alone to a recent university interview was too much. “I decided not to take the risk”, she said, asking her mother to driver her so that she would not have to rely on a member of station staff to have a ramp ready for her arrival.
She added: “I would love to feel confident enough to travel alone and to gain some sort of independence.” The fear of travelling alone was widespread among those who contacted Channel 4 News – and it’s not hard to see why.
Here, we identify the most common complaints disabled passengers have shared with us.
Despite reports to the contrary, Transport for London (TfL) confirmed that people are not required to carry proof of their disabilities. However, many people with “invisible” disabilities, such as epilepsy, may want to obtain a TfL identification card which carries details of a person’s disability and any emergency support they may need.
The bus drivers should receive more disability awareness training, mine is invisible. Lisa, on Facebook
Though for some, this is of little comfort. Lisa “Milknosugar” told Channel 4’s No Go Britain on Facebook: “I have epilepsy and several times have had my free bus pass taken off me and scrutinised and quizzed as to why I have it, in an accusing manner, as if I had stolen it from the real owner…The bus drivers should receive more disability awareness training, mine is invisible.”
Meanwhile Sam Downie, who suffers from epilepsy and Aspergers Syndrome, said most people don’t notice his disabilities. “But when people see me using these cards to buy tickets, they don’t believe that I have disabilities. I sometimes like to reserve a disabled seat on a train if I am travelling far, but I get quite a few looks from other non-disabled travellers,” he told us.
The level of disability awareness training displayed by staff on public transport has left even those with obvious disabilities exasperated.
Wheelchair user Toby Mildon told us: “Platform staff wouldn’t let me board a train because he (sic) thought it was against the law for me to enter a carriage that had no disabled loo. For a short journey I really didn’t need the loo. He turned aggressive and the train sped off without me.”
Zara “T” on Facebook told us her favourite experience so far was being denied entry to a bus “because my wheelchair according to the driver was not a wheelchair because ‘it has a battery'”.
Though she added that South West Trains trumped that on one occasion “by making me wait 2.5 hours for a taxi to replace a train and then they sent an ambulance (train takes 10 mins)”.
They wasted emergency services’ time…The ambulance crew didn’t have a clue why they were there as he wasn’t ill. Michelle King
Ms T is not the only disabled traveller to have prompted a needless call to the emergency services. Michelle King, whose four-year-old son is in a wheelchair, said she is refused access to trains and buses “almost daily”.
She told Channel 4 News: “My all time favourite was during a long train journey we had to change trains…and they would not let my son board the train because he was on oxygen, four trains they wouldn’t let us on and there wasn’t a bus option – in the end they wasted emergency services’ time and decided they needed ambulance crew to come out and certify we were ok to travel. The ambulance crew didn’t have a clue why they were there as he wasn’t ill (in fact for him he was really good) but they did put us on the last train home.”
Transport for London told Channel 4 News that realistically the only thing staff won’t do is remove disabled people from their wheelchairs and carry them up or down flights of stairs as “the dangers are too extreme”.
Yet one TfL passenger, Pris Roc, told us: “When my Dad, my wheelchair-using Mum, my baby in a pram and I needed assistance to lift the wheelchair and pram into a tube train over the gap we were told by the female staff member she can’t help due to ‘health and safety, innit?'”.
Battles against buggies emerged as a common gripe. According to TfL’s rules, wheelchair users should always have priority.
A spokesman for TfL told us that while buses differ in size, there is usually space for two buggies or one wheelchair. Bus drivers are supposed to ask people with buggies to fold them away to make way for wheelchair users.
Wheelchair user Simon Morgan, from Brighton, told us: “The competition for the same space as buggies is not so good…and really needs to be addressed”.
It was competing for a space with a buggy that saw Johnathon Byrne miss his connecting bus and consequently his train home, costing him an extra £73 in train tickets.
The competition for the same space as buggies is not so good…and really needs to be addressed. Simon Morgan
Mr Byrne said a London bus driver told him to get off a bus due to an empty pram sitting in the wheelchair space. He was refused entry to the next bus because “there were people standing in the space and (they) refused to move”. He has complained by post three times, email seven times and phone twice. “About a month later (I) haven’t heard anything,” he said.
But buggy users may feel the need to complain too. As Doug Paulley explained: “I was in the wheelchair space on a bus (in my wheelchair). A woman attempted to get on the bus with her buggy, which she offered to fold. The driver told her she couldn’t take her folded buggy on the bus. He left her at the bus stop. This isn’t going to help the latent competition between wheelchair users and bus users is it?!”.
The stress of public transport could prompt many people to call a taxi instead, though this option too seems fraught with difficulties.
TfL told Channel 4 News that all black cabs have wheelchair ramps fitted and it is illegal for drivers not to take disabled passengers. “It breaches the conditions of their licence – anyone that refuses can have their licence revoked,” the spokesman told us.
Yet on Facebook, Toby Mildon told us that taxi drivers “endlessly drive by ignoring me flagging them down”.
I hid behind walls, bushes, buildings whatever is near to disguise my presence as the person accompanying me stops a taxi. Disabled blogger Car-less
He added: “One driver stopped because I hid around (the) corner and my PA stopped him. I appeared and he said he didn’t know how to use his ramps!”.
One disabled traveller agreed the only way to hail a cab was to “resort to deception”. Starting up a blog in protest, “Car-less” wrote: “I hid behind walls, bushes, buildings whatever is near to disguise my presence as the person accompanying me stops a taxi. Sadly trickery gets result and taxis do stop but as I suddenly appear so does a bag full of excuses; ‘it is not my cab and it does not have ramp’ or ‘the ramp is broken’ or ‘I don’t know how to us it’ and so the list grows…I keep asking myself why won’t taxi drivers stop?”
The Olympic hurdle
None of these reports bode well for the Olympics and Paralympics this summer – which London’s Deputy Mayor Richard Barnes has promised will be the “most accessible games ever”.
With able bodied Londoners busy plotting alternative routes into work, how will disabled people feel about the extra crowds?
The posts on our Facebook page indicate many people are already anxious.
I have always dreamed of visiting Britain. However, I have a mobility impairment…I don’t think I’ll be visiting anytime soon. Heather Johnson, United States
Krishna Talsania told Channel 4 News: “My immediate worry is when the Olympics and Paralympics will start, as I have been selected to be a games maker and I am even more worried about what is going to happen then in terms of the level of congestion on the underground. Let’s see”.
Further afield in America, Heather Johnson added: “I live in the US, but I have always dreamed of visiting Britain. However, I have a mobility impairment…I don’t think I’ll be visiting anytime soon.”
Naomi Hooke however advises people to keep calm and carry on. “You definitely have to remember to pack your sense of humour when travelling with a disability,” she said, recalling one coach journey that ended with two firemen cutting through clamps on a wheelchair lift to set her free.